Thursday, June 23, 2016

DC Metro Review 2016

Review: ‘No-No Boy’ at Pan Asian Repertory Theatre

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No-No Boy is an extraordinary and essential play. It’s about what happened  to innocent people when this country demonized and incarcerated Japanese Americans during World War II. To witness it now—as anti-Muslim rumblings are being trumped up to a roar—is to be shell-shocked by how close we are to seeing that horrific and fear-fueled history repeat.
No-No Boy has been adapted into a tight, intense script by playwright and actor Ken Narasaki from the 1957 novel of the same name by John Okada. The pioneering New York City–based Pan Asian Repertory Theatre brought its simply staged production of the play to DC for two performances only, in the Burke Theatre, an auditorium with amphitheater seating inside the  Naval Heritage Center. The lobby display ambiance underscored graphically the military context of the play’s events. Directed with precision by Ron Nakahara and performed by a sterling cast of ten, No-No Boy blew me away from the very beginning.
The play is set in Seattle in 1946 as Japanese Americans are returning to their homes from the internment camps (“fenced…in the desert like they do the Jews in Germany,” as we hear a voice say). It follows the story of a young man named Ichiro (played with compelling focus by Chris Doi), who has just returned from two years in prison for refusing the draft. In a cinematic flow of episodes from Ichiro’s encounters with his family, friends, and others, No-No Boy  tells interwoven stories of how the war changed the lives of some dozen Japanese American characters in disparate and interconnected ways.
Projected onto an upstage screen is a huge Selective Service System seal, along with the text of two questions that we hear an official voice intone, demanding young men to answer in the affirmative:
Question 27: Are you willing to serve in the Armed Forces of the United States on combat duty wherever ordered?
Question 28: Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor…?
When that loyalty oath was administered to Ichiro in the internment camp where he and his family had been sent, he answered both questions in the negative—hence the slur “no-no boy.” Now that the internment is over, other young men are saying yes and yes—and signing on to fight against the country where their forebears live.
During the course of No-No Boy some of the recruits return, some don’t. Some of their family members cope, some are shattered. Some in their circles assimilate as patriotic Americans, some remain torn. But the implicit personal and cultural conflicts wrought by this momentous military engagement will implode inside the lives everyone we are about to meet.
No-No Boy dramatizes a complex of perspectives, some of them contradictory, among Japanese Americans at the time; admirably, it does not mythologize a monolithic ethnic viewpoint. For instance Ichiro’s family is  divided over the conflict. His Ma  (Karen Tsen Lee)  is certain that Japan has won the war—and all else to the contrary is propaganda. His Pa (Glenn Kubota) loves her very much though he knows she is delusional, and he chastises Ichiro for confronting her and calling her crazy. What happens when Ma finally realizes the reality of what has happened to her homeland is heartbreaking.
In another stirring scene, Ichiro visits the home of Mr. and Mrs. Kumasaka (Scott Kitajima and Shigeko Sara Suga). They had a son named Bobby, and as his battle buddy Jun (Claro de los Reyes) relates the story of how Bobby was shot (“Ping, and he’s dead”), we hear the inconsolable keening of Mrs. Kumasaka.
Ichiro meets a friend he hasn’t seen in years named Eto (another remarkable performance by de los Reyes). Upon learning that Ichiro is a No-No boy, Eto spits at him with contempt. Another friend of Ichiro’s who served in the U.S. military—Freddie (an impressive Hansel Tan)—is far more supportive, to the extent that he fixes Itchiro up with Emi (a wonderful Leanne Cabrera). Her husband has been away for four years, re-upping in the army in Germany apparently with no intention to come back to her. With Freddie’s encouragement as well as Emi’s, Itchiro begins a relationship with her. They have a sweet scene in which they mime playing the piano together (“Do you know ‘Chopsticks’?” she asks in an instance of the script’s wit). It is as if in their mutually healing romance, Itchiro finds the acceptance and place in the world he has been bereft of since the war.
Other notable performances are given by Don Castro as Kenji, a friend of Itchiro’s who lost a leg in combat, and Tony Vo as Taro, Itchiro’s younger brother, who intends to enlist. When Itchiro asks him to think it over, Taro replies angrily, in a speech that conveys something of the passions coursing through this play:
I had plenty of time to think about it when you were in prison and here’s what I think: We were BORN here, we play BALL here, we listen to music here, we’re gonna get married here, we’re gonna have kids here. We OWE this country something for that! Let Ma believe whatever she believes, let Pa go along with it if that’s what he wants, but me? I’m an AMERICAN and I’m going to fight like an American! You and your pals? You had your chance and what did you prove? That they were RIGHT NOT TO TRUST YOU!
Sheryl Liu’s minimalist set makes effective use of a small table (which became that piano) and wooden folding chairs (which become a hospital bed, an automobile, a living room). The sound design by Ian Wehrle amplified those simple set pieces with such a vivid sense of place no more seemed needed. A lighting design was not utilized at the Burke, just a plain wash on the stage, which worked fine in the circumstances. And knife-fight choreography by Michael C. Chin was electricly authentic.
I spoke after the show with Nakahara and Artistic Producing Director Tisa Chang, who confirmed my supposition that the choice to produce this play now and perform it in DC had intentionally to do with the fear mongering abroad in our land. No-No Boy deserves to have real run here; it is every bit as worthy a stage work as any number of recent plays with a political conscience. Till that day comes, I can only urge everyone who cares about how theater connects to this country’s past and future to catch Pan Asian Rep’s No-No Boy wherever whenever you can.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
No-No Boy played June 18 and 19, 2016 at Pan Asian Repertory Theatre performing at The Burke Theatre in the Naval Heritage Center – 701 Pennsylvania Avenue, in Washington, DC.
RATING: FIVE-STARS-82x1546.gif

