Monday, August 11, 2014

BEHIND THE SCENES: What I Learned Becoming Yoko


Becoming Yoko
--by Anzu Lawson

Little did I know during my first class with the Jocelyn Jones Acting Studio how my life would change. Every new studio member is required to perform what is known as an “Environment exercise*” where the actor creates and lives in a personal space, complete with personal objects, designed to get the actor involved in a true-to-life experience.  

I chose the act of putting on makeup in front of a mirror. The first thing Jocelyn asked me was, “have you ever thought about playing Yoko Ono?” Ever the stand-up comedian, I quickly joked, “the woman who broke up the Beatles?” A few laughs came from the audience.

I flashed back to growing up half-Asian/half-white in Cerritos, CA, wanting desperately to be blonde and blue-eyed like all the happy people on TV. There was only one famous Asian woman in that era of pop culture and that was Yoko Ono. My step-dad was a sound engineer for rock bands, and growing up with musicians around all the time, I didn’t exactly understand why but I knew that Yoko wasn’t liked. So that was the beginning of my obsession with Daisy Duke shorts and forgoing identification with my Asian heritage.

Jocelyn assigned me a “Picture exercise*” in which the actor finds a photograph and then recreates it exactly, from the clothes to the expression to the pose.

I chose this photo from a John and Yoko coffee table book that my friend Brad Garrett gave me for Christmas one year. I hunted down that Kangol hat for two weeks. I didn’t think I’d ever find that exact hat. I thought, wow, this is a lot of work for an exercise. In retrospect, it was just the beginning!

A few weeks later, I was back on that stage, in my practiced Yoko pose and half smile while the book was passed around to my fellow students for them to critique. I could see wonderment on their faces from the stage. 

Jocelyn asked me to say something as Yoko. I hesitated, but then, I spoke the words… and something happened to me. A different energy took over and I began to move differently. Yoko pauses and ponders in her speech, interjecting “Mmm… you know” frequently, so I did that. I had an out-of-body experience; the kind of timeless feeling I had only been able to experience singing, my first true love.

In my acting career, I embraced my ethnic ambiguity playing Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Korean roles; even a Latin doctor on Criminal Minds, but I had never attempted anything like this before! I bought every book on Yoko Ono I could and found that she was completely misunderstood. 

I began to fall in love with this woman who was made a public scapegoat, still hated by many people who hadn’t taken the time to understand her. I loved her brazen and rebellious spirit. I related to feeling like an outsider living in Japan. I knew the trauma of parental-child kidnapping at the hands of a narcissist because I was kidnapped as a child. I was taken by the thoughtfulness of her art installations, impressed with the inner strength it took to be authentic, even if it meant she would not make a single penny as an artist. 

Initially, I was confused by this, because when the Japanese record company I was signed to at 16 years old told me my songs weren’t melodic enough, I would have to change them so that my family would eat.

Anzu Lawson as Yoko Ono
I wondered if this was how John Lennon fell in love with her. Is this what he saw? I felt an incredible urge to tell the story of this woman and the love she shared with John Lennon that inspired him to grow into a peace activist.  

Maybe I would educate people and maybe the scarlet letter would fall off Yoko’s chest. Maybe I would embrace the closet Asian person hiding inside of me. 

I started writing a screenplay but hit a wall because I couldn’t capture John’s “voice.” John had this fast, mercurial, dry, candid sense of humor that was uniquely his. I kept asking myself, how am I going to do this? 

Then a light bulb went off. A musical!

Although it had been many years, I called up Joerg, my musical cohort, and said “hey…want to write a musical with me?”

I walked into the studio Joerg was renting and on the wall was a framed original vinyl LP of TWO VIRGINS, with the infamous picture of John and Yoko standing naked together. I took that as a sign. We wrote the first song that day, “I Know War,” in a matter of an hour. We looked at each other after it was done in disbelief. This was bigger than me and I felt divinely guided.

Over the course of two years, I kept thinking, am I crazy? Why am I spending so much time writing about a woman I never met? What if she hates it? What if all this time is wasted? But every time I wanted to quit, I would get another sign… my iPhone, buried at the bottom of my purse, would randomly start playing a song, and it would be a John Lennon song I don’t remember ever listening to. Little things like that kept me going. 

I finished the script and I couldn’t get any producer in town to read it or take it seriously. People wanted Beatles music and my project was a story told through original music. I asked the universe for a sign and next thing I knew I was rear-ended on the 134 Freeway and my car was totaled. 

The Hollywood Fringe Festival deadline was a week away and the car insurance gave me $3,000 more than I expected, so I put that money towards the theater and hired a director, my friend Nell Teare. We cast our John Lennon, scrambled to finish the writing/recording of songs and jumped into rehearsals. I had never done theatre before … especially a musical. I have only seen five musicals in my life.

It was thrilling, scary and frustrating. I felt I was being tested and expanded on so many levels.


After only four performances, I had a nomination for Best Female Performance for the Spirit of Fringe in my role as Yoko Ono in Rock and Roll’s Greatest Lovers. People cried and gave us standing ovations, and word traveled so fast we were “standing room only.”

The best part was when strangers came up to me after the show and said “you changed my mind about Yoko,” or, “I didn’t know that about her,” and especially, “I had no idea.”

The more people know about the musical the more people believe in its message. I hope one day even Yoko will get to experience what we’ve created. I know she will see the love that went into it. 

As for my journey, by “Becoming Yoko,” I have come to realize all I have to give as an artist, my purpose, and most importantly, my responsibility as a proud Asian woman storyteller to give voice to this story.

*exercises are from Milton Katselas’s book ACTING CLASS-Take A Seat

Want to be part of the next step in the evolution of Rock and Roll’s Greatest Lovers? Click Here for more information about the show and check out the video below.

Pictured right: Anzu Lawson and her niece Kohana Porter recreating
the iconic photo of Yoko, John and their daughter Kyoko

BEHIND THE SCENES is a unique behind the scenes look at the creative process of artists in Los Angeles. If you would like to submit a pitch for BEHIND THE SCENES, please contact Ellen Dostal at the email address listed Here or visit the profile section.

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