LOS ANGELES — Spring is a time of blossoming, and the stage of East West Players is positively abud with new performers.
Take Thomas Winter, who plays Melchior in “Spring Awakening.” The musical marks his professional debut.
“This was like a dream come true, just being in this space,” said Winter.
“It’s a space with a long history. The theatre inhabits a historic church in Little Tokyo. A plaque on the sidewalk out front details how Japanese families lined up there to be transported to internment camps during World War II.
Thomas’ grandfather may not have boarded one of those buses but was incarcerated at Manzinar. He later returned to this exact neighborhood, establishing a radiology business around the corner from the theatre where Thomas now performs.
“Right there,” he says, pointing to a corner building, his mother on Facetime helping him identify the exact location. She told how when she was a child, she would visit the office, sometimes to see the Nisei Week Grand Parade.
That business, Central X-ray Lab, was also located directly across the street from what is now the Japanese American National Museum, where Thomas’ family stamped the Ireichō, a book listing the names of over 125,000 persons of Japanese ancestry incarcerated during that time.
He says that making his stage debut steps away from where his grandfather worked is very special. He never had a chance to meet him, but he’s always felt a strong connection.
“I’m named after him,” Winter said. “His name was Tom. And I’m Thomas.”
He carries his grandmother with him as well. She passed away earlier this year, and every night at the theatre, he wears a bracelet that once belonged to her.
“One of the last things she said to me was like, just do good things,” he recalled. “And I feel like this is what she would have wanted, is just to, you know, connect with my community, with my roots.”
Among the other actors, making their EWP debut is an already famous face. Tamlyn Tomita wore a vintage EWP t-shirt from the early 1980s to show just how long she’s been a fan and supporter of their work, even if this was her first time appearing in one of their shows.
“It’s nerve-wracking,” she said of the experience. “It’s scary as fffffff” – stopping herself from completing the word.
The actress, who has appeared on screen in projects like “The Karate Kid 2” and “Cobra Kai,” plays all the adult women in the show. She shares the stage with her husband, Daniel Blinkoff, who is also making his EWP debut, playing all the adult men.
Although the musical is set in Germany in 1891, it deals with topics that she says are still incredibly relevant. Abortion, mental health, and sex were definitely not discussed in her home growing up.
She brought her mother to one of the rehearsals and told her about the play.
“‘So this is about sexual awakening, Mom. Spring Awakening is a euphemism for sexual awakening,'” Tomita recalled telling her. She asked her to explain to the cast how she had taught Tomita about sex.
“‘I didn’t teach you about sex!’” she said, imitating her mother’s shock. “That’s right. But we’re talking about it now and Spring Awakening has always been that topic. You know about what it means to talk about, or not to talk about things and what are the consequences of that.”
Tomita credits East West Players for their work for decades to create opportunities for Asian American Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander artists and says change is definitely happening, even if it happens “excruciatingly slow sometimes.”
As a decades-long admirer of the company’s work, she is thrilled to add her name to the long line of notables who have treaded these boards.
“I’m just very, super proud to be, you know, at my age, just beginning with them,” she said, her voice growing quiet and serious. “But I know I’m just a little stone along a long path of stars that come out of here and stars to be.”
Blooming stars like Winter recognize that while progress has been made for artists of color, there’s still a long way to go. It’s an effort he’s honored to add his voice to.
“To know that, like, I get to be a part of this legacy. It’s very surreal,” he said.
This production of Spring Awakening, directed by former Artistic Director Tim Dang, has been extended and runs through Dec. 3.