Sunday, November 12, 2017

Could it happen again?

     When Jeanne Sakata saw a documentary about a Japanese-American college student in World War II who fought against the mass incarceration of his people all the way to the Supreme Court, she wanted to know more about this civil rights champion.  Much more.

     “It was shocking to me that I had never heard about Gordon’s story,” she said, referring to Gordon Hirabayashi.  “I come from a Japanese-American family in northern California.  There was a lot of pride in our community at being Japanese-American.”

   Hirabayashi’s story also had personal resonance for her.  Sakata’s father, Tommy, and her aunts and uncles, all born in America to Japanese immigrant parents, had been imprisoned when he was in high school as part of the United States government’s forced removal and mass incarceration of people of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast.

  “I was enthralled,” she said. “I felt like I had discovered a treasure, a great American saga.”

     As an actress, she envisioned this American story being told on an American stage. Saying she became “obsessed” with it in 1997 as she thought about the documentary, she researched all she could find about Hirabayashi’s gradual awakening as a University of Washington student to the racial injustice, leading to  his bold defiance of curfew and exclusion orders, which landed him in jail before he took his cause to the Supreme Court in 1943, where the court ruled against him. Forty years later Hirabayashi v. United States was reopened and he was victorious.

     “The story took over my life,” she said.  “I went to bed thinking about it and I woke up thinking about it.  I have a deep personal, psychic connection to it.  Writing the play was very redemptive for me.”

    Just as this ugly chapter in American history had shaped Hirabayashi’s life — and Sakata’s father’s family’s — it also began to transform Sakata’s. Over the course of a decade, her obsession led her from actress to playwright.  The work that was born, Hold These Truths, has played around the country since its world premiere in 2007 at East West Players in Los Angeles, under its original title, Dawn’s Light: The Journey of Gordon Hirabayashi. 

     The one-man play will have its first post-presidential election production at New York’s Sheen Center for Thought & Culture from Dec. 3 to 20 under the direction of Lisa Rothe. Different productions will play at Lyric Stage Company of Boston from Dec. 1 through 31 and at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage in the spring.

     Sakata spoke about her journey with this work from her car while parked in a shady residential block of Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. She had been helping her husband, a psychotherapist, move his office.  Worried that one piece of wall art would be damaged in the moving truck, she took it in her car and stopped for a 90-minute phone interview.

     Hold These Truths’s Off-Broadway run is a revival of the show that had its New York premiere in 2012 starring Joel de la Fuente, who won a Drama Desk nomination for Outstanding Solo Performance and who will reprise the role at the Sheen Center.  Even though it was seen in the city just five years ago, Sakata  and de la Fuente think the play has a message that should be heard again.

     “We really do need to see an American story about what it is to be an American and what the Constitution is,” de la Fuente said during a telephone interview from his home in the New York suburbs.  “It’s a profound and living document but only if we fight for it.  If we don’t, it’s only a piece of paper.  So many people like Gordon show it can be more than that, but there’s a price.  You have to not only have faith, but stand up for that faith.”

  De la Fuente, whose parents emigrated from the Philippines, has performed the show more than a half dozen times and is encouraged by responses the show receives during audience talkbacks.

     “Gordon was the kind of person Americans revere,” he said.  “He has strong faith and a code of beliefs and he stands by those beliefs in a climate of tremendous unrest and fear.  When people become afraid and feel threatened, all kinds of crazy things happen. There’s a rush to surrender human rights.  After 9/11 people were even volunteering to surrender those hard fought for and hard won rights we have that make our country what it is.”

     Rothe has been with the project since being asked to direct a reading of it in 2009.  

     “I’m not changing anything at all,” she said during a telephone interview from a diner in midtown Manhattan. “It speaks even louder to what is happening now.  In the cycle of life, we think, ‘Oh, this could happen again.’”

     As she has in the past, Rothe is keeping the staging simple.

     “In a one-person show, portraying 36 different characters, the focus is on the actor less than on the set.  It’s three chairs, one suitcase, some books and Joel and that’s it.”

     De la Fuente transforms the chairs into a courtroom, a car, or whatever the scene calls for. 

     The play opens and closes with Hirabayashi as a retired professor in his mid-60s and goes back in time for him to tell his story.  The political and social forces operating in the 1940s are brought out through Hirabayashi’s conversations with the other characters in his life.  Sakata drew heavily from Hirabayashi’s letters to a friend, which are on file at the University of Washington.  The friend had saved all of them.

