What does an internment camp look like through a boy’s eyes? Playwright Naomi Iizuka’s earnest and moving play talks about a Japanese American family exiled in their own country.
Seattle Children’s Theatre might have the most lively post-show Q&A sessions in the city. During most adult theater talk-backs, the conversation goes something like the following.
Audience member: Blah blah, bloviate-with-a-thin-veneer-of making-it-seem-like-I’m-contextualizing-a-non-question, blah blah, show-everyone-how-much-I-know, blah.
Actor: Um … I didn’t hear a question. What are you asking?
‘The Journal of Ben Uchida: Citizen 13559’
Through March 4 at Seattle Children’s Theatre, 201 Thomas St., Seattle; $18-$39 (206-441-3322 or sct.org). Special events: a conversation with internment-camp survivors Feb. 18 following the 4:30 p.m. performance, and post-show dinners with “family-to-family” conversations on Feb. 17 and 24 and March 3 following the 4:30 p.m. performances.
But the kids know how to ask succinct — and tough — questions.
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At a recent performance of the movingly earnest “Journal of Ben Uchida: Citizen 13559” (a story about a Japanese-American family exiled to an internment camp, by hard-hitting playwright Naomi Iizuka), the inquiries from tiny voices came quickly and crisply.
A few samples: “Are any of you wearing wigs?” “Did your character actually die?” Then the biggie, for Ray Tagavilla, who plays the tragic father of the Uchida family — a good-natured optometrist who keeps a sunny faith in American decency until he arrives at the bleak, dusty internment camp and swirls down the psychological drain into a silent, heavy depression.
Then he kills himself. We see his death briefly, in silhouette, as a hanged man Ben finds in his family’s barrack.
The tiny audience member asked, in a squeaky voice: “How did the dad kill himself?”
Tagavilla blew out his cheeks, furrowed his brow and made a face that seemed to telegraph: Okay. Here we go. “In rehearsals, we asked ‘why,’ ” Tagavilla said, skirting the “how.” “When you get depressed and don’t talk to someone, sometimes that can happen.”
Another tiny voice piped up from the back of the theater. “He got hanged!”
Courtney Sale, SCT’s new artistic director, said the suicide question comes up at every show: “We felt like if we pulled back on that moment (of showing the father’s death), we’d be taking care of the adults. But the kids are ready to talk about it.”
But, she added, everyone spent a lot of time and “lost a lot of sleep” thinking about how to deal with the inevitable question.
Through a simple theater-critic lens, “Ben Uchida” is not complex. It documents Japanese-American internment through the eyes of a kid and hits most of the notes you’d expect. Boy is happy and naive, Pearl Harbor gets bombed, the neighbors turn threateningly racist, the family is shipped off by train to the camp, boy meets tough-love teacher in the camp, boy grows up and writes the story we all just watched.
But a few of the performances — and the shape-shifting set by Carey Wong, which involves lively storefronts and at-home facades, and then hits us with the barren stage of the camp — have moments of transcendence.
Mikko Juan, as our narrator Ben, is a goofball kid navigating a broken world who kicks off scenes with cheerful, direct-address questions to the audience: “Do you ever tell a lie and the person, they just believe you?”
But the real character arcs belong to his older, adolescent sister Naomi (Mi Kang) and his father Masao (Tagavilla). Kang and Tagavilla give gut-punching performances. They both start as anodyne: the moody older sister, the father who scolds with a smile. Then, as they begin to feel the weight of an increasingly racist, wicked world on their shoulders, Kang and Tagavilla transform. His shoulders slump, the paternal laugh gives way to sentences that trail off in ellipses. She, in turn, becomes more defiant and angry, and begins to ask tough questions.
Midway through the play, as the family waits for their exile train, she fingers the ID tag attached to her jacket and demands: “Why are we being sent away?”
It’s a marvelous moment — Kang asks with all the honest petulance of a teenager. You can see Tagavilla stiffen and freeze. The optimistic optometrist doesn’t have a quick, comforting answer to her thorny question.
Roughly an hour later, during the Q&A, you could feel the adults in the audience stiffen and freeze in the same way when that small, squeaky voice asked about his character’s death.
I would venture that the answer to both questions — why the family was sent away, what ultimately led to the father’s demise — is the same: bigotry, fear and despair.
Even if “Ben Uchida” is not Iizuka’s strongest work, the mere fact that it unleashes those questions is reason enough to see it.