By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
Cal State L.A.’s production of Wakako Yamauchi’s “12-1-A,” a play set during the internment of Japanese Americans, closed on Nov. 18 with a matinee performance attended by students as well as Nisei who experienced the camps.
After the show, the cast had an opportunity to meet the playwright, who named the play after her actual address at the Poston camp in Arizona. “12-1-A” premiered at East West Players in 1982, long before most of the cast and crew were born, and was revived at UCLA in 1992.
Yamauchi signed copies of the program for the actors and posed for pictures with them. She also answered their questions about the real-life people that were the inspiration for the characters. Like the female protagonist, Koko Tanaka (played by Rocio Diaz), Yamauchi was 17 when her life was turned upside down.
The story deals with a variety of issues that the internees faced. The Tanakas arrive at Poston in the middle of a dust storm and are appalled at the living conditions. They are befriended by Yo (Evelyn Ortiz), whose Issei father is being held in another camp, and Harry (Tintin Nguyen), who is developmentally disabled and mistreated by his father.
Koko falls in love with neighbor Ken (Roland De Leon), who works for the camp administration and is accused of being an inu (informer). Ken clashes with his mother (Ariel Richardson), who insists that Japan is going to win the war.
Koko’s brother Mitch (Christopher Nguyen) is so embittered by the racism he has experienced that he answers “no-no” on the loyalty questionnaire. In order to keep the family together, Mitch and Koko’s mother (Nadine Bedrossian) decides they will all give the same answer and be shipped off to Tule Lake.
Yamauchi said that she initially wasn’t sure if the nontraditional casting would work — many of the cast members were not Asian — but the actors won her over and she thought they did a great job. She also admired the barrack by set designer James Hatfield.
The director and costume designer was G. Shizuko Herrera, who teaches stagecraft and design in the Department of Music, Theatre and Dance. She previously directed two other plays by Yamauchi, “And the Soul Shall Dance” and “The Music Lessons,” both based on the author’s upbringing in the Imperial Valley during the Depression.
The Nov. 15 performance was preceded by a seminar in which Mitch Maki, vice provost at CSU Dominguez Hills and co-author of “Achieving the Impossible Dream: How Japanese Americans Obtained Redress,” asked students how they would feel if, in the name of national security, they were suddenly deprived of their freedom solely on the basis of their affiliation with Cal State L.A., not knowing when or if they would be released. That was the situation Japanese Americans were in 70 years ago, he explained.
Like one of the characters in “12-1-A,” thousands of Nisei served in the Army, fighting for their country overseas while their families remained behind barbed wire back home, Maki said, and many sacrificed life and limb to prove their loyalty.
He described the redress campaign — also a historical event from the perspective of today’s college students — that resulted in President Ronald Reagan’s signing of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which provided an apology and individual compensation to Japanese Americans for the violation of their constitutional rights.
John Esaki, director of the Japanese American National Museum’s Media Arts Center, showed a short documentary about Yamauchi and introduced the Nisei Oral History Project, in which JANM docents share their recollections. Two of the docents, Hal Keimi and Richard Murakami, were in the audience.
During the run of the play, a display in the theater lobby gave background information on the internment.
Dramaturg Josh Fleming, a graduate student at Cal State L.A., wrote in the program notes, “In the immediate wake of Sept. 11, 2001, the parallels drawn to the attack on Pearl Harbor brought the Muslim American community into the same light as Japanese Americans had experienced 60 years earlier … While we did not see the same ‘relocation’ efforts by our government, what emerged was a steep rise in violence and anti-Muslim rhetoric that mirrors the reactions towards the Japanese American community … What Yamauchi shows is therefore just as relevant today as it was 30 years ago when it was first produced …
“You will notice that our cast comes from a wide demographic, because what is important is not how these characters looked. What is important are the emotions, the incidents, and ultimately the event that we carry with us and share with others.”
Photos by JK YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo