TIGER OF MALAYA by Hiro Kanagawa, directed by Ken Gass, with Denis Akiyama, Ginger Ruriko Busch, Aura Carcueva, Ken James and Jordan Pettle. Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst). Previews begin Saturday (October 11), opens October 16 and runs to November 9, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, October 12 at 7 pm, matinee Sunday and November 8 at 2 pm. $25-$34, Sunday pwyc-$25, previews $12. 416-504-9971. Rating: NNNNN
Here's a Toronto theatre trivia question. What Toronto actor fought on the first card that featured boxer George Chuvalo, performed in the first season at the St. Lawrence Centre and, to finance his stage habit, did construction work in 1960 on what's now the World's Biggest Bookstore?
Hint: he's still performing.
The answer is Ken James, who's been in the business for 44 years and is about to appear in Tiger Of Malaya, the season opener at Factory. The piece focuses on Japanese general Tomoyuki Yamashita (Denis Akiyama), who in 1946 was charged with war crimes in the Philippines. James plays Hilroy, one of the two military lawyers hastily commandeered and given the unenviable task of defending Yamashita in front of a victory-crazy Allied public.
We're meeting during James's lunch break to talk about the play and his character, but thoughts about his present role are peppered with anecdotes drawn from his four decades of theatrical experience.
He's not only watched theatre grow in Toronto and Canada, but has been part of that growth.
"When I started in 1959, there was no theatre scene, and only the Crest Theatre was hiring locals," he recalls. "But the so-called amateur theatre scene was vibrant with young people like Martha Henry, Gordie Pinsent, Al Waxman, Sean McCann and me. We all wanted to work."
The Cabbagetown-raised James was an amateur boxer, travelled to England to study theatre, came back to Canada and worked with community groups. His big break, in 1963, was the role of the hulking but simple Lennie in Of Mice And Men at the Crest.
"That's the role that showed others - and me - what I could do as an actor."
Dozens of stage, film and TV roles followed, as well as a couple of ACTRA Awards. His theatre work includes premieres of Jean Marc Dalpé's In The Ring, Jason Sherman's Three In The Back, Two In The Head and the first English productions of Michel Tremblay's St. Carmen Of The Main and The Real World?
"It's new stuff like Tiger Of Malaya and working with young actors that gets me fired up these days," he admits. "I've stopped auditioning for films. I don't want to sell myself any more. It's exasperating watching the people across the desk become younger and younger."
James acknowledges that being a history buff drew him into the world of Tiger Of Malaya. Most people know about the Nuremberg war trials, but few are aware of the parallel event halfway across the world, where Japanese general Yamashita was held responsible for atrocities committed under his command.
"It's been curious to discover the similarities between Hilroy, my character, and Yamashita. Both are military career men affected by world history - who hears about these guys unless there's a war? - and both know that death is around the corner and are ready to accept it."
At first Hilroy appears to be a Southern redneck, but he proves to have a surprising side.
"He comes across as the loud, brash American, but that's something of a front. Hilroy goads people more than encourages them, trying to get their dander up and see what they're made of. Those who don't stand up to him get no respect.
"Hilroy's tactic is to pound the other person and then turn on the charm. He's not even aware of the abrasiveness of his personality."
There was more waggish charm in another of James's favourite roles, the unsophisticated, beer-drinking Stan Wilkes in the CBC soap Riverdale.
"I hoped it would run for 10 years and I could retire on it," he sighs, "but CBC thinks if a show isn't hip and the kind of thing you can talk about at cocktail parties, it's not worth keeping.
"You can't simply dismiss an audience, and for three seasons the show had great reaction across the country. I know I was always stopped by viewers when I was in Canadian Tire or Zellers. It's that working-class group that was the audience backbone for the show."