Lainie Sakakura, who is currently appearing in Lincoln Center Theater’s Tony award-winning revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I, ushered in the Year of the Monkey with a Pan Asian Lunar New Year celebration at the P.S. 87 – William T. Sherman School on January 29, 2016, with a little help from her Broadway friends – Ann Harada (Cinderella), Jose Llana (The King and I), Telly Leung (Allegiance), Amaya Braganza (The King and I), Sam Tanabe (Allegiance), Belinda Allyn (Allegiance), James Ignacio (The King and I) and YoonJeong Seong.
Sakakura is a 22+ year Broadway veteran, a choreographer, director and teacher. She has appeared in the Broadway productions of Chita Rivera The Dancer’s Life, Flower Drum Song, The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public, The King & I (1996 Revival), and Fosse (Dance Reconstruction/Dance Caption/Performer). Fiorello, Where’s Charlie?, Pajama Game (City Center Encores!), Armida (Metropolitan Opera), Ballet Hispanico.
In 1994, Sakakura became the second Asian Rockette, following in the footsteps of the first Asian Rockette, Setsuko Maruhashi in 1985. The Radio City Music Hall Rockettes existed 60 years before hiring Maruhashi.
Last year, Sakakura received the coveted Gypsy Robe on her opening night of The King and I. She has garnered the 2015 Joe A. Callaway Award for Outstanding Choreography with Alex Sanchez (Red Eye Of Love, Off Broadway), a Joseph Jefferson Award for Best Choreography (Damn Yankees, Marriott Theatre), and a Jeff Nomination for Hot Mikado.
Her latest projects include directing Alvin Ing’s one man show, The Ing & Out of Alvin – Journey of a Cockeyed Optimist, and choreographing new original shows for Holland America Lines. New York University, ABT, Joffrey, CAP 21, University of the Arts, Steps, Broadway Dance Center, Alonzo King LINES Dance Center, and Jazz Musical Theatre Program Jacob’s Pillow are among the institutions she has taught at for more than 25 years.
The evening, highlighting a variety of Pan Asian cultures is a labor of love for Sakakura and her P.S. 87 Culture & Community Committee co-chairs – her husband Alex Sanchez, Regine and Henry Vincent Bonet – in bringing multicultural awareness and arts to a New York City public school. The program also featured P.S. 87 students from Lisa Uhr’s 3rd grade class and Adriana Pena’s dual language 3rd grade class singing “Gung Hay Fat Choy”, breakdancer Kai Rivera, NY Taiko Kai drummers and Kwan’s Kung Fu Lion Dancers.
The production team included Musical Director/Pianist Steven Jamail, drummer Charles Descarfino, Andrew Sakaguchi (Stage Manager), Jackson Perrin (ASM/Curtain), Lucy Rahn (Wrangler 3rd grade), Dominika Wittek (posters, program,flyers, decor), Aiden Herrera, Paul Fujimoto (Composer/Lyricist), and Tim Donovan (Sound).
I caught up with Sakakura a week later to find out just how she maintains her balancing act.
Chang: How long have you been producing the Pan Asian Lunar New Year Celebration?
Sakakura: Former P.S. 87 mom Mary Toyama started the Taiko group in 2002, and in 2003 initiated the Pan Asian Celebration with P.S. 87 parent Robert Burnett, who had an adopted Chinese daughter and wanted to celebrate her culture. When her children graduated, the committee was taken over by Chantal and Gloria. I started volunteering in 2009 and then took over to co-chair the culture and community committee in 2012. We currently host 5 free multicultural events a year. International Dinner Dance, Winter Holiday Festival, Pan Asian Lunar New Year, Black History Celebration, and Fiesta Latina.
How soon do you start planning the Pan Asian show?
P.S. 87 Culture & Community Committee is made up of four co-chairs and we host five events a year. Pan Asian Lunar New Year is one of the most difficult because of where it lands in the school calendar. We have a Winter Holiday Festival the end of December followed by a big school break and I know how everyone’s schedule constantly changes. So about four weeks before the event, I quickly call my incredible, talented and generous friends of diverse Asian cultures and then put it all together by dividing the show into nationalities – Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, etc. to help showcase and teach the beautiful cultural differences to the children.
This year I added “Hapa” to honor our Asian friends (and my own children) of mixed race. I received an immense amount of positive feedback for giving children who are half Asian, representation in a strong and positive way. It is important to me to teach about the different Asian cultures not only to our non-Asian friends but also you would be surprised to find out how many Asian children have no idea what nationality they are.
Chang: How do you choose the performers?
Sakakura: I love opening our show with Japanese Taiko Drummers and closing with Chinese Lion Dancers.
