Friday, January 29, 2016
Musically and structurally, it is not the strongest of shows--I've seen worse (Whistle Down the Wind, anyone?)--but emotionally it was extremely powerful, especially in light of current world events with Syrian refugees and the vitriol spewed against them (and Mexicans and Muslims and women and people with disabilities) by Trump. The musical follows one Japanese-American family's experiences and reactions to its experiences when they are incarcerated in miserable circumstances after Pearl Harbor; the son is very patriotic and joins the Army but the daughter comes to resist the internment, pulling their family apart and separating them for the rest of their lives. Gaman, a Japanese word from Zen Buddhism meaning "to face the unbearable with dignity and patience"--a kind of mindfulness in the face of crisis--is a key tenet (and song.) The show also addresses the worth and dignity of all human life, the importance of social justice, the scourge of racism, difficult decisions in times of war, standing up for one's beliefs, the nature of loyalty and allegiance; you could say it's a very Unitarian Universalist musical. But it doesn't give easy answers--both the patriotic son, the resistant daughter, and ancillary characters are often sympathetic--and, even though there is a technically happy ending (when the now aged son is reunited with his niece), as Bud put it, "it wasn't a very happy show."
The performances were marvelous, though. Takei, of course, is best known for Star Trek and his work as a gay rights advocate and now leading cultural figure. He was in turn funny as the old grandfather and touchingly tragic as the aged Army soldier son. Salonga, whom Mama saw in Miss Saigon some 22 years ago, has an amazing voice and sings many of the show's most touching songs. And Leung was an exuberant and then devastated young man.
Best yet, we got to hear from all three of them after the show! It was fascinating to hear them talk about the different iterations of the show. Apparently at some point there were two brothers and no sister, a mama, the nurse was actually just the daughter of the warden, Sammy was a minor character with asthma who only had one song. Leung talked about all the changes in the six years he's been with the workshop and the show. Salonga talked about how her Chinese-Japanese husband has relatives who managed not to be sent to camps because they moved to Colorado where the governor refused to lock anyone up. And of course Takei talked about the seat he is leaving open for Trump to come learn about the very real effects of discrimination and racism in our world today (Trump even recently said he would have supported the camps during WWII.) I saw the seat--it was down the row from us during the talk-back--and it had remained empty. It wasn't very long, but it added an extra-dimension to the narrative and to our understanding of the process of the creation of musical.
On another note, beyond my beliefs in social justice and anti-racism and my appreciation for Takei's work (I've donated to Takei's legacy project), I was just so glad to see a musical about, created by, and performed by a mostly Asian team. No other show has that. And with my two half-Asian children, it's very important to me that they see beyond stereotypes (of Asian doctors, science geeks, straight A+ students, prodigy violinists, and wimpy conformists who always follow the rules) and also that they see strong role models standing up for what's right in the world.
And so, while I can't hum any of the songs this morning, the story and images will stick with me for a long time.
I'm going to try, later, to fold the origami flower that played such a role in the show.