Seattle Children’s Theatre Confronts Xenophobia with “Ben Uchida”
For better or for worse my genetics mean I rarely have to say I'm sorry. I have been given more breaks than many simply because of what, not who, I am ...
It's easy for me to take these things for granted. But as "The Journal Of Ben Uchida - Citizen 13559" so deftly shows, all of this can change in an instant. History repeats itself.
WARNING – THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS!
I was thrilled and more than a little curious when SCT invited BITN to the press preview of their fourth production of the season, “The Journal Of Ben Uchida – Citizen 13559”. I’d noticed it in their lineup some time ago when BITN visited with the SCT for a series of production articles.
“How the hell will they pull this off?” I remember thinking …
I got my answer, and it’s worth a thousand words …
SCT’s production of “Ben Uchida” plays in the Eve Alvord Theatre. It’s the more intimate of the two theatres that SCT has under roof, with a shallow, simple stage, feet from the first row of only 275 bench seats.
It’s the perfect venue for the production. The shallow stage keeps the performers close to the audience, the rows of bench seating dissolve separation between strangers. The result is an added urgency, an intimacy that heightens the personal impact to the subject matter.
“I WAS BORN HERE, I’M FROM HERE. I’M AN AMERICAN …”
Ben Uchida, (played with an honest youthful energy by actor Mikko Juan), opens the show by immediately smashing the fourth wall, directly addressing the audience , explaining that the story is not about him but about his father, Masao (played with heartbreaking optimism by Ray Tagavilla), an Optometrist in San Francisco, himself the child of immigrants.
Perhaps I read too much into it, but to me there is an irony to Mr. Uchida, an eye doctor by trade, wearing his own glasses, who finds solace with his telescope fixed distant stars, while the better, more optimistic angels of his nature are slowly trodden down by events on earth.
Life is by any stretch ordinary when the play opens in December of 1941. Ben is a typical American 12 year old of the time, loves baseball, his school, mildly annoyed and teased by his protective sister Naomi, (a terrific performance by Actress Mi Kang in her SCT Debut), and obedient to his father and his somewhat sterner mother, (played by Annie Yim). Mr. Uchida presents Ben with the journal of the title, (“Write everything down, you’re history in the making!” Mr. Ushida tells his son.).
Scenic Designer Carey Wong’s set design is a simple marvel. He manages to broaden the constrictive nature of the stage through a series of overlapping flats that glide on and off, pushed and pulled by the actors, conveying locale without overwhelming or halting the action. Mr. Uchida’s optometry office, a storefront lined street, the Uchida home, quickly and silently slide into place, angling slightly to create intimacy.
Yet behind this bustle of motion, something solid and heavy lurks, (you can see glimpses, a drab grey wooden slat wall amid the colorful storefronts). When the show moves to the camp, a new set reveals itself; solid, unmoving, unchanging. Set as metaphor; a life in motion ended, a life of standing still begun.
As you watch life unfold for the Uchida’s, a typical American family, a typical combination of paternal love, schoolyard friendship, mild sibling annoyance and blissful ignorance, you can’t help but hear the clock ticking …
Chris R. Walker’s sound design for Ben Uchida is effective, but at times not subtle. I am not certain if it was a convention of Seattle Children’s Theatre, but certain recorded sounds, like the smashing of a teapot, seemed unneeded in the intimate venue. But there is a sound, music, a low tone that punctuates the sense of monotony and claustrophobia of the camps, that sits in your brain while watching, and helps pull your focus.
“AND SOME, I ASSUME, ARE GOOD PEOPLE …”
When the news of Pearl Harbor comes, it’s through the Uchida’s radio. Director Desdimona Chiang uses an interesting convention here. While the radio glows and sputters in the dark, the news is delivered downstage, (by ensemble cast member Conner Nedderson), into a vintage microphone, bathed in noir lighting. Ben listens to the news and speaks at the radio in his confusion.
Then the radio announcer begins to answer him directly, his comments ominous in tone, his warnings bordering on accusation. I could not help but think of the internet and social media of today. Anonymous interaction, faceless accusation.
Things change quickly in the brightly colored world of the Uchida’s. The colorful storefronts are now plastered with anti-Japanese Propaganda. Ben finds himself bullied for his name and appearance. The noose of xenophobia begins to close. A random encounter on the street devolves into racist rants, paranoid accusations. Death threats.
As Mr. Uchida tries to keep his family calm, rationalize the growing tension, it’s Naomi who’s eyes are open. It’s Naomi who has to point to the posters, point to the shift in perception of the people around them.
EXECUTIVE ORDER # 9066
People (hopefully) have enough sense of history to know of the internment camps. But it’s crucial to dip below the surface. It’s convenient to think that the internment camps were amenable, that the country was sympathetic, accommodating, gentle in their handling of the situation.
n fact, it may be possible to take the point of view that this was all necessary. That in the effort to defeat the Japanese it was imperative that the U.S. protect its military industrial infrastructure from saboteurs and spies.
But even a cursory search on the subject reveals a viral campaign of racist propaganda that stoked unreasonable fear in the population towards one segment of it, based solely on the fact that others with the same face had committed an atrocity.
Today, we call them “internment camps.” A more accurate term would be “concentration camps.” They were called exactly that by then-President Roosevelt as he confidently endorsed them. The name “enemy alien internment camps” was also used to describe these centers.
The modern wording stems from how they weren’t the vicious death camps experienced in Europe, which is how most people view concentration camps today. Internees enjoyed weddings, gardening, painting, sports, clubs, and even newspapers. There were no gas chambers. Inmates were not doomed to genocide.
