From the 2009 Winter Issue of JQ, the JETAA NY quarterly magazine:
A JET Alum’s Experience Makes its Way to the Stage: JQ Catches Up With Playwright Randall David Cook
By Lyle Sylvander (Yokohama-shi, 2001-02)
Three years ago, the Gotham Stage Company produced the terrific play Sake with the Haiku Geisha by JET alum Randall David Cook (Fukui-ken, 1991-93). The entire evening consisted of five one-act vignettes, all involving cross-cultural conflict among expatriates in Japan. As I noted in my review for JQ at the time, what made the play so successful was its exploration of the psychological issues confronting the main characters.
At first glance, Randall David Cook does not fit the profile of the typical playwright. As a human resources specialist with an international MBA, he was working in a corporate capacity at Newsweek magazine when two random events set him on a play writing course.
“I was dissatisfied with most of the new plays I was seeing at the time,” Cook says in his native South Carolina accent. “I kept insisting that I could do better, and one of my friends set me up on the challenge. At the same time, I was heartbroken over a relationship that had just ended and writing seemed like a good way for me to channel my emotions into a more productive pursuit.”
The result was Southern Discomfort, which was performed at the acclaimed Ensemble Studio Theatre and other non-profits across the country. Despite its mixed reception, Randall was hooked on writing for the theatre.
“Soon after Southern Discomfort was produced, a JET friend from England contacted me about writing a play for the Dawlish Arts Festival in Southern England,” he says. “I wrote a one-act called Sushi and Scones, which was about an English girl on the JET program and that eventually became the first act of Sake with the Haiku Geisha.”
Besides winning acclaim at Dawlish, Sushi and Scones won Best Play at the Southeastern Playwrights Conference and was produced by BBC Radio and performed at the JETAA International Conference. This success prompted Cook to explore the experiences of other people he knew in Japan along with his own, and he soon wrote other one-act plays.
“The one problem I had was trying to figure it all out-how to make all these plays work together,” he says. That’s when I hit on the idea of the last act, where the child of Sumiko, the act’s main character, and her Irish lover, grows up to be the geisha of the title, who connects all the vignettes together in one sitting. She is sort of an emcee for the evening who unites all of these plays together.”
Through a professional theater contact, Cook was able to get his script into the hands of an off-Broadway producer and eventually found his way to the fledgling Gotham Stage Company, which presented the play as its premier production. Despite not being familiar with Japan or Japanese culture, the producing team at Gotham was enthusiastic about the script, as was director Alex Lippard, who spent time at the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center studying Japanese Noh theatre, which is integral to the play’s structure.
“In writing the play, I wanted to capture the feeling of being so foreign in an otherwise homogeneous society,” Cook says. “Western twists on the many elements of Noh-the dances, a changing primary character for each play, the constant Buddhist theme of the impermanence of life, the evocation of mood and emotions through recollections of the past-run throughout the play and mirror the cultural challenges faced by both sides as Eastern and Western cultures collide and clash.”
As for the future, Cook hopes that the play will be produced elsewhere around the country. “The reception has been uniformly positive, especially from people who have lived in Japan,” he says. “For instance, one military wife recently read the play and told me how much it meant to her. Ideally, the play should be produced in theaters with 100-200 seats and with its international cast, it can be done anywhere with extensive JET alumni. It also provides a number of good roles for Asian actors-Angela Lin, who played the title geisha, went on to act in Coram Boy and Top Girls on Broadway. Nothing pleases me more than to see audience members enjoy seeing the play as much as I enjoyed writing it.”