THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Early play took an unflinching look at the trauma of the wartime incarceration

The form of this week’s column is new for me. Rather than focusing on individual Japanese Americans, it covers (or recovers) the unknown story of a pioneering theatrical drama, by the name of “Tondemonai — Never Happen!” It premiered in Los Angeles in May of 1970, and was the first commercially-produced play to dramatize the Japanese American wartime confinement.

Beyond its dramatic and literary merits, “Tondemonai” merits attention in historical terms for the new ground it breaks, and particularly for addressing uncomfortable issues within Japanese communities. First, the play takes an unflinching look at the trauma that the camp experience wrought on the inmates, including conflicts between different factions within the camps, and the targeting of “no-nos” and resisters by loyalists. It likewise explores the complexities of interethnic relations by its dramatic treatment of interracial marriages — a Nisei man who marries a white woman, as well as a black-Japanese couple. Finally, at its heart is a complex love affair between two men: its main character, a middle-aged Kibei, and a young Chinese American. As astounding as its content is its authorship: the play was written, not by a Japanese American, but by a young Korean immigrant who was working in his third language.

The story of “Tondemonai” can be said to have began with the founding of the Asian American theater company East West Players in Los Angeles in 1965. It was established by a group that included Mako, Beulah Quo, James Hong, and others, in a way that was designed to provide a showcase for ethnic Asian actors in non-stereotypical roles that would draw from their common Asian heritage. This goal gave rise to a central problem for its founders: finding suitable material. To be sure, they could and did produce translations of existing Asian plays — their inaugural production was an acclaimed stage version of the Japanese drama “Rashomon” that featured set designs by Mako’s father, the Japan-born artist Taro Yashima. They could also adapt Western plays. For example, in 1968, East West Players performed a version of Gian Carlo Menotti’s opera, “The Medium.” Still, in order to directly express its group identity, East West Players needed to find plays by and about Asian Americans to perform. While in 1969 the company performed Henry Woon’s “Now You See, Now You Don’t,” such plays were few and far between, as Asian American authors in those days faced limited opportunities and professional marginalization. In order to encourage submission of original scripts, East West Players announced a new playwriting competition, with a prize of $1,000 (funded in part by a grant from the Ford Foundation).

By good fortune, the company had within its own ranks Soon-Tek Oh (aka Soon-Taik Oh), an actor who was also a dramatist. Born in Korea during the period of Japanese rule, Oh was educated in both Korean and Japanese. After attending Yonsei University in Seoul (and no, despite its name, it is not a school for fourth generation Nikkei!) he moved to the United States and studied acting at Sanford Meisner’s famed Neighborhood Playhouse. Oh was an MFA student at UCLA in 1965 when he joined East West Players, appearing in the inaugural production of “Rashomon.” (According to Esther Kim Lee’s history of Asian American theater, Oh was recruited as a replacement for original member George Takei after he left the group to join the cast of “Star Trek,” but this would appear inaccurate). Oh rapidly became a central figure in the company. He acted in several of its productions (even as he took outside gigs to help support himself, appearing in episodes of the TV series “I Spy” and others). Meanwhile, he contributed two of his own plays for East West Players’ 1967 season. “Martyrs Can’t Go Home,” originally written as Oh’s MFA thesis at UCLA (where it won the Hurwitz Prize), was a Korean War drama that portrayed the complex lives and loyalties of a North Korean family. “Camels Were Two-Legged In Peking,” set in 1930s Beijing, was adapted from Lao She’s novel “Rickshaw Boy.” While neither work dealt with Asian Americans, they were both sufficiently well received that Mako and other members of the company pressed Oh to take on an Asian American subject and compete for the playwriting prize.

Inspired by his colleagues, Oh began work on a new play. He took as his theme the painful human drama of wartime Japanese American confinement. It was a courageous choice. The story of the camps had scarcely ever been dramatized, though Hiroshi Kashiwagi’s poignant play “Laughter and False Teeth” had been given a private staging at the University of California, Berkeley in 1955. (The 1960 film “Hell to Eternity” portrayed mass removal and had an interior scene set at “Camp Manzanar,” but these were so sanitized as to be barely recognizable). By the time Oh began writing, the issue of confinement, long muted, had regained some currency. In 1969, local activists in Los Angeles organized the first Manzanar Pilgrimage, and in 1970 Edison Uno introduced a resolution in favor of official reparations at the Japanese American Citizens League’s national convention.

Even so, Oh discovered a considerable amount of shame and repression over the wartime experience within Nikkei communities, especially among older people. (In her searing documentary “When You’re Smiling,” Janice Tanaka later attributed the silent epidemics of family violence and drug abuse within Japanese communities in late 1960s Los Angeles to the unmet trauma of the camps). To dramatize this group denial, Oh gave his work the ironic title “Tondemonai — Never Happen!” (Tondemonai is a Japanese phrase that means “absurd and unbelievable”). Oh later commented that many elder Nikkei did not welcome the idea of a play, and expressed bigotry against him as a Korean for airing the community’s dirty laundry through it. Luckily, he added, Mako was stalwart in his defense of Oh and his text.

