Confronting the Past: Oregon Children’s Theatre’s “The Journal of Ben Uchida”
Before attending an Oregon Children’s Theatre play based on a book, I typically read the book to my kids; and I am especially glad that we did for this spring’s production. “The Journal of Ben Uchida: Citizen 13559” contains themes difficult to explain to children and is therefore meant for ages 10 and up.
Ben Uchida, played by Ken Yoshikawa, is a young boy who is sad and confused about what is happening as his neighbors and friends reject him after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in World War II. His family is taken from their home and forced to live in a California internment camp called Mirror Lake. Most productions by the children’s theater are presented on the large Newmark Theatre stage. However, Ben Uchida is housed in the smaller country-style Winningstad Theatre which helps to connect the audience to the emotions of the actors. The story is narrated by Ben himself as though we are hearing his journal. While the play only very loosely follows the novel, the emotions and reality of the experiences for Japanese Americans is authentic.
There are many poignant moments in the play which were portrayed better live than reading the story alone. An actual recording of President Franklin Roosevelt announcing the attack on Pearl Harbor plays from an old-fashioned radio. Suddenly, replica posters of Executive Order 9066 appear all over town and neighbors read newspaper headlines out loud. This is the most stirring scene as the headlines, rapidly read back to back, begin as more mild generalizations and then turn to outrageous accusations and pure racism. These headlines are, sadly, reminiscent of more modern voices telling those who are different to, “go back where you came from.”
Despite being a sad play, my family still enjoyed it very much. The actors did a wonderful job portraying hope, fear and loss. Yoshikawa, especially, did a great job of showing the confusion and frustration of a young boy at that time. The costumes and music were also well done. Yet, while the play is focused on emotions and authenticity, the plot line itself suffers. The transitions from scene to scene are somewhat confusing at times and there was not a real ending. This is where reading the novel or another book about the experience of Japanese and Japanese American concentration camp survivors fills in the gaps not covered by the play.
To help a young audience prepare for this performance, Oregon Children’s Theatre and Kaiser Permanente’s Educational Theatre Program (ETP) provide workshops for schools attending the play on a field trip. Eri Zinke is an art educator who was born and raised in Japan and who co-developed the curriculum with ETP with goals based in Kaiser’s community health initiatives. I was able to attend Zinke’s workshop at Chinook Elementary School. Most of the students had not read the book and were truly shocked to learn what the play they would be attending was about. It was interesting as I watched them realize that these events didn’t happen that long ago. The workshop focuses on what exclusivity looks and feels like and connecting local history in Portland to the incarceration of Japanese American citizens. Students had lots of questions and were eager to learn why Executive Order 9066 happened and what individuals did with their belongings. Zinke did a great job helping children to imagine themselves in the same situation.
Linda Tamura, a dramaturg and education consultant for “The Journal of Ben Uchida,” also attended the workshop. Her parents, grandparents and other family members had been held in internments camps—a fact she didn’t discover until she was an adult. Seeing Tamura in class helped the students to see that these events are relatively recent. Tamura’s words struck me when she shared that her family never spoke of their experiences as prisoners until she started researching local history and interviewed her grandmother. Her words were almost identical to one of Ben’s final lines, “We never talked about what happened.”
Tamura will be part of a panel to discuss the history and themes of “The Journal of Ben Uchida” immediately following the performances on March 6 and 13. The panel will include survivors of internment camps, and Japanese American artists, and educators.
“The Journal of Ben Uchida” runs Saturdays and Sundays through March 22. Tickets at https://www.octc.org/journal-of-ben-uchida.
Oregon Children’s Theater offers multiple resources for teachers. To book a field trip or schedule a school visit by an arts educator visit their website.
Featured photo credit: Owen Carey Photography.