I try to find performers to best represent as many Asian cultures as possible. I usually have a Broadway performer to host their cultural section. Such as Ann Harada for Japanese New Year and Jose Llana for Filipino New Year.
I ask them to share a story about their family tradition or culture and then sing a song. One of my performers, Yoonjeong is amazing and has come 3 years in a row. I always ask her to sing in half English and half Korean. Hearing “Tonight” that way puts a whole new twist on West Side Story.
My main goal is of course to teach the children, so I reach out to different teachers in the school asking for permission to come into the classroom to teach a cultural song or dance. Sometimes I only get two classes, sometimes five. Each class needs 4 to 5 work sessions so it can be pretty time consuming. It is not easy to keep all of these events going or find people willing to volunteer hours and hours of their time. Free cultural events like ours are always in threat of being dropped. Funding is a challenge and our budget is tiny. I started chairing this committee because the school was going to drop the Black History Celebration. We picked up Fiesta Latina because the dual language committee was going to drop that event. I get it. Doing what we do is a lot of hard work and pretty thankless actually. Every year I say it’s my last but then I have to face, what happens if I don’t do it? The Upper West Side is not as diverse as it used to be and we need to share these cultures with the kids. The ethnic kids need to see a good example of their culture and their friends need to see what their ethnic friends are about.
My daughters taught me how powerful it is to love yourself and be proud of your culture. They love being half Japanese so much that their German best friends think it’s cool too. On Japanese Girl’s day, they will wear kimonos together. It’s a shared culture. On a trip back from Germany, their friends brought back traditional German dresses that they all wore together too.
Chang: What do you hope the audience takes away from it?
Sakakura: Through events like Pan Asian, that Asian kids will realize how awesome they are. Their culture is cool and something to be proud of. I want their non-Asian friends to view Asian culture as cool and interesting. Not something to be made fun of. I want everyone, adults and children to see and learn about the cultural differences. Korean is not the same as Chinese and Japanese is not the same as Filipino. It hurts me when I see a hint of a child being embarrassed to be Asian. I will always do anything in my power to change their views now before they grow up and have to figure it out later.
Chang: What is your dream form of support for this program?
Sakakura: I would like to see real funding for cultural arts in schools. I will continue to put these events together with sweat, luck, tape, favors and a glue gun but after my 3rd grader graduates, what happens? My dream would be to have an organization that works with many schools, doing what I do on a much bigger level.
How important were the arts to you growing up?
Extremely important. I don’t know what I would have done without the arts. It gave me a place to feel comfortable. My father, my uncles, my grandparents were all Japanese American and were interned during WWII. My mother was born in Japan, but was brought over by a talent scout. She was a nightclub singer in San Francisco. William Morris wanted to sign her. She was on an upward track, but then she had me. Both of them had very specific ideas about the world and what it meant to be Japanese in America. The arts gave me a place where I could fit in.
Chang: Where are you teaching now?
Sakakura: I secretly love to teach young children. I discovered it when I owned a dance school in California and developed a special curriculum for two to three yr olds. They learn ballet vocabulary and thrive in a fun, loving, structured environment. Many classes for children that age in New York City are overpriced daycare in a pink leotards. Six years ago I decided to start real quality dance classes for children that are reasonably priced. It’s nothing fancy. Just me teaching four classes on Thursdays at a studio space I rent. No more than 10 students in a class allowed. I don’t advertise. My goal is to just give them a strong foundation. Class etiquette, musicality, love of dance, then help them transition to a big school when they are ready. Usually fourth or fifth grade.
How does it feel to revisit The King and I?
Sakakura: The King and I in ‘96 was incredibly significant to me because it was my first big Asian specific show. Up until that time in my career I had worked hard to not focus on Asian specific shows. I already had it in my mind that I wanted to help break down doors. I felt that I was fortunate to be 5’6” and if I combined my height with a lot of hard work, even with my 100% Japanese face, I thought I had an opportunity to create change.
At the audition, for The King and I in ’96, it was very strange because I expected friendly Asian folks but instead I was greeted with, “Oh, there’s that girl, she does all the token parts.” That was my introduction to our Asian American community. When I started rehearsal, I didn’t know what to expect or how I would feel. Well, it turned out to be the most loving, extraordinary, life changing experience. We were a family and I made many life long friends, particularly Kayoko Yoshioka. She taught me a lot by example. Beautiful, confident, talented, and most importantly comfortable in her own skin… proud to be Japanese. Being in that cast, felt like home and I loved being there. But I had been working on a new show called Fosse for a couple years and it was my passion. When I was asked to Dance Captain the very first workshop in Toronto, I had to take it. It broke my heart to leave so soon. I never did The King and I again until now. 19 years later I get to revisit this beautiful show. 21 years later, I get to return to Lincoln Center. My life came full circle. I only seem to do Asian specific shows once every ten years so when I walked into rehearsal, there was a whole generation of Asian American performers I didn’t know. Beautiful and talented, not seeming to carry as heavy the burden of being Asian in this business like we did two decades ago.
