Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Sisters Matsumoto"

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note: entire contents copyright 2000 by Joe Coyne


"Sisters Matsumoto"

by Philip Kan Gotanda
Directed by Sharon Ott

Scenery Design by Kate Edmunds
Lighting Design by Nancy Schertler
Original Music by Dan Kuramoto
Costume Design by Lydia Tanji
Sound Design by Jeff Mockus
Production Stage Manager Tanya Gillette
Assistant Stage Manager Printha K. McCallum

Grace..........................Kim Mayori
Rose........................Sala Iwamatsu
Chiz.............Christine Toy Johnson
Hideo....................Nelson Mashita
Bola.................................Stan Egi
Henry..............................Ryun Yu
Mr. Hersham...........Will Marchetti


Despite its multiple faux-endings, "Sisters Matsumoto" at the Huntington Theatre Company is powerful theater, both for its historical placement: the sad moments in US history of the internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry, and its better story, the positivism in the rebirth of a family. I originally had the word "American" in front of the word family, but this is a universal story and it is not needed. This country's xenophobic confusion of the words "American Citizens" with the word "Japan" only makes the setting unique to this play.

The better story the playwright tells is the generational one; focusing on past shadows to gain insight to a better future. If we know anything at play's end, we know that all the Matsumoto sisters and their brothers will survive and continue to be productive citizens. This is not the case in another assimilation play up and running, "Kindertransport" at the New Repertory Theatre in which the setting obscures the generational conflict. "Sisters" leads us into self considerations, while remains a story, outside many of us.

I was first introduced to the details of the Japanese interment atrocity in British Columbia at a small town named Sandon where some 22,000 Canadian citizens were relocated. Many were from urban Vancouver where the average annual temperature is about 30 degrees higher than it was in their camp; a regenerated ghost town from gold prospecting days where the annual snowfall is measured in meters. Degrees and meters are but several of the measurements of the effects of that atrocity and the least important. In most cases Canadian relocations lasted until 1949, five years after the war. An uprooting of lives, a disregard of humanity, a concentration camp horror.

Of the US experience, it was Harold Ickes, Secretary of the Interior at the time who admitted what we called relocation camps were in reality nothing other than American concentration camps. Statements by some of the US architects of the misnamed 'relocation' proved government complicity:

- internment was "ill advised, unnecessary and unnecessarily cruel." - Francis Biddle, an advisor to FDR -
"evacuation" cases in which I joined the majority decision pronouncing internment legal "was ever on my conscience" - William O. Douglas -
"an inhuman mistake" and "I can't sleep and do this job" - Milton Eisenhower head of the War Relocation Board for its initial four months
- "I have since deeply regretted the removal order and my own testimony advocating it, because it was not in keeping with our American concept of freedom and the rights of citizens." Earl Warren

But these are just additional words on a history pile covering an unexplored portion of our recent past.

The playwright, Mr. Gotanda assists us in exploring internment further with this story of three sisters returning from an internment camp in Arkansas to their family homestead in the agricultural valley near Stockton, California. Grace, the eldest and Chiz, the middle sister, are married respectively to a former college professor and to a doctor. With their unmarried sister, Rose and Chiz's new born child they work to reclaim and rework the farm in the days after their release. Their adjustment to the changes is seen through the different perspectives of the individuals: some bitter against the United States, some recommitting to outAmericanize the haole loyalists.

Mr. Gotanda best writing is not of the internment. He is best when he has the dead intrude on the living; ghosts reaching in through the open structure, speaking to reflective characters who are trying to cope with the present. Speaking to them of separation, loss, omission. Of betrayal. Processes we can identify with. Whether it be badmitten, basketball badges or an out of season snowfall.

Little is spoken about the horrors that could be told. He writes of the family condition and of the ghosts haunting all of our lives and of unspoken motivations. Many of the incidents that haunt the sisters could and did happen to other Stockton residents: their human condition is different not special. Each of the sisters holds a different position. Grace has subjected to the order of familial obedience and is now question who she is and where she fits in. Played by Kim Miyori, she promotes a haughty feeling combined with the weightiness of the head of family burden. We believe her when she questions her new role unburdened of excessive pride.