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Pan Asian Rep to Produce No-No Boy in May

Great news!  Great news!  PanAsian Rep will doing a short run of NO-NO BOY in New York City this May 14 to May 18th at the Studio Theatre at Theatre Row - 410 W. 42nd St, NYC.  Directed by Ron Nakahara.  Click on the link below for more details!  If you're anywhere on the East Coast or can make it to New York City that week in May, be sure to go check it out, it's going to be a terrific production.

Here's a link to a video from our LA production, just for old time's sake:

Hope you can make it - and please, spread the word!  Happy Year of the Horse!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

reading filling up

Pan Asian says to be sure to RSVP to: - the NO-NO BOY readings for 7pm Friday, 11/16 and 3pm Saturday, 11/17 are filling up!  Hope to see you there!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Flyer for the Pan Asian Rep Reading

Pan Asian Repertory Theater
2012/13 36th Masterpiece Season
Tisa Chang, Artistic Producing Director

PLAYS IN PROCESS Staged Readings 2012
November 16 at 7:00pm, November 17 at 3:00pm
at 520 8th Ave, Bruce Mitchell Room (between 36th & 37th Streets) 3rd Floor
Suggested donation of $10 collected at the door for refreshments and Q&A
To RSVP please email  or call 212/868-4030

By Ken Narasaki
Directed By Ron Nakahara

Based on the book by John Okada, and set in the aftermath of WWII as Japanese Americans return to the West Coast, the play follows draft resister Ichiro Yamada after he is released from prison and STRUGGLES TO COME TO TERMS WITH HIS CHOICES, while the rest of the community tries to get back on its feet after a war that has uprooted them all.

Featuring: Don Castro, Kimiye Corwin, Chris Doi, Bobby Foley, Wai Ching Ho, Dom Huynh, Glenn Kubota, Ian Wen, Virginia Wing, Henry Yuk. Stage Manager: Swaine Kaui

“NO-NO BOY by John Okada, first published in 1957, is
Description: Ken headshot 200x200.jpgsomething more than a book; it’s one of those works of art that transcends its actual form, becoming something much larger than just a novel…tackling the adaptation of this seminal novel to the stage… feels a little like saying, ‘We’re working on a stage adaptation of MOBY DICK; I think it’s going well!”

“NO-NO BOY is full of characters never seen on any stage I’ve seen.  Angry, self-destructive…wondering if they’ll ever find the America that was once promised to them.  Ironically, their nihilism is part of what makes them so vividly alive, proving that young people are the same in every generation – there exists in every generation an entire spectrum of feeling,
and the darker hues of NO-NO BOY’s characters are
ones not often seen in literature about the Nisei.”
-Ken Narasaki, playwright

To RSVP please email  Or call 212/868-4030

Monday, September 10, 2012

Upcoming Reading in NYC

Pan Asian Repertory is going to do two readings of NO-NO BOY on November 16th and 17th, 2012 at the West End Theater in New York City as part of their Plays in Process Series. 

Will keep you informed with more information as it becomes available! 

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Reaching Across Time and Space

Some projects are just bigger than the people working on them and this is certainly one of them.  The book has been a marker in many people's lives and it shouldn't be a surprise that any project connected to it would touch various people's lives across time and space, but there have been moments that have startled me: 

One was "meeting" an Egyptian woman online who contacted us because she was doing her Masters thesis in Cairo on No-No Boy.  She was reaching out for information and conversation about the play and how it differed from the book; I sent her a copy of the script and asked her how and why she was compelled to do her thesis on a fairly obscure book about a fairly obscure (certainly in a global sense) subject, and she said she was moved by his search for justice and his questions about identity, things that touched her as an Egyptian woman scholar.  I mentioned that in the aftermath of 9/11, Japanese Americans were among the first to speak out against racial profiling and the scapegoating of Muslims and Arab Americans; she was aware of that as well and said maybe that figured into whatever impulse she had to pick up the book at the American University in Cairo.

