Manzanar Story Told in a Different Way — by Sopranos

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By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

FRESNO — The internment of Japanese Americans has been depicted in a variety of ways, including novels, films and stage plays. A new interpretation — an opera — was recently presented in downtown Fresno.

The West Coast premiere of “The Sisters of Manzanar” played to a packed house at the Warnors Center for the Performing Arts on May 1. Sponsored by the Central California District Council of the JACL and the California Opera Association, it served as a fundraiser for the Fresno Assembly Center Memorial.

Special guests included actor/activist George Takei, who gave a talk about the internment following the performance.

Clovis Heiwa Taiko performs on the opera set, which includes guard towers. (Photo by J.K. Yamamoto/Rafu Shimpo)

On a stage lined with guard towers like those of the World War II camps, the Clovis Heiwa Taiko Drummers opened the program. Anchor/reporter Monty Torres of KMPH Fox 26 sang the national anthem.

George Takata of CBS 47, a popular sportscaster, welcomed the audience and talked about his own ties to the internment — his grandfather, Tateo, served in the military while his fellow Japanese Americans were being held behind barbed wire. “Can you imagine what he was going through, fighting for our country?” he asked.

Calling the event “a very important day of remembrance for our Japanese American culture,” Takata asked all of the former internees in the audience to stand up and be recognized.

The composer of “Sisters of Manzanar,” Paul Stuart, came from New York to attend the premiere. His operas include “Kill Bear Comes Home” and “The Little Thieves of Bethlehem,” and he previously worked with the California Opera Association as the conductor for “Hänsel und Gretel.” In 2003, while developing the Manzanar opera, he wrote, “By understanding history we understand our failures. By understanding our failures we may overcome our failures. And by overcoming our failures we improve our humanity.”

The stars of the show, Miwako Isano (left) and Lori Rohrs. (Photo by J.K. Yamamoto/Rafu Shimpo)

With Dr. Leanna Sterios-Primiani conducting the orchestra, the opera featured dramatic soprano Miwako Isano as Amy Nomura and soprano Lori Rohrs as her sister Lana. Isano, a resident of San Francisco and a graduate of Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Vocal Music, played the title role of “Madama Butterfly” in the California Opera’s 2010 festival finale at the Met. Rohrs, who is of Japanese ancestry, is a New York resident and recently made her Carnegie Hall and New City Opera debuts. Her credits include the lead role in “Die Zauberflöte” (The Magic Flute), which she will be performing in Italy with the Tuscia Operafestival.

The sisters must cope with the injustice of internment despite being loyal Americans. The country’s political climate is conveyed through visuals and voiceovers representing advocates of internment — President Franklin Roosevelt, Congressman John Rankin of Mississippi, Henry McLemore of the San Francisco Examiner, and California Attorney General Earl Warren.

Amy is raising her son, Robby (played by Ethan Nicolas Kuroda), at Manzanar while her husband, Makoto (voiced by KGPE’s Takata), serves with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team in Europe. She worries about her husband’s safety and the welfare of her son in the camp, where dust storms are frequent and the food is terrible.

One of the songs is about the many ways to prepare liver, which was often served in camp along with other organ meats. Another song focuses on a camp dance, where internees tried to forget their troubles.

The songs also reveal personal issues between the sisters. Lana was in love with Makoto, but he married Amy when she became pregnant. Amy is fearful that Lana will win Makoto back.

Dancer Monique Tajiri-Goldwater performs in front of a replica of the monument in Manzanar's cemetery. (Photo by J.K. Yamamoto/Rafu Shimpo)

Tragedy strikes when Robby suddenly becomes ill and dies. Amy is overcome with grief, and is convinced that Makoto, who is coming home from the war, unaware of Robby’s death, will leave her when he finds out. Despite Lana’s assurances that she will not interfere in the marriage, the sisters have a falling-out.

In the final aria, Amy asks, “Why do the guns point at me?”

Lana, addressing the audience, says, “And at Camp Manzanar there was dust — everywhere.”

A replica of the memorial maker in the Manzanar cemetery, which had been lowered onto the set during the final part of the opera, served as the backdrop as French-Japanese dancer/choreographer Monique Tajiri-Goldwater performed a Japanese dance.

Preserving Internment Sites

Paul Saito, chairman of the Sisters of Manzanar Steering Committee, said that in addition to his roles on “Star Trek” and, currently, “Supah Ninjas” on Nickelodeon, “Mr. Takei is also involved in a lot of human rights causes. He’s very supportive of cultural arts, and he’s done PSAs for the Japan relief fund, so he’s kept very busy.”

The day before the premiere, Saito took Takei and his husband, Brad Altman, on a tour that included the former sites of the Fresno Assembly Center and the Pinedale Assembly Center, where some 10,000 local Nikkei were held before being sent to War Relocation Center camps further inland.

