When the Equal Rights Amendment was put before Congress in 1972, I had already been in the workforce … and dropped out of it. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to work or wasn’t well trained for the job. I had been training since I was four.
Being children of Japanese American relocation, my nisei, second-generation Japanese American parents passed down their dreams deferred to me. My father loved classical music, but what chance did he have to get training? My mother told her father she wanted to be an artist. He said, “No! No thing for woman!” After she married, my father said, “Stay at home, take care of the children.”
So when my mom saw me dancing to my father’s albums, she found a dance school and inspired me with pictures of some of the great ballerinas: Maria Tallchief, an Osage Indian; Alicia Alonzo, a Cuban; and Sono Osato, half Japanese and half Irish. Something in her knew, this was the one place woman could be queen.
At the age of thirteen, I was given a scholarship at the prestigious American School of Dance in Hollywood. Then, the Director Eugene Loring gave me the bad news: “In order for you to make a living as a dancer, you have to be twice as good as everyone else.” It wasn’t because I was a female. It was because I was Japanese American.
It was the midfifties, and I became Mr. Loring’s personal civil rights project, pushing me to be “twice as good.” I was the one to make it, to be the exception to the rule. Because of his belief, I started a career working in films and on Broadway when I was sixteen. The postwar era stirred interest in all things “Oriental.” Shows like The King and I, South Pacific, Kismet, [End Page 291] Teahouse of the August Moon, The World of Suzy Wong, and Flower Drum Song needed people who looked like me. I got paid to play Siamese court dancers, geishas, island girls, prostitutes—always with a white protagonist. I felt lucky to work with Jerome Robbins, Rodgers and Hammerstein, geniuses of American theater. But I tired of playing those roles and strived to cross the color line.
That didn’t happen until 1960 when Jerome Robbins hired me for the movie West Side Story. I got to play a Shark … I passed for Puerto Rican. That experience left me hungry for more. I could not bear returning to being the “Oriental.” I started exploring other ways I could express myself … and be myself.
Studying singing with a black coach, Dini Clarke, exposed me to the great black singers of the time: Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughn, Nina Simone. I loved Nina’s anger, her power, her songs that told stories, like “Four Black Women.” But where were the songs of women like me?
The sixties was an explosive and mind-expanding time. Civil rights, black power, free speech movement, hippies, the counter culture, and women’s liberation awakened our consciousness. But the Vietnam War affected me most. It was the third war in my lifetime against people who looked like me.
As an Asian woman working in the entertainment industry, I felt stuck. The gift my parents and Mr. Loring gave me to be twice as good empowered me to work on my career at a high level in mainstream culture. But I wasn’t feeling fulfilled. I was mad as hell that for all my hard work, quality jobs were far and few between. Asian performers were used to perpetuate phony and harmful narratives, while our own stories were invisible. In 1967 I dropped out. I finally woke up to the fact that being twice as good was not going to change this cultural paradigm.
Helping to make a film about the Black Panthers, with Italian documentarian Antonello Branca, put me in the epicenter of the black movement. I was able to meet people confronting a racist, discriminatory system while serving needs in their community. Women leaders like Elaine Brown and “Peaches” Moore were also making music that expressed their ideas, using culture as a weapon...