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My Turn

by Dmae Roberts


Ken Yoshikawa plays Ben in The Journal of Ben Uchida: Citizen 13559. The play, presented by Oregon Childrenís Theatre, opens February 29 at the Dolores Winningstad Theatre in downtown Portland. (Photo/Owen Carey)

From The Asian Reporter, V30, #03 (February 3, 2020), pages 6 & 8.

Remembering February 19

For the past few months, Iíve been preparing to direct The Journal of Ben Uchida: Citizen 13559 by Naomi Iizuka at Oregon Childrenís Theatre (OCT). Iíve met with designers about the creative aspects of the production as well as consultants to get the cultural authenticity right. Weíre now in rehearsals. Itís an honor to work with the cast and creative team and focus on telling this important story about a time when citizenship was revoked from Americans.

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized the removal of Americans of Japanese ancestry, many of whom were U.S. citizens living on the west coast of the country. More than 120,000 Japanese Americans were forced from their homes under armed guard and sent to faraway prisons in bleak areas, primarily deserts and other isolated locations.

Originally, President Roosevelt appropriately called them concentration camps, but they were changed to the euphemism "internment camps." Japanese-American organizations such as Seattleís Densho and Portlandís Japanese American Museum of Oregon (formerly the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center) are now pushing for more accuracy in the terminology used for the shameful acts during World War II. The U.S. government also called it "relocation" rather than the forced removal of Japanese-American families. The use of "internment camps" made them sound more hospitable than they were; though they were not the Nazi death camps of the time, the conditions were harsh and cold. More than 1,800 Japanese Americans perished from medical issues, with about 11% of those dying due to tuberculosis.

As difficult as this painful past is to talk about for Japanese Americans who have this experience in their family history, the account of how Americans lost their citizenship and were rounded up and placed into camps is sadly topical today. Itís one of the reasons why I wanted to direct a youth play that presents one familyís journey from the Nihonmachi (Japantown) of San Francisco. The play documents the betrayal of their friends and neighbors, the loss of their home and business, and their forced removal to a desert in the middle of nowhere.

At the start of the play, Ben Uchida is an ordinary 12-year-old kid who loves baseball. He has a protective and spirited older sister, a proud father who is an optometrist with his own shop, and a mother ó a picture bride who blossomed into a steel chrysanthemum who tries to hold the family together amid crises. Through the one-hour play, we see a neighborhood that was once friendly change into one fuelled by hysteria and racist newspaper headlines following the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

After the Uchida family loses nearly all of their possessions, they are housed at a camp with seemingly endless barracks surrounded by barbed-wire fences. The family is forced to endure stark conditions ó dusty and windblown in the summer and freezing throughout the winter ó and they fracture under the desolate circumstances. The father ultimately pays the most heartbreaking cost by ending his own life. But the play shows how the other family members survive and how the ghosts of the experience still linger and haunt them.

I commend Oregon Childrenís Theatre for choosing to portray this history to its young audiences and their families. The World War II incarceration experience of Japanese Americans is not taught as thoroughly as it should be. To advise on the study guide, I suggested Dr. Linda Tamura, professor emerita of education at Willamette University, who is also the dramaturge guiding us on the history, as well as performing artist and activist Chisao Hata, who has created many works about this time period. Both women had family members who were incarcerated in the camps during the war.

Chisao is also the choreographer on the production. Another Japanese American, John Kashiwabara, is the scenic designer. Our cast features three Japanese Americans playing family members ó Ken Yoshikawa as Ben, Jenna Yokoyama as his sister Naomi, and David Loftus who plays the father, Mr. Uchida. Jenna and David also have family members who experienced American concentration camps. Another Asian Americans on the project is Sumi Wu, who plays the mom. Both Sumi and Ken speak Japanese. Samson Syharath ó whose family members, Lao refugees, came to the U.S. after the Vietnam War ó is our associate director. Two other Asian American/Pacific Islanders working on the project are Jennifer Lin, a prolific and respected lighting designer, and Lawrence Siulagi, also a praised actor and director, is our sound designer.

I couldnít hope for a better cast or creative team. Samson and I were brought in for the project by longtime artistic director Stan Foote, who has since retired. Itís a pleasure to work with Oregon Childrenís Theatre as the playís director. Marcella Crowson, the theatreís interim artistic director, and managing director Ross McKeen are two people who are committed to intelligent and relevant plays with the highest production values, and they also place high regard on the importance of cultural and historical authenticity. Every concern I had was met with respect. My request for consultants was honored. I feel we have everything we need to direct a beautifully crafted, accurate production of this much needed narrative. Two evening shows, March 6 and 13, will also include post-show panels with camp survivors.

Iím filled with pride about The Journal of Ben Uchida, which will be featured February 29 through March 22 at the Dolores Winningstad Theatre, located at 1111 S.W. Broadway in Portland. I hope thousands of young people, their families, and Japanese-American survivors of the World War II incarceration experience (and their descendants) witness a story that sheds light on a history that should never happen again. Even though, at this moment, some former incarceration camps are being used to house refugee seekers and children, it is with the highest hope that executive orders such as 9066 revoking citizenship to loyal Americans will remain a tragic anomaly.

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