It’s all too easy for a relationship to fall into routine, with couples taking each other for granted and simply assuming that they’ll never leave each other.
But in the new production of the play “Yohen” by powerhouse Los Angeles-based theatrical troupes East West Players and the Robey Theatre Company, veteran star Danny Glover and Emmy-winning actress June Angela team up to portray two people who suddenly question everything about their relationship after 37 years of seemingly blissful marriage.
Based on a the Japanese pottery term “yohen,” which refers to unpredictable changes that take place in the kiln, the two-actor drama depicts the lives of James and Sumi Washington, an interracial couple struggling to maintain their relationship after James retires from the US Army. The dramatic change in routine prompts questions about life, love and aging, as the couple attempts to repair what’s broken and decide what is worth saving.
The intimate yet powerful play by Philip Kan Gotanda runs through Nov. 19 at the David Henry Hwang Theater at the Union Center of the Arts in Little Tokyo, just over a block from the Little Tokyo station on the Metro Gold Line train. For Glover — who has built a 40-year career in theater, TV and film, and is perhaps best-known for his turn as veteran LA cop Danny Murtaugh in the four films of the “Lethal Weapon” series — the play by Gotanda is so emotionally resonant that after 19 years he is returning to play James, a role he originated.
“I met the playwright at a performance of ‘The Wash,’ one of his first plays, and I was fascinated by the way the Eureka Theatre in San Francisco, and he handled this development and growth in the wife and mother,” recalls Glover. “It also reminded me of the traditional kind of Japanese man who refused to change his worldview perception. How many times do you see this subject in a play?”
Glover took particular interest in the show because the couple’s relationship — in which Glover is an African-American soldier who married Angela’s Japanese woman Sumi while serving overseas and brought her home to the US — reflected the marriage of the parents of his longtime assistant. Over the course of her 30 years working with him, Glover had many occasions to watch her Japanese mother and Alabama-raised father interact.
“After seeing those two for so long and how much they love each other, I didn’t have to ask how the couple in the play got together, because I respect their relationship inherently,” explains Glover, sitting across from Angela onstage at the Hwang Theatre during a rehearsal break. “That was fascinating for me to be able to explore those relationships, because often we don’t think about the way intercultural relationships happen in our communities.
“There’s plenty of African-American men with Asian or Latino women, or any other ethnicity,” he continues. “The writing and the relationship of two people who love each other and how it starts to unravel itself and show that the pretext on which the relationship began has moved to another kind of level and narrative for the relationship now.”
For her part, Angela was attracted to the play due to her own 20-year marriage and a desire to explore the dynamics of a long-term relationship onstage.
“I think the play drew me because it’s such a wonderful piece regarding two people so in love with one another but facing differences,” says Angela. “They’re battling their own inner struggles and also reflecting society’s struggles and circumstances against them, and trying to battle it out while maintaining their wonderful, loving relationship. It’s also current because of the way that racial relations are still an issue years and years later and it touches on those issues as well.
“The concept of yohen is a wonderful metaphor — how you can look at life, how people’s visions are different from one another even if they’re in the same circumstances, per se,” she continues. “That’s what yohen means: one person’s taste is different than another, but it’s all perception.”
The fact that the play explores hot-button racial issues through an intimate personal relationship is a reflection of Glover’s own apparent personal evolution in how he addresses social issues. One of Hollywood’s most outspoken progressive activists, Glover helped lead the longest student-led strike in US history in order to push San Francisco State University to establish a Department of Black Studies.
Glover is also a board member of the Algebra Project, the Black AIDS Institute, Walden House and the Something Positive Dance Group. He was charged with disorderly conduct and unlawful assembly after being arrested outside the Sudanese Embassy in Washington, DC during a protest over Sudan’s humanitarian crisis in Darfur.
