Theatre Artist Jude Narita Explodes Asian Stereotypes

Jude Narita

Theatre Artist & Activist Jude Narita

For over two decades, award-winning theater artist and activist Jude Narita has put Asian and Asian- American women center stage in shows that explore and explode female stereotypes. This Sunday, May 19 at 7:30 p.m., she will perform some of the women she has created at Zeb’s, 223 W. 28th St, New York, NY. (Tickets at the door: $15 General/$10 Students & Seniors. Reservations: 516-922-2010)

Jude Narita has performed her one-woman plays nationally and internationally since writing her first play, the award-winning “Coming Into Passion/Song for a Sansei,” which was her artistic response to the demeaning and one-dimensional stereotypes of Asian women in films, theater, and on television. In that play, a sophisticated Asian-American newscaster does not want to be associated with the images of Asian women that she sees in the news, but in a series of dreams, she becomes those women and experiences the humanity behind the stereotypes.

Jude Narita’s other plays include “Stories Waiting to be Told” (about the experiences of immigrant women), “Celebrate Me Home” (about the ways that racism continues to be perpetuated by socially accepted behavior in the media and our private lives), “Walk the Mountain” (about Vietnamese and Cambodian women recovering from the Vietnam war – or as it is called in their countries “the American war”), and “With Darkness Behind Us, Daylight Has Come” (about the effects of Japanese-American internment camps on three generations of Japanese-American women in Los Angeles). You can read about Jude Narita’s plays and watch YouTube excerpts from them on the Play Synopsis page of her website.  For booking information, see her Availability page.

Jude’s Mother, Cobi Narita, Is A Pioneering Advocate for Women in Jazz

Nabuko "Cobi" Narita

Nabuko “Cobi” Narita
Advocate for Women in Jazz

As the title of her first play indicates, Jude Narita is a “Sansei”, i.e. a third generation Japanese-American immigrant, the grandchild of first generation immigrants. Jude’s mother, Nobuko “Cobi” Narita has also had a distinguished career in the arts with over 40 years in the jazz community, where she has been a leading advocate for women musicians.

Cobi Narita was fifteen in 1941 when the U.S. Military Police abruptly took her from her high school classroom in California to the Gila River Detention Camp for Japanese-Americans in Arizona. In the camp, Cobi and her siblings (two brothers and two sisters) and parents were detained until the end of World War II, living in a 20 foot by 20 foot room. Cobi Narita says her cultural background taught her not to complain and gave her a positive spirit and strong ambition in spite of her adverse circumstances.

Despite the oppressive conditions, Cobi started a detention camp newsletter to let detainees know what was happening throughout the camp, including pregnancies, marriages and always-positive messages.

After the war, Cobi Narita’s love of jazz led her to create the Universal Jazz Coalition in 1976 to present and provide technical assistance to jazz artists.  She also started the New York Women’s Jazz Festival, which began as the Universal Jazz Coalition’s Salute to Women and is now International Women in Jazz.

Narita says that the purpose of the New York Women’s Jazz Festival was simple: “I had always felt women jazz musicians did not get the attention as artists that they should. Club owners will always pick a male leader for a band. And the male leader, with an opportunity to choose among equally qualified musicians, will pick men rather than women. I felt that women needed something like that Kansas City [Women’s Jazz] Festival in New York to give them an opportunity to show that they can play.”

When the first year’s Women’s Jazz Festival was presented at the Casablanca Club in New York, so many people attended that the club upped the rental fee, locking them out of the venue. So the concert was held out in the street. Narita says, “I’ll never forget Mary Lou Williams sitting on a crate eating rice and beans as dignified as if she were in Carnegie Hall.”

The festival was a triumph in spite of these obstacles – when jazz impresario George Wein came and saw what had happened, he donated the Carnegie Recital Hall for the next night. Over thirty years later, the International Women in Jazz Festival is still going strong. (See the WomenArts article about this year’s festival.)

Note:  There is a companion article to this blog called: Naomi’s Road:  A Canadian Opera for Children of War