#NaBloPoMo Day 5: Theatre Esprit Asia’s “Dust Storm”


The BlogHer prompt for National Blog Posting Month Day 5 is:

Friday, June 7, 2013
Tell us a story from your family history.

I have many, many stories I’ve written based on stories I’ve heard from both sides of my family tree. On my mother’s side, many of you know some of the stories, either through this blog or through stories I fictionalized in The Red Kimono.

On my father’s side, I’ve written several short stories based on stories my grandmother used to tell:

  • The Day We Lost Cherry for Good – the story of the untimely death of the family cow.
  • Marler Mischief – the story of the day my dad and his brothers decided to send one of their younger brothers up a tree before they proceeded to cut it down for a wild ride.
Theatre Esprit Asia

Theatre Esprit Asia

Dale Li as "Seiji"

Dale Li as “Seiji”

But today, this prompt provides me an opportunity to talk about a play I saw last night, Dust Storm, presented by Theatre Esprit Asia, the first Asian theater in Colorado. Though the one-man play, performed by Dale Li, was not specifically a story in my family’s history, it took place at Topaz Relocation Center, which is one of the internment camps in which my mother and her family were interned during World War II.

I’ll admit, though I’d been looking forward to seeing the play for several weeks, with the seven-hour drive from Santa Fe to Denver that immediately preceded our arrival at the theatre, I was a little concerned that I might have a hard time staying awake. I’m notorious for falling asleep during movies, plays and operas, regardless of how interesting they may be.

When we walked into the theater, we were immediately charmed by the ambiance of the intimate setting. The Vintage Theater seats approximately 50 people, so it is small enough that the every member of the audience is very close to the stage and the actor.

Shadows of barbed wire shone on a single chair in the center of the stage and a mournful Japanese flute played as we waited for the play to begin.

I settled into a comfortable seat right in the middle of the room and again, (especially being in such close proximity to the stage) worried about falling asleep. How rude it would be, after the invitation to see the play, if the actor were to see me struggling to stay awake.

Chiura Obata

Chiura Obata

When Mr. Li first entered the stage, he immediately commanded our attention as “Seiji,” with his stage presence and voice. His eyes sparkled with tears as his jaw tensed, his lips quivered. He began his monologue with anger toward an artist from his community, Chiura Obata. (In real life, also a former internee of Topaz.)

Through most of the play, Seiji deals with anger and resentment toward Obata for his success in the Caucasian community. I saw this anger as a representation of Seiji’s frustration with himself for his own inability to “fit in”–to be accepted as an American–in addition to his anger with the “white” Americans and the government for its treatment of Japanese Americans.

Throughout the play, images of Obata’s artwork flashed on the screen, images of Topaz, of the internees in their daily activities — a poignant stage setting, elegant in its simplicity.

obata

I can’t say enough about how Mr. Li drew us into the character, into the scenes, into the heart of Seiji. Perhaps it was because we were seated so close to the stage that we were able to be a part of the play. Of course, that intensified each scene, but real due must be given to Mr. Li’s acting: his voice, small movements to express emotion–gritting his teeth, swallowing hard, moist eyes,  and huge movements–striding across the stage in anger or excitement, dancing and leaping in his moments of enthusiastic joy. Also, he was able to become “the voice” of several other characters, bouncing back and forth between Seiji and those he confronted: his father, his mother, an FBI agent, Hammerhead–a “No No Boy,” and finally, Mr. Obata himself.

In several parts of the play, I was struck by the similarities in the story of Seiji and my character in The Red Kimono, Nobu. Both were seventeen. Both were from Berkeley. Both dealt with issues of isolation and being forsaken, as with the loyalty questionnaire. Both were “No No Boys.” Both stared at birds in the sky, wondering what it was like to be free.

Not once did I ever come close to falling asleep. As a matter of fact, I sat forward in my chair, drawn into each scene. And at the end of the play, when Obata gently confronts Seiji about his feelings, I sat back with chills.

Obata asked Seiji if he’d been involved in the beating that had taken place upon Obata. Seiji, of course, had been involved, but responded only with silence. Somehow, Obata sensed that it may have had to do with the way he had answered Questions 27 and 28 of the Loyalty Questionnaire. Obata had answered “yes, yes” and Seiji had answered “no, no.” Seiji resented, even hated Obata for his “yes, yes” answer.

Click here to read Questions 27 and 28 of the Loyalty Questionnaire.

Obata explained to Seiji that he answered “yes, yes” because although he and his wife would be fine if the U.S. government sent them back to Japan if he had answered “no, no,” he could not give answers that would also cause his children, who were born in American, to be sent to Japan. And so, he answered Questions 27 & 28 as “yes, yes.”

Obata asked Seiji: “So, was I right to answer ‘yes, yes’? Of course I was.”

Then, after thinking for a moment, Obata asked, “Was I wrong to answer ‘yes, yes’? Of course I was.”

Obata’s two questions struck me, as they did Seiji. So many things in life aren’t all right and aren’t all wrong.

As the play closed, and Mr. Li as Seiji described the later years of his life, his eyes again glistened with tears. At last, they fell down his cheeks. When the play ended, the moment seemed almost too powerful to taint with applause, but we applauded anyway.

Thanks to Theatre Esprit Asia and Dale Li’s performance, for two hours, the fifty people who filled the theater had all become Japanese American internees.

This entry was posted in Hate, History, Japanese Culture, NaBloPoMo, Prejudice, The Red Kimono and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to #NaBloPoMo Day 5: Theatre Esprit Asia’s “Dust Storm”

  1. Wow, Jan, so powerful I wish I could see this play. Such an interesting perspective as I can’t imagine anyone being angry at Chiura Obata who captured so beautifully through illustrations the scenes of the internment camp when no photos were allowed. And gave art lessons to the internees. I have the book “Topaz Moon” about his life and art of the internment. His famous architect son lives in our city, saved from internment by a local university which welcomed Nisei students. I need to get this play to show here!

  2. Maria Cheng says:

    Thanks, Jan, for your kind words about our production. And thank-you for your insightful comments on the post show talk-back panel. Wish I had more of a chance to talk to you on Thursday. We thought you would come on Friday. If you are still in Denver, please come to our show tonight at 8pm!

    • Jan Morrill says:

      Hi Maria,

      I was at your wonderful performance on Friday night. Wow. It was amazing. All three of us thoroughly enjoyed your beautiful act. I especially enjoyed the parts that included your grandfather. I know it was probably hard to see through the stage lights, but I was the one who asked if you ever were able to go back to China to visit your grandfather. I also waited for a bit to say “hello” afterwards, but you had others waiting to talk to you.

      I hope to see you again soon. Both nights’ plays were so inspiring to me.

      Best regards,
      Jan

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