Playwright Sam Hamashima is described in his program bio as working in the “collision between his queer identity and his Japanese-American identity.” In American Spies and Other Homegrown Fables, those identities do not so much collide as inhabit separate parts of Hub Theatre’s world premiere production.
The dominant portion of the script concerns the reaction of the Japanese-American Ishii family to the news of Pearl Harbor. Hamashima’s script compresses into the December 7-8, 1941, period the conflicts that led to the ethnic cleansing of Japanese-Americans from the West Coast and the reactions of people caught up in the resulting dislocation.
Natsuko and Tamehei Ishii are Issei (i.e., Japanese-born immigrants to America), though in Toni Rae Salmi’s and Dylan Arredondo’s portrayals they appear surprisingly well assimilated, especially in terms of their speech patterns, for members of any first-generation immigrant community. (In its page on the play, the National New Play Network suggests casting, where possible, ESL actors in the roles.) Still attached to their cultural tradition, they feel a need to exhibit 200 percent Americanism in the face of the suspicion and hostility of the neighboring white community.
Their Nisei teenage son, George (Kramer Kwalick, in a very winning and touching performance), likewise seems culturally to belong to a later generation. There seems an intent here to present the story’s meaning as having an intergenerational scope, not time-bound to 1941. Certainly, that is the effect of Reid May’s sound design, featuring musical clips decades removed from the 1940s, which often come to an abrupt, deliberately jarring, halt.
In a script with a strong element of magical realism, the most striking members of the household are two spirits who have accompanied the family across time and space, Paper Crane, the spirit of wisdom (Rae Venna), and Maneki Neko (Phillip Reid), the spirit of luck. Paper Crane is a gentle nurturer; Neko is a catlike comic companion – in Reid’s characterization, one whose path from Japan to California may have included a detour to the Borscht Belt – who can also be a fierce protector when called upon. Their physicality and costuming have strong anime influences, which along with their very colloquial dialogue further underlines the play’s intergenerational flavor.
In the portion of the play most directly reflecting the playwright’s interest in queer identities, the two spirits, in the evening’s sweetest moment, play an important role in embracing a character’s emerging love. While the use of Japanese language in the character’s correspondence provides a tie to the cultural themes of the play, this remains largely a discrete subplot that recedes from notice as the evening proceeds.
The play’s title has a double meaning. Large portions of the white community (including not only nativist groups like the Native Sons of the Golden West but mainstream organizations like the American Legion, the American Federation of Labor, some elements of the Army, and prominent officials like future Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren) regarded Japanese-Americans as potential spies, saboteurs, and fifth columnists.
Represented by a policeman and a grasping neighbor, both played by Carolyn Kashner, the white community intrudes spy-like into the Ishii household, prying into the kitchen, appraising the family’s belongings for future confiscation.
Natsuko and Tamihei respond by proposing to destroy items of great personal importance representing their Japanese heritage as part of a neighborhood bonfire designed to demonstrate their loyalty to America. The conflict between preserving family and cultural traditions and doing what is necessary for survival in a hostile society, as Hub artistic director Matt Bassett said in an earlier DCMTA interview, is what drives the show.
The forces of destruction with which the family must contend are pictured as three buzzards, an apparent reference to classic Japanese theater forms. Played by Kashner, Arredondo, and KyoSin Kang, and clad in black beaked masks and black cloaks, they swoop in as the bearers of bad tidings and bringers of chaos. In the highlight of Cathy Oh’s excellent movement design, they fight with Natsuko, George, and the two spirits, a spiritual battle manifested as a physical one.
Grace Kang’s costumes are an interesting mix: the anime-inspired outfits for the spirits, the three black buzzard costumes, and relatively naturalistic dress for the Ishii family members, notably a very period-appropriate, subdued dress for Natsuko. JD Madsen’s set also tends toward the naturalistic, with furniture that could readily fit into a ’40s household, including a lovely console radio, though with windows suspended from above that provided a more free-floating accent to the show’s look.
President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 in mid-February 1942, putting into formal motion the “relocation” process that led to the incarceration of over 100,000 Japanese-Americans like the Ishii family in what can fairly be called concentration camps. It was not until the 1980s that the U.S. government made a formal apology and provided monetary reparations to survivors. (Congressman Norm Mineta, who as a boy around George’s age lived in the Heart Mountain, Wyoming, camp, and for whom I had the opportunity to work in the early 2000s, was a leader in this effort.) The issues of imprisoning non-white populations and reparations for our nation’s past wrongs have obvious contemporary resonance.
Director Kathryn Chase Bryer had a challenging task, needing to meld disparate themes, styles, looks, and plot elements into a coherent whole. If she does not completely succeed, the show never fails to be visually arresting, emotionally compelling, and thought-provoking.
Running Time: 70 minutes, with no intermission.