Oregon Children's Theatre will present "The Journal of Ben Uchida: Citizen 13559" Feb. 29 through March 22 at the Winningstad Theater.
The play details — with anger, despair, sadness and hope — a dark chapter in the country's history. It tells a story that is relevant, moving and one that cannot be forgotten.
The work was adapted for the stage by influential Japanese American playwright Naomi Iizuka and originally commissioned by the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
The show chronicles the experiences of 12-year-old Ben Uchida and his family after the issuance of Executive Order 9066 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1942, which authorized the imprisonment and relocation of more than 11,000 Japanese-American citizens during World War II.
This story in many ways has a timely significance to current events, perhaps even more so than when the show premiered in 2006.
As the nation again confronts division and conflict along racial lines — including the racialized demonization of both citizens and immigrants, and even government proposals to repurpose the sites of Japanese internment camps to house asylum-seeking children and families — the relevence of these stories is undeniable.
"Many of our plays speak to kindness and taking care of one another," said Interim Artistic Director Marcella Crowson, "and that's true of this story as well.
"But here, these messages emerge from much more serious — and unfortunately timely — circumstances than some of the other stories on our stages. With several of the policies being implemented in present-day America, we saw an opportunity to engage with families and audiences around some very relevant and difficult topics: those of immigration, concentration camps and what it means to be an America," she said.
"Ben's story opens a line of communication between adults and children, giving language to these challenging realities and providing an opportunity to discuss them in a space they have safely made together," Crowson said. "This is what theater does best. Naomi Iizuka's beautiful, heartbreaking play reminds us that when the world feels darks, we can find a deep connection with those close to use and charges us all to look out for our neighbors."
OCT believes and respects that children have the desire, intelligence and capacity to engage deeply with the complex world around them.
This can mean grappling with difficult questions about racial identity and equity, systems of oppression and their historical roots, even the constitutional protections and limitations of citizenship.
This story unfolds through Ben's experiences, seen through the eyes of a child and chronicled in his journal. This key point allows for open dialogue between parents and children, making tough conversations possible.
To ensure that "The Journal of Ben Uchida" reflects the story on stage as authentically as possible, OCT has hired Dmae Roberts to direct the production.
Roberts is a two-time Peabody Award-winning public radio producer/writer and the executive producer of Media Rites, a nonprofit dedicated to telling the stories of diverse cultures and giving voice to the unheard through the arts, education and media projects, and Theatre Diaspro, Oregon's first Asian American/Pacific Islander Theater company.
Roberts has won two Drammys and performed in more than 20 plays on Portland stages.
Roberts will be assisted in the production by Movement Consultant Chisao Hata. A third-generation Japanese American, Hata is an artist, educator, dance director, arts integration specialist, community activist and performing artist whose work has shared the Japanese American perspective both locally, nationally and internationally.
The production also will feature input from Association Director Samson Syharath, a multidisciplinary artist, producer, educator and administrator focusing on visibility of Asian American artists and underserved communities.
The performance features Ken Yoshikawa as Ben Uchida, David Loftus as Masao Uchida, Sumi Wu as Lily Uchida and Jenna Yokoyama as Naomi Uchida. Jonathan Miles and Paige Rogers join the cast playing a variety of other characters.
Tickets are on sale now.
The show uses historically accurate language from the 1940s/WWII, including racial slurs, and bias-motivated violence.
Additionally, the play contains visual imagery and indirect references to suicide in the concentration camp. The word "suicide" is not used in the play, nor is the act dramatized or seen on stage. The play is recommended for ages 10 and up.
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