He has also been a longtime supporter of the United Farm Workers and numerous service unions, and made frequent campaign appearances for former US President Barack Obama as well as 2016 Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders. Most remarkably, he openly called President George W. Bush a racist and criticized Obama for maintaining a foreign policy that Glover deemed too similar to Bush’s policies. In the early 2000s, he was one of Hollywood’s most outspoken opponents of the Iraq War.
Yet surprisingly, Glover’s publicity team was adamant that he not be asked about his political involvement and to keep the focus on his acting career.
“Yohen,” he said, “speaks to race in another kind of context and the real perceptions of how people feel. What are the clichés around race, the feelings unexplored in a relationship — an intimate relationship, not one removed by the jargon and language that happens like, ‘Oh, I have a black friend.’ It’s a relationship of two people who live with each other and gain an intimacy and get to know each other and their nuances beyond just a cliché. What they discovered is they’re both holding so much hostility and anger and fear.”
Glover also especially appreciates the rare opportunity to pick up the same lead role so many years apart from his debut in the role of James. While James is 61, Glover has now taken on the part at both age 52 and his present age of 71, noting that he had to reinvent his performance from scratch since the intervening years had caused him to forget how he tackled the role the first time.
“I come with my own story within that context, because I was in a 27-year relationship that ended in a divorce and now I’m in a 10-year marriage and am the happiest I’ve ever been,” says Glover. “In my first marriage, we met, fell in love, grew older and had a child. Maybe in the 15th year, we should have split, but what are the things that keep you together? This play is rich and allows June and I to embellish those moments of memory, going back to the first time you saw each other.”
Glover also has fond memories of his own parents’ 38-year union, which lasted from 1944 until his mother died in 1983. His dad was “the personification of cool,” a New York City jazz musician who found love with “a country girl who was the strongest woman you’ll ever meet.”
“She knew everything, was self-righteous and all that kind of stuff,” recalls Glover. “They fought a lot, but also laughed a lot, and he was devoted to her. He may have been in debt up to his neck, but he was devoted to her. No one else could have put up with them the way they did, but my brothers and I loved them and knew we were loved without a doubt, even when we were smacked upside the head.”
Glover appreciates the intimate nature of the Hwang Theatre, yet has acted several times on Broadway in 3,000-seat theaters with fellow luminaries including James Earl Jones. He recalls Jones teaching him about the physical toll a long-running play can take on an actor while performing with him in 1982, and notes that such lessons inspired his current regimen of exercising regularly as he prepares for the upcoming run of “Yohen.”
“In theater, you go from point A to point Z every time, rather than doing bits and pieces of the script like on a film shoot,” Glover explains. “It’s work, know what I’m saying? It’s immersion.”
Yet Glover maintains an infectious enthusiasm for performing, with an easygoing laugh that fills the room repeatedly as he spoke about his life. Even at 71, more than 40 years after catching his initial acting breaks, he makes it clear that unlike his “Lethal Weapon” alter ego Murtaugh, he will never be “too old for that shit.”
“That line was improv, as was a lot of the bathroom scene in the second film that spawned it,” says Glover. “Our director Richard Donner said ‘do something’ and I said, ‘I’m too old for that shit.’ We all had a special relationship in those films, and Mel and I love each other. It was like that, that we trusted each other, and that’s the bottom line for me.
“It’s amazing to me that all these years later, that’s the line that people call out to me,” he laughs. “Just walk down the street in New York, thinking I’m anonymous, construction workers will say ‘I’m getting too old for that shit!’ It’s a really nice feeling, and that’s been the funny and most interesting thing about my career.”
“Yohen” runs from Oct. 26 through Nov. 19 at the David Henry Hwang Theater at the Union Center of the Arts, 120 Judge John Aiso Street, Los Angeles. Previews are at 8 p.m. today through Sunday, with a 2 p.m. Sunday show as well. Preview tickets are $30. General admission tickets are $40 to $60 for performances between Nov. 1 through Nov. 19. Call (213) 625-7000 or visit eastwestplayers.org.