Still, “internment camp” doesn’t do justice to the horrors experienced within them. Japanese Americans were uprooted from their homes and treated like criminals. They experienced enormous loss. They suffered great physical and emotional trauma. A racial minority was concentrated in specific areas for the security of the nation, imprisoned in deplorable conditions, and stripped of their dignity. They were living in concentration camps.
Ben and Naomi are Americans, but their heritage works against them, and the hysteria, real and conflated, lumps the Uchida family into the category of enemy …
The Uchidas are forced to leave their home for the camp. Mr. Uchida sells his shop to a quiet unassuming man. Mrs. Uchida, Naomi and Ben pack their belongings, having to choose the few items they are allowed to take. A simple visit from a neighbor dissolves into a tirade of racially charged accusations over a teapot.
On the train to the camp, Ben continues writing in his journal furiously. Naomi, still defiant, peppers her family with angry questions. The journey to the desert is long, and cramped, and expertly staged by director Chiang, uses the walls and a bench to isolate the cast, parents facing forward, kids amid sparse luggage behind, a single yellow light shining upstage.
The set breaks apart as the Uchida’s arrive at the camp. Gone are the bright walls of the outside world, replaced by a wall of sandy stone upstage, walled off by a thick fence. Scenic Designer Wong pulls no punches; the Uchida’s are in a cage in the desert.
Mrs. Uchida kicks into maternal mode, focusing on the dust, the dirt. Mr. Uchida does his best to keep a calm façade, but in truth there is little he can do to change his families life.
Ben continues to write, and speak to us, his bitterness and indifference slowly bubbling to the surface. He meets a soldier Mike, (Also played by Nedderson), who shows him rare sympathy, connecting through baseball.
Eventually Ben finds himself in the camps school, run by the strict Miss Kroll, (played with a nuance that becomes clear later by Brenda
Joyner), but is restless, questioning the need to learn inside a cage with no door. Ben receives letters from his best friend Robbie, glimpses of what life was like, little league, lizards, normalcy. Ben does not know how to respond, his life reduced to an endless stretch of days …
“THIS IS THE PART OF THE STORY I DON’T WANT TO SAY …”
Ben arrives at his barracks. There is no one there. The air is cold. And it is here he discovers the body of his father, hanging from the barracks rafters, suicide. It is a raw moment for “Children’s Theatre”. Mr. Ushida has reached the end of his calm optimism. His business has been stolen from him, he can’t solve the situation, he cannot save his family. Perhaps it is part of his culture, the taking of one’s own life as a noble act when faced with failure of responsibility.
Lighting Designer Matthew Webb pulls no punches with this moment. A gobo of the dangling Mr. Uchida against the barracks wall. A fearless choice.
Ben, Naomi and Ms. Uchida continue on in the camp for two more years as the war rages on. Upon their release, they attempt to rebuild their lives. Naomi marries and has children, and Ben continues to write and reflect on the time. Eventually he visits Miss Kroll, and it is here we learn that her decision to teach at the camp had come after the death of her husband in the war.
But in the end, it is Ben’s need to connect with is father, to understand what he did, and why. In the final moments, Ben takes us back to the camp. In his mind the place is full of shadows, like a memory. It’s here he confronts his father’s memory in the attempt to say goodbye, to understand, things that he, (and I suspect many adults in the audience), did not have the chance to ask.
As Ben says his final goodbye, the lights dim, replaced by a million stars across the set, the stars that Ben and his father shared in another life long ago.
ENGAGING THE CONVERSATION
SCT Artistic Director Courtney Sale has not produced “Ben Uchida” in a vacuum. This powerful show is part of a much larger outreach program. SCT has partnered with Tom Ikeda, founder and Executive Director of DENSHO, A grassroots organization dedicated to preserving and sharing the story of World War II-era incarceration of Japanese Americans and Beth Takekawa, Executive Director of the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian American Experience.
Together, these organizations have made it their mission to use the story of “Ben Uchida” to highlight not only the Japanese American Experience during WW2 but to open a dialogue with children and their parents about the repeating history we now find ourselves in. As they recently wrote in the Op-Ed section of the Seattle Times;
“We turn to history in order not to repeat it. The tactics used to target and vilify Japanese Americans during World War II are being used in much the same way with American Muslims and other marginalized communities now.”
“Rather than shield our young people from these injustices, we must be proactive in initiating these conversations. We need to be able to sit in these difficult topics. Connected to “The Journal of Ben Uchida,” we are planning four community dinners intended to foster family-to-family dialogue and a panel discussion focused on the generational effects of the Japanese incarceration.”
“These discussions are paramount to our democracy, and we cannot expect them to occur solely in our classrooms.”
“We want to build a passionate and engaged society. One that stands up to injustice in all its many forms. Critical to that effort is beginning with our children. Respected child psychologist Dr. Ava Siegler says the biggest threat young people face is “the destruction of civilizing emotions.” She categorizes those as empathy, morality and self-control.”
“The Journal of Ben Uchida – Citizen 13559” plays at Seattle Children’s Theatre through March 4th. Tickets are available. Click HERE
To Learn more about DENSHO’s mission click HERE
To learn more about the WING LUKE MUSEUM click HERE
“The Journal of Ben Uchida – Citizen 13559” was first presented in 2006 commissioned by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and adapted from the book “The Journal of Ben Uchida: Citizen 13559 Mirror Lake Internment Camp by Barry Denenberg.
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