     “I don’t know if I could have written the play without them,” Sakata says.  “They gave me the voice of the younger Gordon.  When I met him he was a retired professor in his 70s, of a different time and voice.  In the letters he’s just a young idealistic college student dealing with this travesty. I saw the force of his personality shining through.”

     And she got to experience that force in her two interviews with Hirabayashi, first at his brother’s house in the Bay area of San Francisco and later at his home in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada where he was a retired sociology professor from the University of Alberta.

     “Gordon was a natural storyteller,” she said.  “He loved people. One of the things that was essential to Gordon was his curiosity.  He never stopped learning.”

   In writing about the World War II racism, Sakata purposefully avoided using the term internment camp, substituting instead mass incarceration or imprisoned. 

     “It’s not really descriptive of what the experience was really like, American citizens incarcerated behind barbed wire.  I use the term mass incarceration because it was a mass incarceration of a whole population of people.”

     Sakata’s father died 20 years ago and so never saw her play.  He rarely spoke about his time of imprisonment, and then only in hushed tones, but she believes the play would have touched him. 

     Hirabayashi, who died in 2012 at 93, also never got to see it.   Sakata had lost touch with him for a couple of years when she was particularly busy with acting. When she got back to working on the play she called Hirabayashi and learned from his wife, Susan, that he had Alzheimer’s Disease. 

     “I think it would have meant a lot to Gordon,” she said.  “He saw his battle as representing all Americans at any point who might have their Constitutional rights threatened.”

     Hirabayashi’s awakening to those rights is a turning point in the play.  One night when he is running across the University of Washington campus to get to his room before the curfew imposed by the government on people of Japanese ancestry, he notices an American flag and stops.

     “Why am I running,” he asks himself.  “I was born here.  Raised here.  I am an American citizen.”  He returns to the library and his civil rights stand begins.

    President Barack Obama awarded Hirabayashi the Presidential Medal of Freedom three months after his death.

     “It’s really a cautionary tale,” Sakata said.  “It seems like daily there are assaults on our freedom.  Gordon’s story is more timely than ever.  I used to be optimist and think that it could never happen again but now I’m not so sure.  It all depends on whether the white supremacists can be stopped.  For some of us, the election of Trump was a shock.  If that could happen, what else could happen?  I’m very uncertain about the future of our country.”     

     Hold These Truths offers hope.  In all the writings of and about Hirabayashi, it was words of his own that Sakata knew should end the play, and so they do:

    “I am somewhat aware of what was, and is.
     I have a glimpse of what ought to be.

     I seek to live as though the ought to be, is.”

Friday, November 10, 2017

Babette's Feast

     Actress Abigail Killeen first heard of the 1988 Danish film “Babette’s Feast” in a sermon at a church in lower Manhattan in the 1990s.  Curious, she watched the movie, which had won a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, and enjoyed it, but “as a young woman in my 20s at the time I thought it was beautiful but it didn’t pierce my heart the way age does for us.”

     Fast forward to 2007 when the movie was the subject of a sermon at a different Manhattan church. This time Killeen learned that the film was based on a short story by Danish author Isak Dinesen. She read the story and it was then she grasped the message of “overwhelming and scandalous grace.”  And it changed her life.

    For the last decade she has devoted herself to adapting the story for the stage. That mission will be fulfilled in January when the theatrical production of “Babette’s Feast” has its world premiere at Portland Stage Company, Maine’s leading professional theatre.

     “I believe it’s bigger than I and it’s a call that is strong,” she says.  “It’s been my full-time, uncompensated job.  My husband jokes that our third child is named Babette.”

     It hasn’t really been her full-time job for the last decade.   Killeen, 42, spoke about her experience as the play’s conceiver and developer one morning in midtown Manhattan while in the city for the show’s casting. She was on sabbatical from her position as an associate theatre professor at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, ME.

    “The story hit me in such a different way than the film.  It’s such a work of beauty.  I thought there’s more to mine with Babette being a political refugee.  That could really get teased out.  The film was so focused on the food and the preparation.  We can’t do that onstage so we’re free to examine the effects of the feast.” 

     In the story and film, Babette is a refugee from 19th century revolutionary Paris. She has seen her husband and son killed, and she herself has participated in the uprisings.  A friend writes to two spinster sisters he knew years ago on the northern most edge of Norway and asks them to take Babette in. They do, and she becomes their housekeeper, living in the cold and dreary town with its austere religious residents.

