Japanese Problem is site-specific theatre at its most powerful

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      Created by Yoshié Bancroft and Joanna Garfinkel, with Universal Limited. Directed by Joanna Garfinkel. At the Livestock Building across from Hastings Racecourse on Sunday, September 24. Continues until September 30

      The power of place.

      Japanese Problem addresses the incarceration of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War: in 1942, the Canadian government removed over 8,000 Japanese Canadians from their homes, seized their land and belongings, and held them captive on what is now the PNE site. This play, billed as a “historical re-enactment”, quickly mutates into much more as we follow the performers around the barn where a thousand women and children were detained, hanging blankets between the livestock enclosures to create makeshift rooms.

      In a metatheatrical move that unites past and present, the actors introduce both themselves and the character they’ll be playing. Yoshié Bancroft’s Samantha dreams of being a dancer; we see her perform in a talent show. Johnny, played by Daniel Deorksen, is a sympathetic guard. Brent Hirose shows a photo of his grandfather walking proudly down the streets of New Westminster three years before the incarceration, prior to telling us about his character, Kenji. And Nicole Yukiko, who is the nurse’s assistant Maggie, repeatedly breaks character to balk at having to play the scenes she’s tasked with, revealing the site’s inhumane conditions and the generational trauma that she’s inherited.

      This layering effect plays out stylistically as well. In one scene, Samantha enumerates the few possessions she’s brought with her. Johnny’s voice overlaps hers, reading from a catalogue of another prisoner’s personal property—an archival document which we see projected on the wall. As each item is read out, a shadow of its shape appears, crowding out the text, while an auctioneer’s voice gradually drowns out the others.

      Material goods are only a fraction of the story; Maggie recounts how prisoners died daily of tuberculosis; sick children were separated from their families and consigned to a windowless dungeon. Shizuka Kai’s shadow puppets illustrate these facts with the bold, simple strokes of children’s art.

      There’s a lot packed into this short play, but its greatest impact comes from being invited to bear witness in the physical space where the events described actually took place 75 years ago. This is site-specific theatre at its most powerful.