Oh submitted his new work for the playwriting contest. In early 1970, “Tondemonai” was pronounced a winner, awarded the prize and set for staging. Since, according to Oh, his $1,000 purse was appropriated to finance the production, there may have been some sleight-of-hand involved in the judging. (That said, the following year Momoko Iko, who was not connected with the company, would win the playwriting contest for her drama “Gold Watch.” Staged by East West Players in 1972, it is often described as the first play to portray the wartime confinement). Mako was selected as the lead. Beulah Quo and Alberto Isaac, both of whom had previously appeared in “Martyrs Can’t Go Home,” were chosen for the main supporting roles. Other cast members included Shizuko Iwamatsu, Ernest Harada and John Mano. (Robert Ito, in the days before “Quincy, M.E.,” had a small role). Oh agreed to serve as director for the production, though he had never before directed a play. He later speculated archly that he might have been selected because he would not charge the company extra money for directing! (As it was, Oh was so bereft of funds that he could not afford a living space, and spent his nights sleeping on the stage of the company’s makeshift theater). Rehearsals took place in a church basement — according to one story, a church deacon was scandalized when he came upon two partly dressed actors preparing a scene! “Tondemonai” opened officially on May 28, 1970 at the Players Lab on Griffith Park Boulevard.

To summarize the plot briefly (with apologies for spoilers!): In a bunker-like basement room, Koji Murayama, a Kibei former inmate, is tortured by flashbacks of his past life: his confinement at Manzanar and his marriage to a hakujin woman there; the horrors experienced by his parents in camp; the attack he suffered at the hands of super patriots who targeted him as “disloyal”; his confinement at Tule Lake and his term in prison; and the collapse of his marriage. His traumatic experience has turned him into a cold, unfeeling individual, though he is playful with his landlady Cherry Williams, a Nikkei woman married to a disabled black American GI. Through a sexual encounter with a young Chinese American man, Fred Chung, with whom he finds himself psychologically (and physically) stripped down, Koji starts to wake up from his numbness and feel strong emotion.

“Tondemonai” received some hostile reviews in the Japanese American press. Kats Kunitsugu, writing in Kashu Mainichi (May 29, 1970), found the dialogue stilted and the camp scenes not credible. Speaking as a Kibei herself, Kunitsugu criticized the insufficient focus on the clash of loyalties that the Kibei faced. Ellen Endo Kayano, reporting in Rafu Shimpo (May 29, 1970) focused rather primly on the nudity in the play, which she considered “shock value,” and the “sordid” profanity and homosexuality. She did, however, express her pleasure at seeing a play that “for the first time gives an Oriental’s version of an Oriental,” and at the play’s power to transform stereotypes of Asians. Outside the community, “Tondemonai” was reviewed in the Los Angeles Times, which referred to the play as affecting but confusing, while a notice appeared in the gay magazine The Advocate.

After its initial workshop production, “Tondemonai” was not revived, either by East West Players or other theater troupes. Soon Tek-Oh went on to enjoy a distinguished career as a film and TV actor, but largely ceased his playwriting. Mako continued to serve as actor, director and teacher to generations of Asian American performers. He died in 2006.

“Tondemonai” is a powerful play. Why has it been forgotten? It was clearly too radical for acceptance by much of its original audience — it gave voice to a variety of matters that Nikkei, especially older ones, were not ready to discuss. Indeed, looking at the playscript gives the present-day reader an uncanny sense of being in a time warp, as the themes it covers and its approach are both so contemporary. How could people at the time, watching scenes of trauma in camp, have guessed that a movement to demand official reparations for wartime Japanese Americans would triumph in less than 20 years? Seeing two troubled but loving interracial marriages in the play, how could people have predicted that in 38 years Barack Obama, the product of two such interracial couples (first his biological parents, then his mother and Asian stepfather who raised him) would be elected to the White House? Most of all, in an era when homosexuality was illegal in most states, including California, and mention of it was all but taboo in Asian American communities, the play’s portrayal of three-dimensional LGBT characters was revolutionary. It still seems novel today, in our ostensibly more enlightened era. As Martha Graham famously said, “No artist is ahead of his time. He is his time; it is just that others are behind the time.” Well, in the last years, the Manzanar camp and Tule Lake segregation center were declared national landmarks, the heroism of the draft resisters has been publicly celebrated, and Mark Takano, a Sansei from Riverside, recently became the first open LGBT Asian American elected to Congress. So perhaps history is truly starting to catch up with Soon-Tek Oh!

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., the author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. He can be reached at robinson.greg@uqam.ca.

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