Japanese-American Ballet Pioneer Sono Osato Dies at Age 99

Especially notable:
Upper right, Sono rehearsing with famed choreographer Jerome Robbins.
Center, from Vogue Magazine’s April 1945 issue.
Bottom center, Sono leaping during rehearsal under the watchful eye of the legendary Agnes de Mille.
Bottom right, a publicity photo for her role in the film The Kissing Bandit, starring Frank Sinatra.

Trailblazing Japanese-American ballet dancer Sono Osato died this past week at the age of 99. She was born in Omaha to a Japanese father and a white mother whose marriage had taken place in Iowa, given that such an interracial union was illegal in Nebraska at the time. As a 14 year old she was the first American to join the famed Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, and after returning to the States, she became a key performer for American Ballet Theatre. But the day after Pearl Harbor was attacked, her immigrant father was incarcerated in Chicago and, shortly after, branded by the authorities an enemy alien. She herself began to go by her mother’s maiden name, Fitzpatrick, under pressure from ABT management, and she was not permitted to enter the state of California or travel outside the U.S. when the company went on tour. (Her brother Tim, however, was able to travel abroad, serving in Europe as a member of the famous all-Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the most decorated unit of its size in American military history.)

Other highlights:
Top, a 20-year-old Sono celebrating with other members of Ballet Russe on tour in Australia.
Bottom left, an early performance in her career in Ballet Russe’s Scheherazade.
Bottom center, the role in Agnes de Mille’s One Touch of Venus for which she won the Donaldson Award (forerunner of the Tonys) for Best Female Dancer.
Bottom right, dancing in the famous Antony Tudor’s Pillar of Fire.

Eventually, she did Broadway and movies. Her most noteworthy role remains that of Ivy Smith in her good friend Leonard Bernstein’s 1944 musical On the Town. (She was the first to play the all-American character, a role that was also played by Misty Copeland when she made her own Broadway debut a few years ago.) Sono’s casting was controversial; the war was still going, and anti-Japanese racism was still strong. The entire production, though, sought to upend prejudicial norms; several African Americans were also part of the cast, an unusually mixed-race one for the time.

Sono (left) as Ivy Smith in the original 1944 production of On the Town;
Misty Copeland (right) in the same role in the show’s 2015 revival.

The musical was a major Broadway event, even getting the famed New York Times caricaturist Al Hirschfeld’s treatment (bottom right below).

From her entire career, there is very little existing video of Sono actually dancing, but here is a scene (filled with examples of questionable cultural appropriation, to be sure) that demonstrates her powerful presence. At least Frank Sinatra seems to find her presence powerful:

Sono and her husband Victor, a Moroccan Jewish immigrant who was an architect and later a real estate developer, were married for over 70 years. (He was also a national doubles champion in handball and squash.) They became philanthropists, sponsoring scholarships and supporting artists. Earlier this year, her longtime waterfront estate in the Hamptons was put up for sale, listed by Sotheby’s for $37 million.

The organization that may have been closest to Sono’s heart is Career Transition for Dancers, which helps dancers with career counseling and scholarships. It merged just a few years ago with The Actors Fund and continues its work, which you can learn more about here.

Just a few of the many who’ve been helped by the Sono Osato Scholarship Fund for Graduate Studies!
From upper left, going clockwise: Camille M. Brown, Stanko Milov, Andre Zachery, Mary Slate Williams, Aaron Orlowski, Lauren Grant, Amanda Clark, Elyssa Dole, Boyko Dossev, Katie Pivarnik, Rebecca Lemme, and Elana Altman.
Center: A 2013 photo of Sono with Anka Palitz, longtime board member of both Career Transition for Dancers and American Ballet Theatre.

As a ballet dad, I feel that Sono helped to pave the way for my daughters, both of whom are dancers. Thousands of Asian-American girls are involved in American ballet programs these days! May Sono rest in peace.

2018. Not Bad.

I don’t want to ignore the difficulties of the past year, of which there were many. But in celebration of Abba’s abundant love, here are several ways I’ve felt blessed in 2018. From the upper left and going clockwise, then ending in the center:

Continue reading “2018. Not Bad.”

One Small Step: One Giant Love on Display

Some of you have seen this animated short already, but I had not until this morning. It’s made the short list of potential Academy Award nominees in its category as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences whittles down submissions to the final group that will be in the running for the Oscar. Without a single spoken word, TAIKO StudiosOne Small Step says so very, very much about what being a feminist Asian dad means to me.

Social Studies Teacher for Hire in SoCal!

I never thought I’d be back in the classroom as a teacher.

But since I haven’t landed another position doing what I love most (being an advocate for women’s rights and a violence prevention educator) and since freelance writing and speaking doesn’t pay the bills, I’m “Mr. Hung” again – 24 years after I left the teaching profession! Yes, my first job out of college was being a public high school teacher back in Texas.

Continue reading “Social Studies Teacher for Hire in SoCal!”

How I Went from Evangelical Pastor to Women’s Rights Activist

In late September, I had the privilege of being one of the featured speakers at Southern California Public Radio KPCC’s Unheard LA event in Long Beach. If you’ve ever wondered how I went from longtime evangelical pastor to women’s rights activist, today is your lucky day! My remarks run about six-and-a-half minutes:

No One Captures My Feelings About Kavanaugh Better than This Man

It’s rare that I ever just share someone else’s content on this blog. I’m doing it here because Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware captures my feelings about the Kavanaugh nomination so precisely and, in his understated manner of delivery, so powerfully. My tears began just moments into his speech; by the end of it, I was sobbing.

Black Lightning Actress Chantal Thuy: The F.A.D. Interview

Hers isn’t a household name yet, but actress Chantal Thuy’s growing body of artistic work will undoubtedly win her many more fans soon. Among her various projects, she has a recurring role on The CW’s Black Lightning, DC Comics’ first ever TV show centered on an African American superhero. 

Chantal plays bartender, bookstore staffer, and comic book geek Grace Choi, a bisexual Asian American woman who has a budding romance with one of the title character’s two daughters, a medical student named Anissa Pierce (played by Nafessa Williams). Grace’s special powers have yet to manifest on the show, but her back story is laid out in the DC Comics source material; she’s half-Amazonian, giving her a common ancestry with Wonder Woman. Thus, in the comics, she possesses superhuman strength, endurance, and self-healing. Hopefully, we’ll see her powers at work on the TV version of Black Lightning this season!

Grace and Anissa Bookstore
Grace (right, played by Chantal) and Anissa (left, played by Nafessa Williams) meet for the first time. Grace holds an issue of The Outsiders comic book, an allusion to the DC Comics superhero group that includes both Grace and Anissa.  (Image: The CW)

But Chantal doesn’t just portray an extraordinary character. She’s an extraordinary person, which I’ve found as we’ve interacted over the last year. In this Feminist Asian Dad interview, Chantal discusses bisexual and Asian American identities, her family’s refugee experience, what she does for fun, and much more. It’s a truly heartfelt conversation which I know you’ll enjoy! (And it’s been gently edited for length and clarity.)

Continue reading Black Lightning Actress Chantal Thuy: The F.A.D. Interview”