Chang: What went through your mind when they announced your name to receive the Gypsy Robe?
Sakakura: I was in shock. I didn’t expect it. I just never thought I would get it. I took 10 years off from Broadway shows to raise my daughters. How could I compete? The big joke at home is that my husband received the robe twice and me never. He always liked to tease me and say, “It’s no big deal.” Well, it is a big deal and an honor.
Chang: How do you balance your family life with your professional life?
Sakakura: It’s impossible. One of the most difficult things in the world is having two parents who are both in the business, and having children together. Everything is a full time job. So we make certain choices. When I was pregnant with our first child, I took ballet class every day but was emotionally prepared to leave the business. I knew I wanted to focus on being a good mom and how could I do it all? Avelina was barely one week old when Mark Simon called and asked if I wanted to do a workshop with Chita Rivera, Terrence McNally, Ahrens & Flaherty, directed and choreographed by Graciela Daniele. I couldn’t believe it. If I could outline my dream job, well there it was. My husband, Alex Sanchez joined the company when we moved to Broadway. Stage management let us use a dressing room to have our babysitter watch our daughter and we’d run and kiss her between numbers. When Chita closed, we took a break to reassess our lives. I had another baby. Alex would focus on choreography and I would focus on the children. I still performed but this is the first big job I’ve taken since Chita and it hasn’t been easy. Isabela is in 3rd grade and Avelina is in 6th grade and I have a roster of twelve babysitters. I shoot out a schedule to them and they take the slots they want. When they get an audition, they shoot out a group email to have someone cover their slot. I run home in between shows to make dinner. At midnight, when they’re asleep, I bake cookies or muffins for their lunch box. It’s just little gestures to remind them how much I love them. At intermission I always say goodnight via Facetime. Best invention ever.
On Sunday, you brought 45 people to the Broadway production of Allegiance. Why do you feel it was important to do this?
Sakakura: With our Pan Asian event, I thought it was a good chance for another learning opportunity. I wanted to bring students and parents to see Allegiance because I discovered that some very well educated people I knew didn’t know that the Japanese American internment had ever happened. They said it had never been taught to them in school. How can there be people in their 30’s with doctorates who do not know this part of American history? I knew that they were skipping over that part of history when I was in school, but I didn’t realize that they were still doing that. When I saw the empty seats in the back of the Longacre Theatre, I thought maybe we could help each other. I could fill some seats and 45 people, as young as three and a half could learn about our history and enjoy a wonderful theatrical experience.
When Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life was closing, I started something called the Broadway Gives Back Fund. We got our closing notice in 10 days and I was scared that all these people weren’t going to get to see Chita Rivera live. So the cast got together and did everything we could to help get people in those seats for the last 10 days. I made a deal with the producers that they let me buy as many tickets as I could last minute for cheap. I had only had a cell phone and my credit card. I actually had to go to an internet cafe to email. I reached out to all these schools – Inner city schools, Celia Cruz Bronx, Girls Club, Boys Club, Rosie’s Kids, Juilliard, NYU- write a note why you want to come and pay what you can. I crossed my fingers that it would all come out okay in the end – 350 students in the last ten days. You don’t think too much about your own problems when you focus on doing something good for others.
PAN ASIAN LUNAR NEW YEAR PROGRAM LINEUP
INTRODUCTION by TELLY LEUNG starring in Allegiance on Broadway
Telly Leung is Chinese-American. He is born and raised in New York City and went to Stuyvesant High School before going to college at Carnegie Mellon University. He is a performer, teacher, and producer. Come see him in ALLEGIANCE on Broadway and his one-night-only concert, INSPIRATIONAL BROADWAY, at BB KINGS on 2/15/16!
JAPANESE NEW YEAR starring ANN HARADA from Cinderella on Broadway
1. Taiko Drumming – ISAMIGOMA (Galloping Horse) MIRAI (Future)
NEW YORK TAIKO KAI – Ryunosuke Asao, *Mayur Baruah, Junko Igarashi-Burns, Chikako Miyoshi-Rabinovich, Bjorn Ressle, Andras Moliner, Nobuko Sato, *Kyoko Toyama-Baruah *PS87 alum & family Kyoko Toyama, director http://nytak.blogspot.com
One of the first uses of taiko was as a battlefield instrument; used to intimidate and scare the enemy in the 1500’s. Taiko as it is performed today, was born in 1951 when Oguchi, a jazz drummer, created the kumi-daiko style when he fused jazz with taiko music. NY Taiko Aiko Kai started in 2002 when a few families from P.S. 87 began practicing Taiko with hopes to pass Japanese culture to their children.
