Nisel Sisters are Doing It for Themselves
"Sisters Matsumoto," by Berkeley playwright Philip Kan Gotanda, shows through April 29 at the Lesher Center for the Arts.
By Sam Hurwitt
Center REPertory Company couldn't have known just how topical Sisters Matsumoto would be when the resident theater company at Walnut Creek's Lesher Center for the Arts decided to put the play in its 2016-17 season.
Set in 1945, acclaimed Berkeley playwright Philip Kan Gotanda's 1999 drama focuses on the return of three sisters to their family farm after being imprisioned in an internment camp in World War II. Their formerly prosperous father died in the camp, the farm is in ruins, and the three very different sisters have to figure out where to go from here.
Sisters Matsumoto first played the Bay Area at San Jose Rep in 1999, directed by former Berkeley Rep artistic director Sharon Ott, in a co-production with Ott's new home Seattle Rep (which premiered it earlier that year) and Asian American Theatre Company. Now what had been an unflinching look at a shameful chapter in our nation's history is sadly given renewed currency due to the recent resurgence of xenophobia and anti-immigrant hysteria at the highest levels of American government.
The Center REP production is helmed by powerhouse director Mina Morita, artistic director of San Francisco's Crowded Fire Theater, and stars Keiko Shimosato Carreiro, Carina Lastimosa, and Melissa Locsin as the titular sisters.
Center REP's 'Sisters Matsumoto' no longer simply a play of history
By David John Chavez
For Mina Morita, making theatre is a very personal endeavor.
So if her full time gig’s work is very personal, maybe the best way to describe her latest production is very VERY personal.
Morita, a first generation Japanese-American, or “nisei,” is directing “Sisters Matsumoto” at Center REPertory Theatre, which opens on Tuesday, April 4th. It is the story of three young women who return to their family’s California farm after their World War II incarceration. The sisters, who lived privileged lives with their father, a successful community organizer, are forced to deal with the fallout after their imprisonment, and the new reality that they might not be as American to others as they once believed.
The production is deeply rooted in the Bay Area. It premiered at Seattle Repertory Theatre in 1999, a co-production with the now defunct San Jose Repertory Theatre. It made its Bay Area premiere shortly after in San Jose, directed by 13-year Berkeley Repertory Theatre artistic director Sharon Ott.
When Morita was first granted the opportunity to direct this play, she looked at it as a piece of history being chronicled on the stage, written by premiere American playwright Philip Kan Gotanda, a play set in his native Stockton. But since the most recent presidential election, where travel bans and religious tests place freedom in peril, Morita realized she was now directing something that had become timely.
“The play felt that it was at a distance, but now that we are having discussions and ideas around a Muslim registry, it now feels very present,” said Morita. “There are folks who are pointing to Japanese incarceration as a model, and to even think that, it is sort of beyond the imagination.”
Mina Morita, Director
Yet, despite the pain of the situation for the characters, and the opening of some of the harshest wounds in the history of the nation, Morita has found there might be a greater good at work.
“It is amazing to be able to lift up this beautifully written play that speaks to our resilience,” said Morita. “It’s a family story with six members of a family trying to rebuild their lives after having everything taken from them. I think that’s something we can connect to.
“Hopefully it raises dialogue about why anyone who is trying to embrace what we espouse as an American mythology has their lifestyle threatened.”
Something that was important to Morita was creating a space filled with performers who shared what she calls a social justice perspective. The play cannot be performed as a piece of nostalgia. In the current times, where much of the rhetoric we hear daily is focused on what it means to be “American,” Morita needs the audience to feel a connection with these characters, despite the fact that the play is set more than 70 years ago in 1945.
“The cast all comes to the table with a sense of immediacy and passion for which I am really grateful,” said Morita. “The play has a completely different resonance. In the rehearsal room, it doesn’t feel nostalgic, but it has a vibrant feel, as if the characters are people you would invite into your home today.”
Something that is also very personal for Morita is the ability to bring forth these stories into not just spaces that specialize in theatre for people of color, but theatre in bigger regional houses. And despite the fact that having theatre productions featuring Asian stories have found stages throughout the Bay Area in grand numbers lately, she looks forward to this being the beginning of something bigger.
“It’s really important that companies continue programming work like this,” said Morita. When we talk about how we get sensibility and diversity in our communities, art is the heart of any civilization. It can have a profound effect on the conversation we are having nationally.
“These productions can lift up our larger theatre field not just with one show out of the season, but with many shows out the season. Arts are part of our daily fabric.”