Amy Hill: A Double Agent with Personalities to Spare

Article excerpt

As Amy Hill explains it, the Japanese language uses deep feeling to slice through contradictions. Her Japanese dictionary defines the word "shibui," for instance, as sulen; an astringent; tasty; a trained voice.... "Hear the contradictions?" she asks me. "In Japanese you have to experience the word to understand it." Hill believes that in order to understand the Japanese language you must first live the culture, and in order to live the culture you must first speak Japanese. A contradiction? yes, but Amy Hill is no longer afraid of contradictions, as her three one-woman shows, Tokyo Bound, Beside Myself and Reunion, attest.

Born in Deadwood, S.D. to a Japanese war-bride and a Finnish-American father, she counts the sting of prejudice among her earliest memories. She describes her early life with the vocabulary of a double agent: "I realized that I needed to get into a certain groups in order to operate. So I did a lot of observation, and would find my way in. But I was always on guard." The family moved to Seattle, and by the time she was in high school, suffering was the only thing that made sense. She became an artiste, wore black, smoked unfiltered cigarettes. At 18, Hill wanted to move to Paris, but her mother would only finance a move to Japan. So reluctantly, she packed her black turtlenecks and moved to Tokyo.

From Deadwood to Tokyo

"In Japan, I'm exotic," explains Hill, who was soon hired by Japanese supermarkets who billed her as "the California girl," paying her $100 a day to distribute lemons. Then came real celebrity as the host of a radio travelogue about Japan, told from a foreigner's perspective. The program was a hit, and so was Hill. For once it literally paid to be an outsider: "I was outside," she says, "but it was okay, because I was special."

As Hill's public career gathered momentum in Tokyo, however, her life's path was quietly drawn inward. "My mother began writing me letters--in Japanese," she says. "It was the first time she'd spoken to me in her native language. I was stunned." As she recounts in Tokyo Bound, her mother was transformed from "this goofball illiterate who could barely read or write English--to this formidable, intelligent woman." Mother and daughter began a rich correspondence that was a profound source of self-discovery for Hill.

After six years of Japanese celebrity, realizing that the country's fascination with her was based largely on appearance, Hill retraced her steps back to America in 1978. Within an hour of her arrival in San Francisco, she'd found what would become her new home--the theatre. "My friends who met me at the airport were doing a tech rehearsal that night at the new Asian-American Theater Workshop, and we went there straight from the airport. And there I stayed for eight years."

Spiritual travelogue

Hill had arrived at the inception of that theatre, and was quickly welcomed into a family of determined artists. "During the day I would take classes at ACT |San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre~, then at night I would teach what I had learned at the Asian-American," she recounts. "I was teaching and directing and acting, while I was learning." Out of that flurry of creativity came some landmark productions, including Philip Kan Gotanda's The Wash, David Henry Hwang's F. …