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Nikkei, I'm talking to you: go see this play at the Arts Club before February 12.
I first read the book Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto five or six years ago. It was given to me (or maybe lent to me… it’s just occurred to me that I never offered to return it) by my grandma, who is Japanese Canadian. The book focuses on two narratives: one of a Japanese Canadian woman (Mitsue) whose family was interned during World War II, and the other of a white Canadian man (Ralph) who joined the army and was taken prisoner in a Japanese POW camp at the same time.
It’s a true story of Mark Sakamoto’s grandparents—the suffering and heartbreak they endured, and what it took for them to accept each other’s families when Mitsue’s son and Ralph’s daughter fell in love.
And when I saw that Hiro Kanagawa was adapting Sakamoto’s book into a play at the Arts Club (and joint produced by Theatre Calgary), I was excited because I knew the story on two levels. The first, of course, was that I had read the book. The second was that there are several parallels between Sakamoto’s story and my own family history. I also have paternal Japanese Canadian grandparents and maternal white Canadian grandparents. My own grandpa’s family was forcibly removed from the B.C. coast and interned during World War II. And (like Sakamoto), I’m a descendant still feeling the effects of this removal.
Much of the history of Japanese internment has been erased over the years, both by white folks in power who wish to brush it off and Japanese Canadians who wish to forget it. To anyone wanting to learn more about this dark part of Canadian history: see this play.
I could write my own hours-long three-act about how much I loved this production. The set, which at first appeared rather simple, moved like liquid and transported us from Vancouver to Quebec to Hong Kong and beyond. The actors playing Japanese Canadians spoke a mix of Japanese and English with an ease that felt both chaotic and comforting to me. The scenes jump between time and space but are still completely comprehensible (thanks, bell-bottoms, for screaming IT’S THE ’70S to the back row). And despite the incredibly difficult subject matter, there were so many moments of humour and of hope.
The play takes place over 40ish years, and Yoshie Bancroft’s portrayal of Mitsue was spectacular—she slipped seamlessly between teenage and adult versions of her character, channelling naivety or maturity at the flip of a switch. Jovanni Sy’s take on Yosuke, Mitsue’s father, tugged at my heartstrings (he reminded me of both my father and my late grandfather). Speaking of heartstrings: at times, Forgiveness is a very tough watch.
Kanagawa’s stage adaptation breathes life into some of the extreme racism tackled in the book. And even though this is a part of history I know well, it’s still jarring to see people marching across the stage holding signs that say “JAPS OUT OF B.C.” and hear white folks—in character, of course—call Asian Canadians ch*nks while pulling their eyes back (I don’t even like typing that word). Seeing the Japanese Canadians fight so hard for basic rights as they are uprooted from their homes, separated from their loved ones and sent to live in conditions unsuitable for animals is upsetting enough. But what’s even worse is the faith they continue to have in the Canadian government—the belief that this is just temporary, and that once the war is over everyone will be equal. The hope is almost too much to handle, especially when you know what follows.
That’s another part of Forgiveness that is at once both delightful and devastating: it’s modern. At times Kanagawa takes characters out of the story and has them speaking directly to the 2023 audience. Bancroft introduces Mitsue’s hometown as “you know, where that fancy mall by the airport is” and there are references to the West End, Shaughnessy, Powell Street and the Stanley Theatre (yes, the same one you’re watching from—very meta). Hearing that Japanese and Chinese Canadians were dying of TB at rates exponentially higher than white people was chillingly reminiscent of statistics we’ve seen about BIPOC folks dying from COVID. At one point, Griffin Cork, who plays Ralph, states his war lasted for four years. Mitsue offers that for her, it lasted “seven… or 70… maybe it’s still going.” Seeing evidence of Canada’s past racism isn’t jarring because it’s so foreign. It’s jarring because it’s so familiar.
I’ve mentioned Bancroft, Sy and Cork, but want to also applaud the other cast members: Jerod Blake, Daniel Fong, June Fukumura, Manami Hara, Alana Hawley Purvis, Fionn Laird, Jacob Leonard, Isaac Li, Allison Lynch and Kevin Takahide Lee as well as director Stafford Arima and video designer Cindy Mochizuki (I don’t want to give away too much about the multimedia aspect of the show, but trust me, it rocks). It was evident how much care went into this production, especially given how violent and traumatic some parts of the story are.
I’ve already told my parents they need to see this show, and asked them to bring my grandma (remember, the one who gave me the book in the first place)? My grandpa—who, exactly like Mitsue’s family, was interned in Vancouver and then sent to work on a sugar beet farm in Alberta—passed away two years ago, so we unfortunately can’t get him a ticket. Plays weren’t really his thing, anyway (he likely would have fallen asleep, which says a lot more about his interest in the arts than it does about how engaging the performance is). Still, I am grateful that stories like his are being shared with this much honesty, compassion and integrity—and just as a play can capture the enduring effects of systemic racism, so can it spotlight the unwavering spirit of Japanese Canadians.
Forgiveness is on at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage until February 12. Get tickets here.