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Star-Bulletin Features

Monday, November 6, 2000

Manoa Valley Theatre
The "Sisters Matsumoto" are, from left, Summie
Choy, Wendy Muraoka-Larrow and Dian Kobayashi.

All can identify
with ‘Sisters’
search for home

By Stephanie Kendrick

The internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II has inspired so many writers and other artists that the thought of another play on the subject might well lead one to ask, why?

"There was a period of time when I was working with a theater company and we did nothing but camp plays," said actress Dian Kobayashi. "I didn't think I could ever do another one."

Two things changed her mind. First, she kept running into people who either didn't know about the internment or had learned about it from one of those plays.

Second, Philip Kan Gotanda wrote "Sisters Matsumoto," perhaps the first post-camp play.

In Gotanda's drama, three sisters return from World War II's internment camps to their once-thriving family farm in California and attempt to rebuild their unrecognizable lives.

The family, once prosperous members of a white country club, lost almost all of its wealth and must reinvent its reality.

Kobayashi plays Grace, the more traditional of the three sisters, in Manoa Valley Theatre's production of "Sisters Matsumoto," which opens Wednesday.

Working on the play has affected the cast and crew in different ways.

For Kobayashi, it has raised questions about how she defines home.

"Home has a lot to do with shaping who you are," said the Big Island native, whose family moved to California when she was a child. She studied drama at the University of Hawai'i, then moved back to the mainland and has gone back and forth since, now living in Los Angeles.

"In a lot of ways, I still consider this my home," said Kobayashi.

Being from Hawaii has shaped how she thinks about race and her own identity.

Kobayashi tells a story of being in a play with four other Japanese-American actresses. One, a nisei from California, one day raised the question of how they each defined themselves.

"Immediately, the two of us from Hawaii said, 'We feel we're from Hawaii. That's who we are,' " said Kobayashi.

The two women from California thought of themselves as Japanese-American and the one hapa actress, who was Japanese and Italian by ethnicity, defined herself as American.

Like the characters in the play, Kobayashi acknowledges the home she comes back to here is not the one she left. The Kapoho of her youth was one of chicken coops, outhouses and rain barrels. It no longer exists, she said, though she feels connected to it

"It has forced me to reexamine what I consider home, or where I consider home," said Kobayashi.

Director Phyllis Look said Gotanda's play has given her a renewed appreciation for the power of theater.

"The richness of the characters Philip has created for us, they inspire us," she said. "No other form could do what this play does in terms of making you live in these people's shoes."

The sister described as "vivacious" in the text notes, Chiz, is played by Sammie Choy. She is inspired by the generation of Japanese-Americans portrayed in the drama and their accomplishments in the face of such challenges.

The different way the characters in the play respond to their situation also impressed her.

"Even though we're a family unit, we hardly agree on things," said Choy. "It would be great if people appreciated that there are different possible reactions to these things and they're all very human reactions."

The humanity of Gotanda's characters makes this a play about people rather than racism, said Look. "(The humanity of his characters) has nothing to do with race. A bad marriage is a bad marriage no matter what the color of the people. Young love is young love, no matter what the color," she said.

"They don't think of themselves as Japanese nationals. That's the crime. They (442nd Japanese-American troops) were as American as the Texans rescued in the Lost Battalion."

The heroism of WWII's Japanese-American soldiers, many of whom came from families incarcerated by their own country, is well known. As is the fact that the majority of those interned chose to rebuild their lives in the United States after the war.

"That generation not only sacrificed by going into the camps to prove their patriotism and loyalty, but they sacrificed again, sometimes in terms of their own mental health in terms of having to pick up the pieces and start again," said Look. "They were, in their hearts, American. The majority of them were American citizens."

While the lessons of this story seem familiar, there is ample evidence they have not been learned, said Kobayashi.

"When we were at war with Iraq, there was talk about isolating the Iraqi-Americans," she said. The Japanese-American community organized a protest and the idea was not pursued.

"Hardship and injustice can happen any time," she said. "This could be anybody's family.

"I hope they will come away with the feeling that they have become part of this family," she said. "Ultimately, it is a story about the triumph of the human spirit."

'Sisters Matsumoto'

Bullet On stage: Wednesday to Nov. 26, at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 4 p.m. Sundays
Bullet Place: Manoa Valley Theatre
Bullet Tickets: $22; discounts available for seniors, military, students and patrons under 25
Bullet Call: 988-6131

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