Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
They are pictures of prosperity, the sisters Matsumotoperfectly attired and precise of posture, carefully groomed and carefully reservedand so the phrase scrawled in enormous scarlet letters on the wall facing them seems especially jarring.
Japs go home! The injusticethe ironic disconnect that infuses a considerable aftertaste of bitter into Philip Kan Gotanda’s essentially sweet and sentimental Sisters Matsumotois that the three of them have only just come home. Home to the California farm on which their peasant-born immigrant father planted potatoes and harvested a particularly American brand of prosperity; home to a place that remains the touchstone for their memories of family and childhood and community. Home from the camp where they lived, not by choice but by compulsion, for three long years.
It is late in the fall of 1945, and the Pacific war has ended, and the sisters Matsumoto and their husbands and any number of their friends and extended family have found their way back to Stockton from the 10 internment camps in which upward of 100,000 Nisei, or second-generation Japanese-Americans, spent three years or more under the “absolute Federal control” of the War Relocation Authority. Most of them have no homes now; the sisters Matsumotosturdy Grace (Ruth Yamamoto), gentle Rose (Judy W. Chen), brash Chiz (Marissa Quintos)are among the lucky ones who’ve found their property more or less intact.
Except for that ugly scrawl, of course, and aside from the farm’s generally run-down condition: The white family who leased it from their father didn’t rotate the crops, didn’t repair the buildings, and left the tractors in the rain to rust. There have been other betrayals, tooless immediately obvious, if eventually more profoundand aside from essentially winning performances from its three women, what may be most striking about ASIA Theatre’s production is the graceful, reflective tone it takes as it considers them.
Certainly, there is outrage, even anger, in Gotanda’s lines: Chiz’s husband, Bola (Josef Villanasco), brawls with the supercilious types at the local club, who’ve known the Matsumotos for years and still question the loyalty of Japanese-Americans. Drunk, he confronts Grace’s husband, accusing the patrician Hideo (Franklin Dam) of hiding class-based contempt and lingering Imperial sympathies under the cloak of his scholar’s reserve.
Hideo himself lashes out, if a clipped and rigid rage can be described in so kinetic a phrase, when a frustrated Grace confronts him over the aid packages he insists on sending home to Japanpackages full of medicines and clothing that not all the Matsumotos’ neighbors have. And at the Act 2 climax, when Gotanda has finished arranging his harsh miniatureand make no mistake, the Matsumotos’ story is a kind of theatrical bonsai, meant to capture in heightened detail a larger picture of a national shameone character erupts in physical violence, while another turns inward with a bitter, shellshocked gesture of sacrifice.
And yet Gotanda’s heart doesn’t seem to be in these outbursts. The grief doesn’t really resonate; the anger doesn’t quite burn. The action of the play movesalmost driftsplacidly forward, moving around the various unpleasantnesses like water around rocks in a stream. Hideo plansrenovations, possible business ventures, a Japanese-language newspaper for the community. Bola huntsducks, pheasants, a space for his medical practice, which isn’t forthcoming because no one will rent to a man of Japanese descent. Rose datesfirst the candidates forwarded, in the old-fashioned way, by a matchmaker, then the son of one of her father’s tenant farmers, who’s gone on to make good among the strawberry fields of Watsonville. The Matsumotos, endlessly resourceful, lose what ground they’ve managed to keep, only to start anew; and things end on a hopeful, even upbeat note.
It’s possible that some of the play’s lassitude is, in fact, the production’s. Edu. Bernardino, who’s responsible not just for the direction but the spare sets and the quietly evocative costumes as well, seems to have wanted a reflective mood: Lighting is soft and warm for interiors, restful and blue for exteriors under the late-autumn moon. Scene transitions are slow, exchanges between actors generally loose. Not even the confrontations really crackle, in part because Bernardino’s cast often gives line readings with a curious lack of affect. Dam’s Hideo, for one, is such a restrained characterization that it’s hard to tell from his tone alone whether a given speech is meant to be question or declaration.
Bernardino does help him to one lovely moment, when Rose’s suitor Henry (an appealing John D. Guzman) mentions Tetsu, the older brother he lost in the war. Hideo goes utterly still, and for an instant, it seems as though Henry’s mention of the firebombing of Tokyo has offended his traditionalist sensibilities. Then his focus shifts, ever so gradually, to Gracehis wife, who once loved the boy Tetsu, a suitor too far below her station. Her sense of filial duty, Hideo’s sense of familial obligation, her long-buried feelingsall are at odds in that one glance, in the way the action onstage seems briefly stilled; it’s a moment almost cinematically effective in the way it frames two characters’ emotional turmoil.
In that very small, very personal moment, the play vibrates with the kind of coiled power that you’d expect to find behind its larger concerns. That it’s missing in those other places isn’t a tragedybut in the end, it means the play isn’t, either. CP