George Akina sat for a moment in his car outside Roger Rocka's Dinner Theater a couple of Thursdays ago. He was ready to go inside. He "told" his legs to get moving, but they wouldn't oblige. Using only the strength in his arms, he picked each leg up and methodically maneuvered each one out through the open car door.
He stood up, put his weight on his feet and made his way to the theater. It was time for another performance of "The King and I."
Performers often speak of the great energy, the vital life force, to be found when they're in the thrall of live theater. The hurts, the aches, the bad days — those hindrances all seem to melt away when the lights go up.
Akina will testify to that. On that tough Thursday night, when he takes to the stage to play the King in the classic musical, something clicks. He gets his strength. He puts everything he has into this famous Broadway role: He rages. He jokes. He dances. He sings. He soothes. He loves.
And he commands, in several senses of the word. His character, as the stern King of Siam, commands his on-stage subjects. And Akina's "character" — the hard-to-define but tangible combination of traits that define a person, make him who he is — commands a sense of awe in those in the audience who know he's sick.
Akina has Stage 4 prostate cancer that has spread. He was diagnosed a year ago, and the chemotherapy treatment has been tough. But the cancer didn't stop him from completing a two-month run with Good Company Players as Fiona's father and the captain of the palace guard in last year's "Shrek." And it hasn't hindered him in any way from offering a witty, heartfelt and beautifully crafted performance in the leading role in "The King and I," inhabiting the demanding role three times a week (Thursday and Saturday evenings and the Sunday matinee.)
As I sit with Akina in the upstairs dressing-room area at Roger Rocka's on one of his nights off, he projects a calm, kind presence — as different as you can get from the gruff King he portrays so well. He is serious, but glimpses of levity periodically poke through — a trait he's always been able to capture wonderfully on stage in more than a dozen community theater productions.
He has an easy explanation for the way his body steps up when the curtain goes up. "People will have all sorts of reasons for it, but for me, it's been a real God thing," he says. "God's given me the strength and energy and endurance to do what I need to do the part."
Love of theater
Akina, 63, has loved theater since high school. His second play, at Campbell High School, was "The King and I." He played the crown prince.
He was trained in dance and earned a degree in theater from University of the Pacific, and after graduation he moved out of the country to perform with the Modern Dance Company of New Zealand. There he met his wife, Jenny.
They returned to the U.S. after six and a half years, and as life caught up with him — he has three children, ages 25 to 37 — he put his love of theater on hold. In 1990, the family moved to Fresno from the Bay Area. (He wanted to be able to buy a home.) In 2000, after a break from the theater of 25 years, he followed his youngest daughter into a production of "The Music Man" at CenterStage Clovis Community Theatre.
He was rebitten by the theater bug. He's performed in productions for CenterStage, Children's Musical Theaterworks and Reedley's River City Theatre Company. Among his favorite roles: Cogsworth in "Beauty and the Beast" and Mr. Mayor in "Seussical."
The three-month-plus time commitment required for a Good Company Players production always dissuaded him from auditioning there. But with his kids grown and a kinder work schedule, thanks to a new job at Fresno City College in the financial aid office, last year he was ready to dive in. He auditioned for "Fiddler on the Roof" and landed the role of the Rabbi.
He found out about the cancer while in that show.
He didn't miss any performances of "Shrek," his next show, even though the chemotherapy made him frail at times. Some of the choreography had to be changed. "And there were some performances that my voice was quite frail. We worked out ways so that different performers could take different lines," he says.
Through it all, he barreled on. When did he know he wanted to audition to be the King?
"As soon as it was announced," he says.
Akina usually arrives at the theater about an hour and a half before curtain. He checks his props and costumes. (He shares the role with Dindo Dizon, who performs twice a week, Friday and Sunday evenings.) He gets into makeup. Then he becomes "kind of a recluse — reviewing my lines, and mentally prepping."
A few minutes before the show begins, a group backstage prays together. (During our interview, Akina repeatedly sings the praises of the tight-knit cast, both for their support and talent.)
His role is demanding. One tough part physically for him is a scene in which Anna (played by Tess Mize) enters the library to find the King on the floor reading.
"I have to get up from that prone position, hopefully in a very deft manner," he says with a wry chuckle. "Sometimes that's challenging."
The famed "Shall We Dance" scene is a challenge of endurance.
The ending of the play is a potential emotional hurdle as well. (I'm offering a spoiler alert for those who have never seen "The King and I" or who have forgotten the ending.) The King has to say farewell from his deathbed.
It was hard on Akina's children to watch that scene when they saw the show, but for him, that's all it is — a scene.
"I think there's more depth to it because I'm more aware of my own mortality, but I don't think as an actor I approached it any differently. I think there's just more there because of the cancer."
Akina's doctor gave him a "chemotherapy break" during the first part of the show's run so he could perform as unimpeded as possible, but his numbers started going in the wrong direction. So it restarted. He takes four large pills every day.
"The King and I" closes on May 18. As for upcoming auditions — he isn't sure.
"Because of my current physical attributes, the role of Uncle Fester in "Addams Family" is enticing me," he says with a smile, "but I think I'm going to have to focus on treatment for a while."
As we talk, I suggest to him how remarkable his love of the theater is.
"The theater has been life-giving to me," he says. "When I think, what would I be doing if it weren't for 'The King and I' right now, I think I'd be much sicker."
But something about my observation, and his answer, doesn't totally sit well with him. A few days later he emails me this note:
"Yes, I do love theater, but not perhaps in the same way you meant.
"The truth is I love God first above all else. He has given me gifts which I can express on stage. It's when I'm on stage using those gifts that I feel the most fulfilled, most alive, and most in His will. Add to that that my work entertains, engages and touches others and there is nothing else that can surpass it, save the love and support of my wife and children."
"The King and I," through May 18, Roger Rocka's Dinner Theater, 1226 N. Wishon Ave. www.gcplayers.com, (559) 266-9494. $30-$50.