Another was meeting a Japanese national, a journalist, and his colleague, a Professor of Asian American Studies at Kanda University in Tokyo.  Who'd'a thunk there was any such thing as an Asian American Studies program in JAPAN?  They had heard of our project through Frank Abe, who had done a couple of documentaries, including CONSCIENCE AND THE CONSTITUTION (about the Heart Mountain Resisters) and IN SEARCH OF NO-NO BOY, an educational short about John Okada and the real-life basis for the story and some of the characters in the book.  He was gracious enough to let us post his study guide on our website on our For Educators page.  They flew from Tokyo to Los Angeles JUST TO SEE THE PLAY.  Can you believe that?  The journalist told me he'd been working on researching a book about John Okada but was beginning to think maybe he'd have to turn it into a work of fiction because he hasn't been able to find out enough to write a detailed non-fiction book about him - too many holes in the narrative because Okada died so young (at 49 in the early 70s).  I asked him what drew him to the book, and he said he'd found an old copy in a used bookstore in Tokyo and he was drawn to the cover - a sort of watercolor illustration of Mama looking through the dirty window of their grocery store that looked out onto a city street.  It was the anti-war sentiment that first struck him, and like the Egyptian scholar, the desire for justice denied, and surprisingly enough...identity.  He's about my age, and he says that his generation has felt a sort of questioning about identity having been raised after the war, and the next generation even more so wonders who they are, really.

There have been connections across time, as well:  While researching the play, I came across David Mura's FAMOUS SUICIDES OF THE JAPANESE EMPIRE in which a Sansei looks for the truth about his father, a No-No Boy who eventually committed suicide after years of depression.  I was so struck by some of the passages, I looked up his contact info and found him on Facebook and friended him there. 

One of his FB friends is/was Garrett Hongo, a Sansei poet who was a director at what was then the Asian Exclusion Act in the mid-1970s - Garrett had directed me in a production of Momoko Iko's THE GOLD WATCH, a production which awakened and cemented a life-long love for Asian American theater in me.  I friended Garrett after not having seen him in well over thirty years and he almost came to our play before a death in the family pulled him away.  When he apologized to me, I realized that HE was the one who told me in 1977 that I HAD to read this book, that it was shocking that I hadn't already and he was going to kick my ass if I didn't.

There are other small bits of synchronicity and tangential connections, but here's one final one:  On Sunday, several members of the Okada family came from all over the country to see the show.  Roy Okada, John's brother, asked me, "Were you originally from Seattle?"  Yes.  "Was your father an engineer at Boeing?"  Oh my God, yes.  "I knew him!  We were friends!"  Jane Okada (I'm not sure if she was Roy's wife or sister-in-law) said, "Oh, yes.  I know your mother.  I just saw her two weeks ago.  She looks GOOD." 

I had no idea.

If you believe in signs (I do), then maybe this was all meant to be.  Either that, or Asian America is really just a small town and there's really only one or two degrees of separation from us all.  But then, how do you explain Egypt and Japan?  Maybe it's just the power of John Okada's book, a book he wrote from his heart, a book that was written way ahead of its time, but a book that is proving to be timeless and perhaps without boundaries.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Happy Moments and Hate Mail

First off, sorry I haven't kept up the blog AT ALL, but things have been far more hectic this time around than they were for INNOCENT WHEN YOU DREAM - maybe having a cast double the size of Innocent and a variety of replacements and minor fires to put out, combined with the happy problem of sold out houses has had something to do with it - plus (perhaps) being a couple of years older.  I meant to blog last week, since it was our halfway point, but I was behind at work because of a mysterious fainting spell, and before that, I meant to blog after our Opening Night, but I pretty much felt like someone had hit me over the head with an Acme anvil after we opened, so there are my excuses. 

It's also been a roller-coaster ride, with yesterday being the sharpest example:  On the one hand, we've been having great houses and great responses, like yesterday's matinee, in which many of the Okada family came, including John Okada's brother, his sister-in-law, and assorted nieces, nephews, and in-laws.  They were so gracious and amongst the sweetest people one could ever meet, and I'm incredibly grateful that they enjoyed the production.  On the other hand, someone I know from the Bay Area came to see the play, wrote to Frank Chin about it, and I got my first piece of hate mail...from Frank Chin.  It wasn't EXACTLY addressed to me, it was actually an email blast to numerous Asian American academics, activists, journalists, and writers, calling me "a White Racist", "an apologist for the JACL" (which isn't mentioned in either the book or the play), and a "gullible amateur" for having the gall to make changes in the adaptation from the book to the stage. 

We went out to dinner tonight and ran into some neighbors who saw the play and we talked about it; I mentioned the hate mail, and our neighbor cheered me up immensely, saying:  "That's how you know you're on the money - when you piss someone off."