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Interview: Midori Francis Iwama on the Universality of Thornton Wilder's Our Town

Iwama stars in NAATCO's upcoming reading of the play that TheaterMania will stream on May 19.

The National Asian American Theatre Company (NAATCO) will present a one-night-only reading of Thornton Wilder's Our Town on May 19 at 8pm ET. NAATCO first presented the play in 1994, with actor Yumi Iwama taking on the central role of Emily. For the reading, Iwama's niece, Midori Francis Iwama (The Wolves, Dash & Lily), will take on the iconic role, one she has longed to play. NAATCO co-founder Mia Katigbak directs. Before TheaterMania streams the show on Wednesday, we caught up with Midori to discuss her love of the play, and how truly universal it is.

Midori Francis
(© Nathan Johnson/handout image)

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Is this your first Our Town experience?
It's my first time working on it in a professional sense. I've wanted to play Emily for a very long time. I look at Emily's speech, where she's saying goodbye to the world, and I take that at face value. How beautiful is it, as an actor, to have a part of the play where you get to say goodbye to all the beautiful things about living on this earth and then have the realization that we don't appreciate it enough? That is such a gift for an actor.

Your aunt played Emily the first time NAATCO did Our Town. Is that how you came into this production?
She was the first-ever Asian Emily, in the — I think first-ever — Equity, all-Asian cast. I think it was 27 years ago or something, and she'd always talked fondly about it. A few months ago she was like, "Hey, wouldn't it be awesome with everything that's going on in the world, if we put up and all another, all-Asian Our Town, and instead of me playing Emily, I'd play Emily's mom and you play her." I could not imagine a better plan. We brought it to Mia, and Mia was very on board. We recorded it over two days, but it wasn't like we were really re-recording things. It was mostly just a run of it over the course of two days and they're piecing it together.

What have you learned about Emily and your love for the play in finally getting to do the role?
I think it took me a few days to peel off some of the layers I had on. These are weird times, and also, I'm getting older and my sense of purity is there, but now I have to work a little bit harder to uncover it. Emily is so earnest and so sincere and tells the truth about how she's feeling at every moment. It took me a few days to realize that Emily knows she's smart, and she isn't sentimental. She's just sincerely appreciative of the world around her. It was a cool learning experience to peel back my own layers and my own filters to just get to the heart of who Emily is. I had a moment while I was working on the play...We were in Act 3 and I was so moved that, as soon as rehearsal was over, I had to go outside and take a walk, trying to take in the trees and sun. I was probably walking around like a crazy person in Los Angeles, but the haunting nature of Act 3 really did affect me, and I was moved to appreciate the day a little bit more.

What is it like for you to do this play with an all-Asian American company at a time when everything is so fraught for the AAPI community?
I haven't really worked with very many all-Asian casts. I've often been more of the so-to-speak diversity hire in a cast. This is the most Asian people I've ever worked with, and it was awesome. First of all, I was working with people who have been doing this forever. Amy Hill, legend, Mia, legend. I was in the presence of these amazing actors who have been working on their craft for so long, who really are masters, and who have seen a lot of hardships in terms of representation in the industry than I have. It was a really humbling experience for me. And I looked around, and within this all-Asian American cast, we have complexities, we have differences, we have varying degrees of personality and sense of humor, and it was really nice to be surrounded by that, and to just be reminded of our humanity. The play doesn't have to be done in this old-timey way. You can have a variety of faces, genders, and races, all doing something universal.

Get tickets for Our Town here.