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It’s a tall order staging the racially charged history of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a unit of Japanese-American soldiers in World War II. A kid-friendly version? Definitely harder. But staging it on a national monument, along with the low budget and time constraints of the Capital Fringe Festival, and you have a production challenge that seems absolutely nuts—even by Fringe standards.
Luckily, director Hope Villanueva and the members of the Crane Fable Company were up to the task.
The Little Crane and the Long Journey uses a fable about a family of cranes to depict the plight of Japanese Americans who volunteered for service in WWII. The birds are outcasts in their stream community, where ducks rule the roost. Determined to change his family’s outsider status, Yori (Bryan Azucena) enlists to join the Army when the community is threatened by the Fox (Andrew Quilpa), despite the protests of Father (Matthew Strote) and Mother (Rebecca Speas, Rachel Hynes). As his parents predicted, Yori is mistreated by both his fellow duck soldiers and commanding officer (Stephanie Tomiko, Ruthie Rado, Quilpa), but perseveres in spite of mistreatment.
The National Japanese American Memorial, right outside of Union Station, is both the play’s unlikely venue and its source of inspiration. Villanueva, who’s had stints at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and Studio Theatre, said she was on the hunt for site-specific play ideas for Fringe when she stumbled on the memorial during a walk. The 14-year old memorial features a bronze statueby sculptor Nina Akamu: two cranes, wrapped in barbed wire, represent the 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry that the U.S. government forced into internment camps during WWII. Villanueva, who spent years working in theater in Hawaii, said she grew familiar with the history of the 442nd Regiment after working on another play in which one of the characters was based on a real-life member of the unit, whom she later met in person.
Lucky for Villanueva, Cal Shintani, who serves on the Memorial’s board of directors, is a theater lover and has always wanted to check out Fringe. A Google search and an email later, the National Japanese American Memorial was on board.
Villanueva said that taking a show outside the controlled environment of a theater has its obvious setbacks. It’s impossible to drown out the sounds of the surrounding city, for one, and the company lost plenty of outdoor rehearsals due to the rain. But it’s hard to argue against the venue’s historical significance.
“One key goal of the Memorial’s Foundation is to tell our story so that we don’t repeat such mistakes,” Shintani said. “My hope is that Little Crane will reach out to a new audience who don’t know that story.”
Shintani said that the fact that the play was an “adult” story “told in a manner that will be interesting to kids” would hopefully result in kids wanting to learn more about what happened during WWII.
While Villanueva said she didn’t set out to do a children’s play, the decision to adapt the real-life history of the 442nd Regiment into the Little Crane fable was one of necessity.
“I didn’t want blood and guts and guns. I didn’t want to do all that,” she said. “That’s very on-the-nose, and we’ve all seen it in the movies better than it probably could be on stage—at least in a Fringe setting.”
Villanueva wrote the skeleton of what would become Little Crane. She then worked with the show’s movement coach, Tyler Herman, and actors Phil Reid and Ruthie Rado to help adapt the fable for the stage.
Herman, whose background is in physical theater, said Little Crane is heavily action-oriented, incorporating elements of both children’s plays and the Noh style of classical Japanese theater, which features masks and props. Actors wear animal masks but human clothing, like kimonos or button-down shirts. Other characters are played using puppets.
“Even the fact that we decided to have animal characters automatically lent itself to strong choices in movement,” said Herman.
Even though Little Crane is children’s theater, members of the cast said they approached it like they would a production geared toward adults. All seemed to be in agreement that at least when it comes to entertainment, kids and adults hate being being treated like children.
And as for whether kids can handle the show’s racially sensitive subject matter, that didn’t seem to be a concern among the show’s cast members. It’s a safe bet to say that kids are catching on: The recent shootings in Charleston and protests in Baltimore ensure that race has recently been a prominent part of the national discussion.
Hynes, who plays Mother, said she thought it was the responsibility of adults to present serious topics to children in a way that is “honest and fair.”
“Kids are great observers. And I think that they’re not unaware of more serious things that are happening in the world especially if they are affecting their family,” Hynes said. “In a way, it’s kind of a relief to see somebody acknowledge them and not try to pretend that they don’t exist.”
The Little Crane and the Long Journey will perform at the National Japanese American Memorial July 9 at 10 a.m., and at nine additional showtimes throughout the festival. Check Capital Fringe’s website for times.
Photo by Keldon McFarland