Fil-Am playwright stages work on WWII roundup of Japanese Americans

February 10, 2017

Jeffrey Lo
BERKELEY, California - Filipino American playwright and director Jeffrey Lo is busy these days.

He just finished directing a play. Another play he directed last year was just nominated for "Best Production" by San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. He has also co-written a new play that's opening in a few weeks.

"I live in the South Bay Area and do most of my work along the peninsula. When I work in San Francisco, Berkeley or Oakland, there's a bit of driving, but I have good music and good podcasts to accompany me on the road," he says.

Lo is preparing to premiere a play he co-wrote with Adrienne Walters about the Japanese-American internment camps of World War II, when the US government summarily detained Japanese Americans in concentration camps on suspicion that they were supporters of imperial Japan.

"Beneath the Tall Tree" is about Tetsuo Fujikawa, who buries a family heirloom before being forced out of his Palo Alto home, and his granddaughter, Cass, who decides to unearth the item.

Lo became involved with this production last year when TheaterFirst artistic director Jon Tracy approached him with an idea for a play dealing with a Bay Area actress' family history with the internment camps.

"Although I'm not of Japanese American heritage, I've always felt a strong connection to this horrific tragedy and continue to be baffled by the how little the American people actually know about this event," he says.

"My pre-existing interest in the project and subject matter was magnified when I found out the local actress I would be collaborating with was my good friend Adrienne Walters."

This is Lo's first time to co-write a play. His recent play "Writing Fragments Home" was a finalist for the 2016 Bay Area Playwright's Conference and a semi-finalist for the 2016 O'Neill Playwright's Conference.

Lo found the process challenging since he's used to writing "being a very solitary act."

"When I'm writing by myself, in many ways, I only have to answer to myself. While working on 'Beneath the Tall Tree,' I had a partner who had more ownership of the project than I did. Being that this piece is loosely based on her family story, I wanted to work with great care to respect both Adrienne's vision for the project and the spirit that her family's history fills within the play."

The endeavor proved enlightening. "It was good for me. I learned new ways to communicate during the creative process."

Lo at rehearsals for "Uncle Vanya."
Prior to this production, Lo had just finished directing David Henry Hwang's "Yellow Face" for Los Altos Stage Company, a satire where a white actor is cast in an Asian role. Lo has said that Hwang's play explores "the messiness of race in America and the danger of approaching it with absolute rules."

A play he directed last year was recently nominated for Best Production by the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle: Anton Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya" with a new translation by Dave Sikula for The Pear Theatre in early 2016.

The 41st Annual Excellence in Theatre Awards for 2016 will be presented on March 27, 2017 at the Victoria Theatre.

"I try not to get too caught up in reviews and awards," he says. "It'd be a tough life for an artist to live and die by the recognition of others. But regardless of this, it's definitely nice to get the recognition. I'm humbled by it. I'm also proud that it was nominated for Best Production because that team, as a whole, put together a piece I was very proud of."

How does he slip in and out of his two roles as playwright and director? "I've been shifting between writing and directing from the very beginning of my theater career so it's become second nature to me," says this alumnus of the UC Irvine Drama Department.

"The writer part of my brain tends to inform my directing and vice versa. When I'm directing a play I always lead with the characters and the story. When I'm writing, I always have in the back of my mind how one can tangibly pull off what I'm writing. I can't turn it off - for better or for worse!"

"Beneath the Tall Tree" runs Feb. 27-Mar. 25 at Live Oak Theatre, 1301 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, CA. Details: Visit

Read a previous interview with Jeffrey Lo here.