Authors: Philip Kan Gotanda

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American playwright

Identity: Japanese American

Author Works


The Avocado Kid: Or, Zen in the Art of Guacamole, pr. 1979

A Song for a Nisei Fisherman, pr. 1980

Bullet Headed Birds, pr. 1981

The Dream of Kitamura, pr. 1982

Jan Ken Po, 1986 (with David Henry Hwang and R. A. Shiomi)

The Wash, pr. 1987

Yankee Dawg You Die, pr. 1988

Fish Head Soup, pr. 1991

Day Standing on Its Head, pr. 1993

In the Dominion of Night, pr. 1994 (with Dan Kuramoto)

Ballad of Yachiyo, pr. 1995

Fish Head Soup, and Other Plays, pb. 1995

The Sisters Matsumoto, pr. 1999

Floating Weeds, pr. 2001


The Wash, 1989

The Kiss, 1993

Drinking Tea, 1996

Life Tastes Good, 1999


Philip Kan Gotanda (goh-TAHN-dah) in his writing gives voice to the Japanese American experience in plays, films, and spoken word which ranges from realism, to film noir, to dreamlike dialogue. His father, Wilfred Itsuta Gotanda, was a nisei (second-generation Japanese American) born in Hawaii who practiced medicine in Stockton, California. Dr. Gotanda was interned, along with all West Coast Japanese Americans, during World War II. After returning to Stockton, he married Catherine Matsumoto, a schoolteacher, and Philip was the youngest of their three sons.{$I[A]Gotanda, Philip Kan}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Gotanda, Philip Kan}{$I[geo]ASIAN AMERICAN/ASIAN DESCENT;Gotanda, Philip Kan}{$I[tim]1951;Gotanda, Philip Kan}

Philip Kan Gotanda

Philip entered the University of California, Santa Cruz in 1969, becoming involved in the emergent Asian American political-cultural movement. He visited Japan before earning a B.A. from the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he studied Asian art and culture. He received a J. D. degree from Hastings Law School in 1978. His first interest was music, and his early script, The Avocado Kid: Or, Zen in the Art of Guacamole, 1979, was a musical based on the Japanese story of the peach boy, Momotaro. This production drew together Japanese mythology and American pop music and dance. Produced by the East West Players in Los Angeles, the musical was a collaboration with Don Kuramoto of the Jazz fusion group Hiroshima. Gotanda’s poetic works have also involved collaboration with Kuramoto.

His development was linked with the rise of Asian American theater in the 1980’s. A dramaturge for the San Francisco Asian American Theater Company, Gotanda emerged along with playwrights David Henry Hwang and Canadian Rick Shiomi to bring Asian American perspectives to the stage. A Song for a Nisei Fisherman, developed in the Asian American theater workshop at Stanford, was partially based on the internment experience of Gotanda’s father. Directed by David Henry Hwang, it was produced at the Asian American Theater Company in 1981. The Wash, written in 1985, was produced at the Eureka Theatre in 1987. The story of an elderly Japanese American couple who have separated, it shows the wife longing for happiness and the nisei husband vainly trying to reassert control as she returns weekly to do his laundry. This is a broken household, where gender and culture bind. Gotanda examines in these works the legacy of racism which is crystalized in internment. His interest in the lasting impact of this event on the psyche of the community should be understood in the context of the 1980’s Japanese reparations movement undertaken by sansei (third-generation Japanese Americans). Gotanda’s work contributes to the cultural front of a broad political and social movement to redress injustice.

Yankee Dawg You Die premiered at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre under the direction of Sharon Ott in 1988. It contrasts two generations of Asian American actors: the first generation, who built careers playing the racist film roles available, and the second, who castigate elders for playing these stereotypes but who are selling out as well, as non-Orientalist roles are lacking. One actor states the predicament: “I was born and raised in the San Joaquin Valley and spent my entire life growing up in California. Why can’t you hear what I am saying? Why can’t you see me as I really am?”

By the 1990’s, Gotanda’s work was premiering in major West Coast repertory companies where work played to a general audience. Fish Head Soup, which opened at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 1991, is about a son who faked a suicide years before and his return to a dysfunctional family, in which the father lives in a world of illusions, the wife carries on an affair, and a sibling suffers repercussions of his Vietnam War experience. The Ballad of Yachiyo, also premiered by the Berkeley Repertory, reflects a family story of an unmarried aunt who committed suicide after becoming pregnant. Day Standing on Its Head was a meditation in fissures in the Asian American community. The Sisters Matsumoto, produced at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, returned to the internment experience.

Gotanda’s screenplays include The Wash, Drinking Tea, The Kiss, and the 1999 feature Life Tastes Good, a film noir tale of murder and mystery. Other work in films involves directing and acting, often in collaboration with his wife, actress Diane Takei. Gotanda’s awards include a Gerbode Foundation grant, a Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writers Award, a TCG/NEA Directing Fellowship, and grants from the Guggenheim, Rockefeller, and McKnight Foundations. Gotanda’s work shows Japanese Americans in their complexity and specificity. In portraying them, he fills in the larger picture of the contemporary United States.

BibliographyOmi, Michael. Introduction to Fish Head Soup, and Other Plays, by Philip Kan Gotanda. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1995. Overview of the playwright’s life and work.Trudeau, Lawrence, ed. “Philip Gotanda.” In Asian American Literature: Reviews and Criticism of Works by American Writers of Asian Descent. Detroit: Gale, 1999. Critical responses to Gotanda’s work.Wong, Sau-ling Cynthia, and Stephen H. Sumida, eds. A Resource Guide to Asian American Literature. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2001. Discusses Gotanda’s plays.
Categories: Authors