LOS ANGELES — “Defining Courage,” a unique multi-platform, immersive live performance about the Nisei soldiers who served during World War II, is a work that’s ever-evolving.
When David Ono, ABC7 anchor in Los Angeles, first created it, the show was a tribute to the 100th Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team that was essentially a talk by Ono accompanied by slides and videos. It was inspired by a suggestion of the Asian American Journalists Association for its annual convention. He’s given the talk as a keynote speech for the Go For Broke National Education Center and at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, and for Japanese American communities elsewhere including Denver, in 2019.
That early talk has evolved. A lot.
With the help of co-producer and director Jeff MacIntyre, he’s refined it, and added stories to it. Back then he showed it with recorded music, but it now has original music composed for the performance by music director Chris Wade. When he performed “Defining Courage” for the National Japanese American Citizens League convention in July in Little Tokyo, live musicians and singers from the Raise Choir were onstage to add dramatic emphasis to the presentation, which features Ono’s well-practiced narration and photos and videos on screen.
The show is about to evolve again, and in fact Ono says he can customize it for various audiences as he takes “Defining Courage” on a national tour. He’s hoping to book dates in cities such as Salt Lake, Seattle, Denver, Chicago and Dallas or Houston, and perform in New Orleans at the World War II Museum. But he has some confirmed dates in the next few months: two shows in San Jose, Calif. on Oct. 22 (he’s hoping to book more dates in the Bay Area, including San Francisco), the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. for Veterans Day, and Honolulu on Dec. 7, when he’ll be in Hawai‘i to serve as master of ceremonies for the annual Pearl Harbor commemoration. He’s already performed “Defining Courage” three times in Honolulu, and recently performed in the LA area as a fundraiser for Maui fire relief.
Ono recently returned from a research trip to Europe and recorded interviews with French survivors in the town of Bruyeres where the Nisei soldiers rescued the Texas “Lost Battalion.” He filmed anecdotes from people who were kids back then who met the Hawai‘i soldiers of the 100th Battalion. He also found on the battlefield a class ring from a Honolulu high school and learned that the soldier who lost it died during the battle. Those kinds of personal, human stories make the show a tear-jerker. At the JACL convention performance, a gift bag on every seat included tissues, which came in handy for audience members who didn’t know what to expect.
He calls the additions of content new “chapters.” He says at the beginning, “It was two chapters. And then the version for JACL was nine chapters, with a lot more storytelling.”
Everywhere he performs, “Defining Courage” will have the narration, multimedia slide and videos and music, but the musicians will vary from location to location.
Some of the LA singers may be on stage at the Kennedy Center, but other performances may have local musicians and singers. “So we have a list,” he says of the places he’d like to take the show. “And we’ve been requested in a bunch of cities. The problem is, it’s quite the undertaking to get the ball rolling in each market.” Local community members need to help find venues and sponsors and figure out the logistics of bringing the show to each town. The Oct. 22 shows at 3 and 6 p.m. at Hammer Theatre Center at San Jose State are already sold out.
“It’s small, by far the smallest theater where we’re going to be doing the show,” he says. “And that’s why they’re doing two. But also, San Francisco and even Palo Alto are two big targets of ours, especially San Francisco.”
Even though he’s doing so much with “Defining Courage,” Ono is a full time television journalist. “I have a day job. I do three shows a day, and I still report and
do special projects for the station. And so it’s tough.”
Ono created a nonprofit for the project and says he doesn’t get paid for his work on “Defining Courage,” and any profits from ticket sales go right back into the show, which keeps growing. One chapter that was added since the early days is the inclusion of Nisei who served in the Pacific,in the Military Intelligence Service or MIS, and their role in the Battle of Okinawa.
“We don’t make anything; we are not profiteers. I would love for something creative like this to someday make money for me, but this is not the issue that I want to use.
Maybe I’ll do something more in the entertainment realm, but I’m not going to make money on the backs of our heroes. No way.”
For more information, visit https://definingcourageshow.com/.
Nichi Bei News contributing writer Gil Asakawa is a journalist, blogger (www.nikkeiview.com) and author of “Being Japanese American” and “Tabemasho! Let’s Eat! The Tasty History of Japanese Food in America.”