Digging Up the Past

Theater students at UCD explore the history of a Japanese internment camp.

What becomes of an entire class of people when its members are summarily rounded up like common criminals, even though they've never committed any crimes? Are they to maintain their dignity when told that such imprisonment is for their own protection? Should they hold fast to democracy's ideals when they've been denied its most basic freedoms solely on the basis of their ancestry?

These are only a few of the conundrums that surface during ...becoming non grata, a new play (and the first part of a planned trilogy) that centers on events at the Japanese internment camp at Amache, Colorado. The collaboratively written piece was developed over the last six months by an ensemble of the University of Colorado at Denver theater students and guest artists working with professor and director Laura Cuetara; it is premiering at the King Center on the Auraria campus. As was evident at the final dress rehearsal, the work posed the question of whether some of World War II's most crucial battles were waged at home -- against other, supposedly disloyal Americans. It also explores the dilemma of trying to do theatrical justice to fifty-year-old wrongs without distorting historical "facts" and "truths."

All of the scenes are staged in and around a gravel-filled, foot-high rectangular box that's flanked by seating areas of metal bleachers surrounded by chain-link fencing; a tower-like structure looms at one of the box's shorter sides, and the opposite edge is defined by a sculpture of black poles. Large panels, constructed in classic enameled-screen style, hang over the stage at angles that allow for the projection of photographs and images -- tender portraits of camp residents sometimes give way to stark signs such as: "Jap Hunting Licenses Issued Here." Sharply defined pools and shadowy patterns of light illuminate the actors, who arrange several black planks in configurations that suggest a multitude of places and objects. (Richard Finkelstein designed both the lighting and setting.) It's a marvelously austere environment that allows for a wide range of theatrical expression.

The show begins as ten actors, clad in street clothes and cupping lighted candles, proceed into the black box-style Production Studio theater. Jennifer Alonzo, Fanny Andrade, Ashley Bassot-Lee, Rick Bivens, Gia Mora Chinisci, Dan Hiester, Elizabeth Lee, Mio Nagashima, Bill Selig and Petra Ulrych constitute the ensemble. The performers take up residence on this or that patch of gravel and enact various scenes while unearthing artifacts gleaned during several visits to the Amache site (the artifacts themselves, which were originally dug up at the Amache site by the acting company, will be catalogued and donated to the Amache Preservation Society for use in a museum; the National Park Service is developing Amache into a cultural heritage site). Some episodes are the stuff of dispassionate documentary, while others, such as a couple of poignant oral histories, awaken long-simmering passions.

We quickly learn that, following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, 121,113 Americans of Japanese descent were taken from their homes and transported to one of ten internment camps located in seven states. Over the course of 35 days, 7,806 people were herded into Amache, a patch of desert farmland next to the southeastern town of Granada, Colorado. They were assured that the move was for their own safety and that the barbed-wire fences were meant to keep out neighboring cows. But no one offered the residents any comforting explanations for the harsh realities that awaited them -- a situation that the actors expertly convey throughout.

In fact, they perform each episode as though they've personally lived it -- which, in a way, they have. They've devoted countless hours to research, study, improvisation and editing of the material to a length that can be digested in a single sitting. The result is a series of historical scenes and present-day arguments that evoke, rather than describe in self-indulgent detail, the process of reconciling fact with interpretation.

American soldiers, we're told, snatched an infant from its mother while the family was boarding a transport train and later dumped the baby on a spare seat only when the journey was "safely" under way. The distraught mother recovered her precious bundle only when it was too late, and she buried the child in Amache's shifting sands -- an outcome that prompts one performer to turn to the audience and ask, "What would have happened to the security of the United States if this young woman had simply refused to leave the city in which she was born?" During another equally moving scene, a young man visits the grave of an older relative who lived at Amache. As he does, past pain merges with present anguish, bringing to mind the same sort of poignant defiance witnessed at sections of present-day sites reserved for visitors to cry out "against the currents of closure."

Later, when we hear of the senseless shooting death of one of the residents, sound effects of thunder and falling rain underscore the murderous aftermath, and, for an instant, the air in the theater actually feels wetter and colder. And when the actors begin to debate the wisdom of resurrecting history -- a researcher with a tape recorder paces the grounds wondering what it all means, while another group of performers put on a play within a play -- their story hits home with newfound meaning. The question to ask, they say, isn't "How could this have happened in America?" but "Are we so sure it isn't happening now?"

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