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On the plight of Japanese-Americans during world war two, much ink has already been expended. But what additional travails awaited these victims of mass paranoia when they were released from internment camps and returned to civilian life? In San Francisco’s Japanese Town, they found their property seized and demolished in the name of urban renewal and an influx of African-Americans importing their own cultural standards. Old landmarks and ancient alliances yielded to inevitable social conflicts and a feeling of rootlessness. Whose values prevailed in the new social order?
That is the question posed by Philip Kan Gotanda’s thoughtful new play, mounted in considerable splendour by the commissioning American Conservatory Theater. A third- generation Japanese-American, the writer has restricted his gaze to a single boarding house in the Fillmore District in 1948. Gotanda has populated his setting with idealists and misfits of every hue; influenced by Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon, he offers a multiplicity of viewpoints, proposed in a series of short scenes played out on Donald Eastman’s impressive, revolving set.
Under Carey Perloff’s astute direction, the quiet moments resound tellingly. A prissy, inhibited accountant (the wonderful Francis Jue) hesitantly courts a Russian-Jewish refugee, and neither really communicates with the other. A black woman in arrears must suffer the indignity of apologising to the Japanese manager, who insists that payment be made with crisp bills. An impromptu soirée discloses simmering tensions and resentments. But there’s more than a whiff of melodrama in the friendship of a pacifist jazz trumpeter (Hiro Kanagawa) and a philandering boarder (Steven Anthony Jones), who compete for the affections of a white woman gone astray, an uneasy symbol of fading cultural dominance.
The future belongs not to them but to Mr Goto, the property owner who will sell off his heritage to the highest bidder without a pang of conscience. In this new world, Gotanda tells us, we are all subject to discrimination and to powerful forces from which neither personal integrity nor cultural imperatives can shield us.
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