Positively Filipino joins the community in paying tribute to Sumi Sevilla Haru, a trailblazer in the labor movement and the entertainment industry. As interim president of the Screen Actors’ Guild (SAG), she was the only woman of color to hold the position. Sumi also became the national vice president of the AFL-CIO, the first Asian American on the labor federation’s executive council. Born Mildred Sevilla, Sumi acted on stage, movies and television. She passed away in Los Angeles last week, October 16, at 75.
We are reprinting an article published in Filipinas Magazine, January 1997, to commemorate her life.-Editors
Haru laughs at the typical post-baby boomers’ reaction to her generation’s eagerness to right every wrong in the world.
“There’s still work to be done,” emphasizes Haru, now Screen Actors’ Guild (SAG) vice president, referring to California’s passage of Proposition 187 and, most recently, Proposition 209, which sets back her own efforts that started back in 1971, when she founded SAG’s Ethnic Employment Opportunities Committee. She also helped author and negotiate affirmative action clauses, into national theatrical and commercial contracts of SAG and sister union American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), such as the “American scene” that requires the inclusion of marginalized groups in the realistic portrayals of American life. Since most producers are still slow to take heed, SAG officials sometimes have to apply pressure. “Employment gets better with meetings with producers,” Haru says.
Her politicization started in 1970, when “Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentleman,” the musical version of the play “Teahouse of the August Moon,” came to Los Angeles, featuring a non-Asian male actor, Kenneth Nelson, in the lead. Adding insult to injury, he appeared in a local newspaper pulling his eyes to the sides, saying, “I shall be pleased to play a straight, slant-eyed Oriental.”
With actors and local Asian, African, Latino and Native American activists belonging to the newly formed Brotherhood of Artists, Haru, who had played Lotus Blossom in the touring show of “Teahouse of the August Moon,” protested in front of the Music Center, the musical’s venue. It galvanized Asian Americans, who established such organizations as Asian American Journalists Association and Association of Asian Pacific Artists.
Haru was born the oldest of two children in 1939 in Orange, New Jersey. She was a model child growing up in Arvada, Colorado, where she was an honor student, a band member, cheerleader and majorette. She even married her childhood sweetheart in 1956, after graduating from the University of Colorado with a music degree.
She considers that period as a time when she was “busy out-whiting the whites,” a phrase she has since learned was used to describe how some Japanese Americans tried to prove themselves model citizens after the U.S. government interned them in camps during World War II. In Arvada, Haru had never heard of the Japanese internment.
Haru’s marriage broke up in 1963. While vacationing in Monterey, California a year later, she was “discovered” and cast by producer Ralph Nelson for “Soldiers in the Rain,” which starred Steve McQueen and Jackie Gleason. A year later, she moved to Los Angeles to seriously pursue an acting career. Her first feature film was “Krakatoa: East of Java” in 1967.
“What happened was that I kept getting cast as a geisha girl,” says Haru. Since the available Asian American roles were limited to mostly non-English-speaking Japanese or Chinese characters, she had to change her Filipino name from Mildred Sevilla to her Japanese stage name, “Sumi Haru.”
Then she got a Japanese-speaking part in the movie “M.A.S.H.,” even though she hardly knew a word of the language. During shooting, she was often running around trying to find a person who spoke Japanese.
In 1969 she joined East West Players, the 30-year-old Los Angeles-based Asian American theater group, “to learn to be ethnic.” She not only learned how to wear a kimono correctly, but also realized her identity, or lack thereof, was a problem. “I was really different,” she explains. “I couldn’t be myself.”
In the late ’60s, she appeared on such TV shows as “The Young and the Restless”, Marcus Welby, M.D.”, “The Partridge Family”, “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Ironsides.” From 1972 to 1989, she hosted five 30-minute shows a week for “Gallery, ’80s Woman, ’70s Woman” on KTLA-TV. She’s especially proud of her role as an attorney in “Hill Street Blues,” which wasn’t cast for an actor of a particular race. If only the world were so perfect.
Although her activism has produced significant industry changes, Haru, currently the coordinator of the performing arts division of the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department, prefers to have a steady acting job. Six years ago, she hoped to capitalize on cable television with a dramatic pilot, “Watch This Space,” about a single mother and her daughter. She spent a year producing the pilot on a shoe-string budget. Cable didn’t take to the concept, but in 1995, she was honored with a Cable Ace Award for her other show, “L.A. Arts Mix.”
Now 57, with her two daughters Connie and Vanda grown up, she considers herself the “matron of the family,” especially after her mother’s death. She proudly carries her maiden name Sevilla. “It gives you a sense of the importance of who you are and where you came from,” says Haru, whose family hails from Ilocos Norte.
Haru is eager to play a woman her age in a dramatic series. In her more than three decades of experience in Hollywood, she knows better than to wait for it to happen.
Meanwhile, as she has said, the work is never done. SAG is currently in the thick of the fight over intellectual property rights and royalties due actors whose images are reproduced on CD-ROM and the Internet. Haru is also a vice president of the AFL-CIO, participating in ten committees, including international affairs, world trade and economic policies. It’s a good sign for the AFL-CIO—Haru is the first Asian and Filipino American on its executive council, where there’s only a total of 15 women and minorities.
Although she has a daunting task ahead of her, Haru comes to any job fully prepared. “I’ve been rehearsing this for 21 years,” she says.
Rachelle Q. Ayuyang was a staff writer at Filipinas Magazine
Highlights of Sumi Sevilla Haru's one-woman show: