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Arts & Culture

'Stories From The Sun Cafe' Looks To Japanese, Chinese Immigrant Communities

The Sun Cafe was the first establishment owned and operated by Japanese immigrants in San Diego.
Japanese American Historical Society of San Diego
The Sun Cafe was the first establishment owned and operated by Japanese immigrants in San Diego.

Asian Story Theater opens new play at Lyceum

Joyce Teague on 'Stories from the Sun Cafe'
KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando speaks with Japanese American Historical Society of San Diego board member Joyce Teague about "Stories from the Sun Cafe."

ANCHOR INTRO: Tomorrow (Thursday) through Sunday the Asian Story Theater presents Stories from the Sun Cafe at the Lyceum Theater. KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando says it taps into the real lives of Japanese and Chinese immigrants who lived in San Diego over the past century. When the musical Allegiance premiered in 2012 at the Old Globe Theatre, there was a small museum curated by the Japanese American Historical Society. Among the items was a miniature model of the Sun Café, the first San Diego establishment owned and operated by a Japanese immigrant family. That inspired the Asian Story Theater to create the play Stories from the Sun Café says Society board member Joyce Teague. JOYCE TEAGUE: Wouldn’t it be cool to write a play with all these disparate characters who found a kind of home there at the Sun Café. My job was to arrange these interviews and to help him with the historical part and research. “Stories from the Sun Café” looks to a time and community that is not often explored to find stories with universal themes. Beth Accomando, KPBS News.

Kent Brisby on 'Stories from the Sun Cafe'
KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando speaks with Asian Story Theater's Kent Brisby about "Stories from the Sun Cafe."

ANCHOR INTRO: Today (Thursday) through Sunday the Asian Story Theater presents Stories from the Sun Cafe at the Lyceum Theater. KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando says it taps into the real lives of Japanese and Chinese immigrants who lived in San Diego over the past century. Asian Story Theater’s Kent Brisby was inspired by a miniature model of the Sun Café that he saw in an exhibit created by the Japanese American Historical Society. That led him to explore the history of the first San Diego establishment owned and run by Japanese immigrants. Brisby says Stories from the Sun Café brings together disparate characters from the Japanese and Chinese communities that found a home at the Sun Café. KENT BRISBY: We are doing a timeless version of the Sun Café. We have a counter, we have a cooking area and we have a couple of tables and then we rearrange this to help tell different stories that were accessed by working with the Chinese Historical Museum and the Japanese American Historical Society. And don’t come hungry. There will be cooking onstage to fill the theater with the smells as well as the stories of the Asian community. Beth Accomando, KPBS News.

Asian Story Theater will present "Stories from the Sun Cafe" (this Thursday through Sunday at the Lyceum Theater), a play that draws on the real Japanese and Chinese immigrants who have lived in San Diego over the past century.

When the musical "Allegiance" premiered in 2012 at the Old Globe Theatre, there was a small museum curated by the Japanese American Historical Society of San Diego. Among the items was a miniature model of the Sun Cafe.

According to Asian Story Theater's press release, "The Sun Cafe first opened in 1921, converted from a shooting gallery that had developed a reputation for also selling soup. From that modest beginning in the heart of the Asian business district on what is now Market Street, the Sun Cafe eventually earned the title of San Diego’s oldest restaurant. Founded by the first-generation Japanese Obayashi family, some 50 years later it was taken over by the Chinese Jeong family. The Cafe sat at the geographical hub of Japanese and Chinese life in San Diego all the way until 2008, when it was sold again, to become... Funky Garcia’s at the Sun Cafe."

Joyce Teague, a board member at the Japanese American Historical Society of San Diego, said Sun Cafe was "the first establishment owned and operated by a Japanese immigrant family. It existed all through the internment — it was taken care of by a Greek family at the time — and then later on purchased by a Chinese American family that kept it open serving American diner food."

Kent Brisby of Asian Story Theater was inspired by the Sun Cafe model he saw at the museum exhibit to find out more. He ended up spending two years assembling the personal narratives that form the foundation of the new play "Stories of the Sun Cafe."

When Brisby was putting finishing touches on the play's set he explained how he converted some chairs into swiveling stools for the Sun Cafe. But he said to not expect the stage version of the cafe to be historically accurate.

"On the stage here we have an abstraction of the Sun Cafe, the Sun Cafe is being used as a metaphor. So we are not super accurate, and also we focused on a period that goes from 1921 to 2008, so we are doing a timeless version of the Sun Cafe," Brisby said. "We have a counter, we have a cooking area, and we have a couple of tables. Then we rearrange these to help tell different stories that were accessed by working with the San Diego Chinese Historical Museum and the Japanese American Historical Society of San Diego."

Teague recalls that Brisby suggested "wouldn’t it be cool to write a play with all these disparate characters who are also from immigrant families who found a kind of home there at the Sun Cafe. So that’s what sparked their [Asian Story Theater's] interest. Kent decided to find some stories in the community about Sun Cafe and about growing up, living, and working downtown that was the start of it. My job was to arrange these interviews and to help him with the historical part and research, and then of course Asian Story Theater’s job was to make these stories theatrical."

Brisby was partially inspired to tell these stories because "there is a timeliness to all of those stories, the original people, the people that lived it, that number is dwindling. The people who went through World War II, whether Japanese, Chinese, or whatever, that number also is dwindling, and you will see stories from there. We have 23 different scenes in this production," he said.

"These stories are not very well known," Teague said. "They are hardly known beyond the families that they happen to and yet these are also everyone’s stories, that’s how we see it. We all can relate to stories of struggle and of triumph. So with that in mind, we wanted to not only preserve but also to share these stories."

There will also be something novel onstage: cooking.

Brisby laughed.

"Yes we are cooking on stage and there are challenges. But we are cooking. We are using rice and a toaster oven and grill and soup, and we’ll have some traditional dishes like hom yu or hom yu jing jiu yok bang," he said. "It’s a dish that is shared by Chinese and Japanese families, and we will cook some onstage and there will be some smells that will fill up the theater and that is part of the idea here."

So don’t come hungry as “Stories from the Sun Cafe” promises to whet your appetite with tasty tales of the Asian community.