     After many years, Babette learns she has won a large  sum of money from a lottery a friend had enrolled her in.  Rather than return to Paris and live a comfortable life for the rest of her days, she spends the entire sum on importing rich foods and wines for a grand feast she spends days preparing for the townsfolk, who have spent their lives dining on salted cod and bread and ale soup.  

     In reading the story when she did, Killeen discerned a different focus from the movie she had seen years before. She collaborated with Rose Courtney, a theatre colleague, to develop the script, which incorporates much of the language of Dinesen’s story. Courtney penned the final script.  The play is being helmed by Karin Coonrod, a New York-based experimental director.

     The script has had a thorough development process, including a sold-out workshop production in New York and the support of New York Theatre Workshop, a major developer of new theatrical work in the United States.

     “We’re in a different culture than when the film came out 30 years ago,” Killeen says.  “We’re in the middle of the largest refugee crisis since World War II.  This is a timely story.  It’s classic, but the themes are vital for today.”

     With that in mind, Killeen thought it was important to premiere the show in Portland, which is a refugee resettlement city.   It also influenced her decision to cast a woman of color to play Babette. [This part has not been cast now but if you check with me before going to print I should have a name for you.]  

     “It’s part of paying attention to the moment,” Killeen said.  “This is what a refugee looks like. Our casting has to reflect that.  It’s not a statement but an honest way to tell the truth.”

   The two other major roles will be the sisters, one of whom Killeen will play and the other will be played by Juliana Francis Kelly.  They will be joined by six ensemble members. The show runs under 90 minutes with no intermission.

     Because staging a play eight times a week with a vast amount of food would be not only difficult, but extremely expensive, Killeen has reimagined Babette’s offering.

     “We’ll be communicating in movement and music,” she said.  “There’s no food.”

     Killeen quoted director Coonrod as saying that if people walk away thinking the feast was about food, the production will have failed.

   “The feast is a banquet in a metaphorical sense,”  Killeen said.  “It’s a feast of equality.  The diners don’t understand what they’re eating.  Babette gives them an hour of the millennium, tasting the divine.  God asks us to taste him and see that it is good.  What comes upon them, they can only taste a fraction of and yet it keeps coming.  The grace is that they don’t have to understand.  They don’t have the words, but it’s showered on them in great abundance. That’s what we’re trying to get at with the feast.”

   Gina Leishman has composed original music and Aretha Aoki is the dance consultant. The production will be minimally staged to reflect the ferocity of the rocky Norwegian landscape above the Arctic Circle.  Two-time Tony winner Christopher Akerlind will be scenic and lighting designer.

     “The experience of the triune God happens in this tiny, isolated town through Babette, a complex figure, a mysterious stranger who actively participated in a violent uprising.  She’s a woman who encompasses light and dark and God uses her.”

     And she is a refugee, and her story is being told in a city with a large population of African refugees. The production team, working with Portland’s Catholic Charities and Lindsay Sterling’s Immigrant Kitchens, will offer cooking classes in which the city’s refugees will teach the locals to cook dishes from their country. Over three hours, they will prepare and eat the meals together.

    “Theatre provides a communal experience,” Killeen says.  “It is as close to a feast as any translated art form could be.  Cooking is an artistic act and so is theatre.  Fellowship in a meal is like a memory of a theatrical experience.”

     Killeen’s hope is that the show will have an immediate transfer to Off-Broadway’s Theatre at St. Clement’s after it closes in Maine on Feb. 18.  Julia Beardsley O’Brien is her producing partner in New York.

   Longterm, she dreams of taking the show to the Vatican.  That idea was planted in her by the Rev. Evan Pillbury, the rector of her Anglican church, Light of Christ, who told her the movie was a favorite of Pope Francis.  She wrote two letters to Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley asking him to inform the pontiff of her production but she received no reply.  A call by this reporter to the Cardinal’s office was unreturned. 

   By now Killeen has had her share of rejection connected to the project.  Many people told her she was crazy to pursue it, and still tell her that, just as they told the film’s director, Gabriel Axel, who fought for his ultimately Oscar-winning project long before he found acceptance. 

     “Even as people said no it was always gracious and with great respect,”  Killeen said.  “It renewed my thought that we had something.  I could let it reveal its path to me.  I had to keep shepherding it.”