By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS, Rafu Arts & Entertainment
Kurt Kanazawa hopes the upcoming production of “Nothing Is the Same” leaves audiences filled with the aloha spirit – and much more.
“Friendship can overcome war, that we know, but many people don’t realize that war can sometime tear apart even the best of friends,” Kanazawa said, in discussing his role in the play that opens Jan. 19 at the Sierra Madre Playhouse.
“Kids are often like Teflon, they can handle more trauma than we think,” he explained, “And that’s important for adults to see.”
“Nothing Is the Same” opens as a comedic, coming-of-age tale of four youngsters in 1941 Honolulu, playing marbles and enjoying their carefree lives. Their world – and the entire globe with it – is turned upside-down when the Japanese launch a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.
Kanazawa plays Mits, the Japanese Hawaiian boy who eventually becomes the object of suspicion once the attack is under way. As his friends are uncertain about his loyalty to his home and Japanese Americans on the mainland are being sent to detention camps, questions arise about friendships, country and what is sacred.
“War, of course, is one of the themes, through the eyes of an 11-year-old,” Kanazawa said. “It’s a story that many Hawaiians knew all too well, but it can also resonate with the 9/11 generation.”
Kanazawa’s grandmother is one who intimately knew the tragedy of the war. Born on the Big Island, Shimeji Kanazawa was working on Oahu at the time of the Dec. 7, 1941 attack. Once war was declared by the United States, she was hired by the Swedish Consulate as a liaison, to aid communication between the military and Hawaii’s large Japanese population, and to help ensure the tenets of the Geneva Convention were followed.
Having moved to Oahu only four months earlier, she was hastily hired by the consulate without so much as a meeting.
“[A neighbor] told us there was a war on and that the Japanese attacked. We thought she was fooling us, but then we went outside and I saw the Japanese emblem on the planes and I knew it was true,” she said in a 2005 interview.
She explained that her brother, Toratsugu, was already in the Army and immediately grabbed his rifle and reported for duty. He later served with the famed 100th Infantry Battalion.
Known to many as the “Florence Nightingale of Hawaii,” Shimeji also accompanied internees as they were loaded aboard ships to the mainland, to be detained in internment camps.
She worked for decades on commissions on aging, including those of Presidents Carter, Reagan and Clinton. Before her passing in 2014, she received an honorary doctorate from the University of Hawaii, which will hold an event in her honor on Feb. 10.
Kurt Kanazawa said his grandmother’s legacy is central to the themes and goals of “Nothing Is the Same,” and he is especially proud of the warm island spirit conveyed in the play.
“The whole thing is spoken in Pidgin, Hawaiian Creole,” he explained. “It might take audiences a few minutes to get accustomed to it, but honestly, you can’t listen to Pidgin and not smile.”
The play is written by Y York, the prolific author of some three dozen plays. Though a work of fiction, she acknowledges that “Nothing Is the Same” was informed by oral histories of those who lived through the turbulent era’s events.
The production is directed by Tim Dang, who guided East West Players for 13 years and is the group’s producing artistic director emeritus.
The play premiered at the Honolulu Theatre for Youth, after being developed at the Kennedy Center’s New Visions/New Voices Festival. After touring for two seasons in Hawaii, the original production moved to Seattle Children’s Theatre for an additional three months. The play is the recipient of the Hawaii Governor’s Award for Literature.
“Nothing Is the Same” opens Jan. 19 at the Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. For more information, call (626) 355-4318 or visit www.sierramadreplayhouse.org.
Several public events will be held in conjunction with the opening of “Nothing Is the Same,” including a Jan. 21 panel discussion with Naomi Hirahara, Amy Uyematsu and Mitchell Maki, and Hula in the Street on Jan. 28, and a Hawaiian crafts workshop on Feb. 19.