Letter from camp

Philip Gotanda's new play examines the aftershocks of war on a Japanese-American family.

THE IMPRISONMENT OF Japanese Americans in a series of internment camps from 1942 to 1945 is one of the darkest episodes of American history. Fueled by racism, paranoia, and jealousy, towns and cities across America allowed zealots in the government to turn thousands of law-abiding citizens into prisoners of war. Reputedly designed in part to "protect" their prisoners from anti-Japanese sentiment, the camps in fact gave unscrupulous whites the opportunity to profit off internees' absence via land grabs and out-and-out theft.

Sisters Matsumoto

Seattle Repertory Theater

ends February 13

The Sisters Matsumoto attempts to look at how the world changed during those three years for those held prisoner. It focuses on three sisters and their families: Grace (Kim Miyori) and her bookish husband, Hideo (Nelson Mashita); Chiz (Lisa Li) and her hot-headed husband, Bola (Stan Egi); and Rose (Michi Barra), the youngest sister, who is eventually wooed by the Matsumotos' neighbor Henry (Ryun Yu). When they attempt to return to their farm in Stockton, California, and the life they had known before the war, they discover that everything has changed. Traditional family items, from kimonos to prayer cabinets, have been damaged or destroyed by vandals. Their fields have been left untilled. Rose's fianc頨as been killed in the war. And eventually we learn that their home has been sold out from under them by their father, who died in the camp.

Perhaps most disturbing is the loss of whatever feeling of acceptance by the larger community they may have had before the war. Now, the covert racism of prewar times has become overt.

This is a solid ensemble cast with some above-average performances. Barra, who was disastrously kittenish as a member of the Red Brigade in Intiman's Red last season, is much more effective as the sweet and innocent Rose, and Miyori's Grace has a quiet dignity that often stands in contrast to the busy and noisy characters around her. Egi as Bola skillfully walks a thin line between the family funny guy and a thoughtful survivor. Director Sharon Ott shows her customary talent for handling a large ensemble, and while the characters rarely reveal themselves to be anything more than comfortable family stereotypes, she does allow the actors time for some subtle and interesting interplay. The only element that's at odds with the production is Stephen LeGrand's entirely inappropriate music, which swells up during scene changes and the occasional bit of melancholic emotion, and makes you wonder if the Rep is seeking sponsorship from a local "smooth jazz" station.

The play moves along rather sedately for its two and a half hours, chronicling the standard arguments, feuds, affections, and rivalries of any large American family. But while this melodrama is all pleasant enough, it's surprisingly uneventful. By focusing his story on the aftermath of the internment, Gotanda robs his play of much of its drama and nearly all significant action. The Matsumotos travel not from prosperity to poverty (as many of their contemporaries did), but from middle-class comfort to lower-middle-class struggle. The dramatic progression of the piece is from wistful melancholia to cautious optimism, with all avenues for violence or tragedy closed off. The play makes the internment camps seem to have been at worst a minor inconvenience to this family, a mere blip in the upward economic trek toward prosperity.

Why does Gotanda undercut the actual drama of history? I have a suspicion, and it's not a pleasant one. For quite some time, the larger stages in Seattle have featured a peculiar brand of multicultural theater, one that focuses on the lives of ethnic minorities in a manner that emphasizes their middle-class American values. The most radical assertion in this play—that the Asian-American forces sent into battle in Europe were a public relations ploy to defuse racist hostility—would scarcely raise more than a shrug from most audiences today.

What we have here is principally a multicultural safari for white, largely middle-class audiences. It presents the comforting idea that their values of hard work, close families, and economic shrewdness can prevail over racial and cultural divides, if only all races would share them. In this world view, all Asian-American families are like the Matsumotos, all African-American families like the Cosbys. One would hope that contemporary theater is not just about reflecting the complacent values of its audiences back at them with faces of a different hue.

 
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