Rose attempts to void the sadness of a planned life that did not work out and to reach out again and experience the cruel world. Sala Iwamatsu portrays Rose confused and wanting. Delightful in the scenes with Henry (Ryun Yu), a former childhood friend, we watch Ms. Iwamatsu physically gain in confidence as she effectively and coyfully announces her reentry and focuses on the future. Mr. Yu has Henry both youthful and wise. His timing on announcing constructive additional possibilities for the family, reflect his inventive exuberance and shyness. Mr. Yu is also enjoyable to watch as the butt of what should win Mr. Gotanda the award for the most laughs obtained from a single line. (It is five with two indirect) We are caught each time and Mr. Yu's (the ringworm boy) posturing makes it all the more effective.

It is the third sister, Chiz's passionate adoption of the trappings of a different life without realizing it as a total rejection of patrimony. It is this sister that unnames her children of their Japanese middle names, who rushingly returns to the Country Club and so stacks the deck in favor of brandname America. If there are problems to be anticipated it is with Chiz. Here Mr. Gotanda has isolated someone as the least optimistic character in the play. Separately he has indicated that while not autobiographical, Chiz is closest to his mother's posture.

Stan Egi plays Bola, a wild Hawaiian of Japanese descent married to Chiz. Imitating the others, pouring the booze, reading the two papers in pantomime, telling of the fight scene at the country club; he gets some great bits and executes them well, over and above the written lines. He rolls along and defeats the stereotype of any doctor. Between his choice of spam and what could be attempted murder, he has us laughing.

The incidental music by Dan Kuramoto established and ended some scenes. Too often is was overridden by the distinctly American jazz to little purpose. Through its strange harmonies, it reminded us of the Japanese aspect of the play as Americanization of the sisters was at times complete.

This is the third production of the play with essentially the same cast. The set, newly designed for this production, is a surrealistic open house serving for all the interior scenes. Despite the spoken words to the opposite, the house has not been left a mess, nor is it leaking. It is too fine for a farm house and the former wealth of the Matsumoto family is clearly evident. While it was Mr. Gotanda's choice, with three such strong daughters, I wondered what more there was than hair to Mrs. Matsumoto. But in like cases we have no information on Mrs. Lear or Mrs. Prospero,

Only with additional information was I able to work out some financial plot lines in the story. Clarification should not have been needed and a few lines of text could clarify the action.

In two of the discussions of the play that Huntington sponsored (there is an additional one on January 19th with the cast) emphasis was placed on the economic causes of the internment rather than with the resultant "division of the spoils" concept after the facts. We know the family has an emergency fund and with the large house that could be sold for $35,000, it indicates an estate of the house alone in today' terms of over $330,000. While this is not a Gatesian some of money, it is too significant to be ignored. I find it hard to believe that Mr. Gotanda was not acutely aware of this impression and wanted us to be more concerned with the human impact and costs than the economic ones.

Bola captures the strongest political rebelliousness of the play with his demand that the neighboring farmer get off OUR land. The "our" land may well be America. Those not living by its creed should be the ones to leave.

With apologies to R Frost from his 14 stanza poem, "America Is Hard To See", I have modified very little in this two stanza adaption of what Frost said was a foundation of his political philosophy. It still applies.

To all the modern works of man,
And all we call American
Designs of governmental plan
Attacked again our Asiatic clan,
Still tired of being looted
While having its beliefs disputed.

America is hard to see,
less partial witnesses than we
In play on play have testified
They could not see it from outside,
Or inside either for that matter
We know their liberal chatter

J. Coyne


"Sisters Matsumoto" (till 30 January)
HUNTINGTON THEATRE COMPANY
264 Huntington Ave., BOSTON
1(617) 266-0800

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