2. Ann Harada – SHY (Once Upon A Mattress)
Ann Harada is 3rd generation Japanese- American born and raised in Hawaii. Her maternal grandmother emigrated from Japan as a picture bride. She has appeared in 6 Broadway shows, most notably creating the roles of Christmas Eve in AVENUE Q and stepsister Charlotte in RODGERS AND HAMMERSTEIN’s CINDERELLA. Her favorite Japanese foods are musubi (rice balls) and sushi.
KOREAN NEW YEAR! starring YOONJEONG SEONG
3. Yoonjeong Seong – TONIGHT (West Side Story)
YoonJeong Seong was born in South Korea. Recently appeared in her 10th production of THE KING & I as Tuptim, Dallas Summer Musicals. Also seen in MISS SAIGON and operas GIANNI SCHICCHI, THE TELEPHONE, AMAHL AND THE NIGHT VISITORS. Favorite Korean food: Mom’s kimchi! SAM
HAPA! ha•pa (hä’pä) starring Sam Tanabe & Belinda Allyn from Allegiance on Broadway 4. Avelina & Isabela Sanchez – BEING HAPA!
5. Sam Tanabe & Belinda Allyn – I OUGHTA GO (Allegiance)
Sam Tanabe is a proud hapa (Japanese & Swiss American)! Currently a swing and Sammy understudy in Allegiance on Broadway. Favorite role: Barnaby in the all Asian-American cast of Hello Dolly (NAAP). Favorite snack: bubble tea! Happy Lunar New Year to all!
Belinda Allyn is a proud hapa (Filipino & Caucasian) who is currently swinging and under studying the role of Hannah in Allegiance on Broadway! Other credits include Maria in West Side Story (choreographed by Alex Sanchez), and Pocahontas, Jasmine, and Nala on Disney Cruise Line. She loves lumpia!
6. Kai Rivera – C.R.E.A.M by Wu-Tang Clan and TREPAK by Tchaikovsky
Kai Rivera aka King Kai is half Japanese, half Puerto Rican and 12 years old! The 2012 Super Top Dog “Star of Tomorrow” winner of the Amateur Night at the Apollo. Currently a member of Brooklyn Nets Kids, Dynamic Rockers and a competitive gymnastic team. His favorite Japanese food is takoyaki TAKOYAKI, Japanese curry & karaage. Favorite Puerto Rican food is Empanadas, Arroz con pollo, pernil!
FILIPINO NEW YEAR! starring JOSE LLANA, “King” in The King & I on Broadway
7. James Ignacio & Amaya Braganza – LOST SHIP music / lyrics by Paul Fujimoto
James Ignacio is Filipino American, 12 yrs old in 6th grade. Currently in The King and I on Broadway, loves ramen & rice balls!
8. Amaya Braganza – SPARK OF CREATION
Amaya Braganza is Filipino American, 13 yrs old from Orange County, CA. Previously in the Broadway production of Annie and just completed her run in The King and I Broadway revival. Even though she grew up in a Filipino household, her favorite food is sushi!
9. Jose Llana – PUZZLEMENT
Jose Llana is Filipino-American. Currently in my 7th Broadway show, The King & I, where he gets to play The King of Siam which today is called Thailand! His favorite Filipino food is lumpia, which is the Filipino egg roll!
CHINESE NEW YEAR!
10. Lisa Uhr 3rd grade & Adriana Pena DL 3rd grade classes singing GUNG HAY FAT CHOY
Taught by Lainie Sakakura – Isabela S, Ryan, Kai, Elize, Cambell, James, Tuly, Ellen, Ruby, Hazel, Jordyn, Lilah, Isabella R, Fredy, Isabella A, Wallis, Annika, Hadassa, Daniela, Adriadna, Matilde
11. CHINESE LION DANCE – Kwan’s Kung Fu
Shue Yiu Kwan, director. Lion Dance dates back more than 2000 years.To have the Lion Dance performed is a good omen. The dance is believed to scare away evil spirits and to bring good luck.Two dancers are required to act as the lion; one operates the head, while the other functions as the tail. The drummer guides the tempo of the performance and their loud, rhythmic beat aids in driving away the evil forces.
Musical Director/Pianist Steven Jamail & drummer Charles Descarfino
Lia Chang is an award-winning filmmaker, a Best Actress nominee, a photographer, and an award-winning multi-platform journalist. Lia has appeared in the films Wolf, New Jack City, A Kiss Before Dying, King of New York, Big Trouble in Little China, The Last Dragon, Taxman and Hide and Seek. She is profiled in Examiner.com, Jade Magazine and Playbill.com.
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