The Pinedale memorial was dedicated in 2009. The Fresno memorial, located at the Fresno Fairgrounds, is about 60 percent completed. It includes a plaza, planters, landscaping, an interpretive wall, and banners. According to Dale Ikeda, chair of the Fresno Assembly Center Memorial Upgrade Committee, about $30,000 needs to be raised to complete the storyboards, fountain, iron work and donor brick border. The goal is to dedicate the memorial at the opening of the Big Fresno Fair on Oct. 5.

“I found that George and I have much in common,” said Saito. “We’re both the same age, we’re both Sansei, and we both went to the Santa Anita Assembly Center … George and I lived in stables. We had a lot of fun playing … The bad thing about it is we had to take those awful, painful tetanus shots …

“George has been so gracious and given us his valuable time to be with us today in order to help us raise the necessary funds to complete the Fresno Assembly Center (Memorial) at the Big Fresno Fair.”

Takei commented, “I was very impressed by the work that’s been done by the assembly center memorial committee in memorializing the place where our internment began … It’s as beautiful as it is enlightening.”

George Takei greets fans during the reception. (Photo by J.K. Yamamoto/Rafu Shimpo)

While watching “Sisters of Manzanar,” he said, “I was struck by how far we’ve come from that dark chapter of American history. We saw this magnificent opera, an opera that was very moving … Lori Rohrs, who played the younger sister Lana, is a granddaughter of internees. There’s a direct connection between today and history …

“At the beginning, George Takata asked internees to stand up, and I looked around and I saw a good number of internees. They were the ones who survived all of the anguish and the pain and the loss of that unjust incarceration, and how far they’ve come from those days. After we were released from the camps, they worked long and hard to first get back on their feet, and then working harder to educate their children and give them a foundation for contributing to America …

“And here we are at this point, gathered together to raise funds to build a memorial … almost 70 years from that time. It’s been a long and amazing journey, and an astonishing story of the Japanese Americans’ resilience and determination to become a part of the mainstream, and to transform a place where they felt so much anguish into a place … to share that story with all of America. Because it is an American story, where our United States Constitution was violated.”

Edna Garabedian, artistic director of the California Opera Association. (Photo by J.K. Yamamoto/Rafu Shimpo)

Takei recounted some of his own experiences, including the day his family had to leave Los Angeles. “I will never forget that scary morning. I just turned 5, and I was looking out the front window of our living room when I saw two soldiers come marching up the driveway. They had sharp-looking bayonets on their rifles … They stomped up our front porch steps and banged on the door. My father answered the door and the soldiers ordered our family out.

“We picked up the luggage that was quickly packed by my parents and we stepped out and we were loaded onto a truck with our luggage. I saw the tears were welling in my mother’s eyes, and across the street was a group of people watching … Years later, when I was a teenager, I learned from my father that they were vultures, people waiting for us to be taken away so that they could loot our home.

“We were taken to downtown Los Angeles, to Little Tokyo … There were many Japanese Americans already assembled, and there was a row of buses. We got off the truck and we were boarded onto a bus, which took us to Santa Anita Racetrack. From the bus we were led by armed guards to the stables, and the guard told us that this horse stall was to be our temporary home while the camps were being built.

“I could smell the horses, and for me it was kind of exciting. I could sleep where the horsies sleep. But for my parents, going from our two-bedroom home into a narrow, smelly horse stall with their three children must have been the most degrading and humiliating experience in their lives.”

At Rohwer in Arkansas, Takei recalled, “we began every school day with a pledge of allegiance to the flag. I could see the barbed-wire fence outside the schoolhouse window and the sentry tower that stood nearby as I recited the words ‘with liberty and justice for all.’ ”

He said the government added insult to injury by imposing a “loyalty questionnaire” after a year of imprisonment, asking internees to “forswear their loyalty to the emperor of Japan” — based on the false assumption that all Japanese Americans were loyal to the emperor.

Takei’s quoted his father, who answered “no,” as saying, “This government took my business, our home, our freedom. The one thing I’m not going to give them is my dignity. I’m not going to grovel before this government.” That answer resulted in the family being sent to the Tule Lake Segregation Center in California, where they remained until 1946.

Now that efforts are under way to preserve camp sites, Takei said, “I think of the lesson my father taught me … He said the American democratic system is the greatest system in the world, but he said both the strength and the weakness of American democracy lies in the fact that it is a true people’s democracy. It can be as great as people can be, but it is also as fallible as people are. That’s why it’s important for all good people to be actively engaged in the process …

“That’s the importance of this project to memorialize the assembly centers, because we have a great history, but we have a history peppered with grave and grievous mistakes.”

Edna Garabedian, artistic director of the California Opera Association, called the event “a dream come true. It has taken us 10 years to have this beautiful day happen. I really think that the success is for our community, our country … As long as I’m here on this earth, I will be marching forward for justice.

Marcia Chung, JACL’s Central California District governor, thanked everyone who made the “beautifully told opera” possible and closed by saying, “It is with honor and respect that we acknowledge those brave Issei and Nisei … who paved the way for us today.”

A VIP reception followed down the street at Frank’s Place, where the sopranos sang and Takei signed autographs for his fans.

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