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In Vancouver, two new works of theatre examine the ‘Japanese Problem’ 75 years later

Tetsuro Shigematsu’s 1 Hour Photo tells the story of a Japanese Canadian who went through incarceration during the Second World War.

Ray Shum

We can live on land that has borne witness to terrible things and never know the stories beneath our feet. We go about our days, oblivious, until someone draws our attention to our history. This fall, a riveting piece of theatre did that for me, in Vancouver.

A horrific thing, something we should have all learned about in history class, happened a few kilometres from my house in the east of the city – and I had no idea until I went to see The Japanese Problem. It wasn't an actual theatre I went to; this was a site-specific work that took place in a livestock building, outfitted for animals. Except that 75 years ago, we sent people to live there, our neighbours and friends.

During the Second World War, the BC Security Commission oversaw the operation that uprooted some 8,000 Japanese-Canadians from their homes and sent them, under RCMP escort, to live in various structures at Hastings Park in Vancouver – the same grounds where you can bet on the races, see a concert or attend the annual Pacific National Exhibition.

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In 1942, this became a transit station; from there, people were sent to internment camps or work camps further east – if they didn't die first. Their property was confiscated and sold for a fraction of what it was worth – and used to pay for their incarceration.

Two works of theatre that have premiered in Vancouver this fall address this terrible event. Tetsuro Shigematsu's 1 Hour Photo, which opened last week at The Cultch, recounts the story of one Japanese Canadian who went through internment – or incarceration, the now preferred term. Japanese Problem, which had a short run in September and has now been remounted as a museum installation, took us right inside what was then the women's and children's dormitory.

The immersive work, co-created by Yoshié Bancroft and Joanna Garfinkel, was staged in what is now called the Livestock Building, a giant barn so many of us have passed and visited during the annual late-summer PNE festivities. Back then, these stables became home to women and young children; men and boys were housed elsewhere on the site. The "hospital" area of the property, where, we were told, many people died, is now used for Vancouver's thriving film and TV production industry, mostly for set building.

Garfinkel directs and Bancroft stars as Sam, a young Japanese-Canadian woman who wants to be a dancer. Like each cast member, Bancroft moves in and out of character – mostly, she is Sam, but sometimes she is herself, reflecting on these events and how they have affected her own life. There is the nurse (Nicole Yukiko) with whom she shares a stall, a guard (Daniel Deorksen) who is there on duty reluctantly, and a boy (Brent Hirose) she is sweet on.

The show, produced by the collective Universal Limited, also employed multimedia, including shadow puppetry, to tell the difficult story.

At the talkback afterward, organized by the theatre company, we gathered on benches: Some of the attendees were descendants of people who had been incarcerated; others (me) had been previously ignorant to this use of the building. There were many tears.

I heard people crying at The Cultch the other night too, as Shigematsu told the story of Mas Yamamoto, a Japanese Canadian who had been incarcerated himself, but went on to start a family and a photo business. Both thrived – one of his daughters grew up to be a theatre producer (Donna Yamamoto, the show's artistic producer); another became an MLA, Naomi Yamamoto. In this multimedia work, Shigematsu guides us through an examination of Mas Yamamoto's life – throwing mostly to audio recordings of interviews he conducted with Yamamoto. He also employs video footage and photographs, including pictures of that East Vancouver barn, the stalls converted to holding cells.

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A Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre production directed by Richard Wolfe, 1 Hour Photo is not an entirely successful dramatic work; there were times when it felt more like a kind of live documentary – and I wondered if in fact Yamamoto's amazing interview would have been put to better use in a radio segment (Shigematsu is a former CBC Radio broadcaster; he hosted The Roundup). Shigematsu's monologue sometimes seemed stilted and there were moments when I felt like I was watching an inspirational TED talk rather than a work of theatre. But the 75-minute show ultimately delivered such an emotional punch that I could forgive its weaker aspects. (What I couldn't forgive was the use of the Van Halen monster hit Jump to transport us back to the year 1980. Anyone with a rock 'n' roll brain could tell you that Jump was a hit in 1984. It was on an album called 1984, for heaven's sake!)

While we're on music, Steve Charles – who composed the music for the show and plays it live, sharing the stage with Shigematsu – is terrific.

Japanese Problem was only about 40 minutes long, but it will stay with me forever. The play's very short run has ended, but a version of the work, Hastings Park 1942 – a video projection screened hourly onto a recreation of a stall – is now at the Nikkei National Museum in Burnaby. I hope Bancroft and Garfinkel are able to remount Japanese Problem back at the actual site. If they do, get your tickets early. The run this September sold out completely.

1 Hour Photo is at The Cultch in Vancouver until Oct. 15. Hastings Park 1942 is at the Nikkei National Museum until January 14, with a live performances Oct. 15 and Nov. 16.

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