American Spies and Other Homegrown Fables emanates an understated sensory clash before any actor sets foot on stage. The play’s world is a simple 1940s living room and bedroom, decked out in all the furnishings and fabrics to place it comfortably in any American suburb. The pre-show soundtrack alternates between the songs you’d expect to come crooning out of the corner console radio and punchy, frenetic tunes straight out of an anime.
American Spies is a mashup of tones, styles, and time periods. It jumps from cartoonish to hyperrealist, from heartwarming to stomach-churning. Sometimes, the effect is whiplash. Isn’t it that way with family, culture, identity–and all the more when your worlds are at war?
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American Spies takes place in the span of the single day between the announcement of the Pearl Harbor attacks on December 7, 1941 and President Roosevelt’s declaration of war with Japan on December 8. The internment camps that sprang up in the aftermath of the attacks, imprisoning Japanese Americans under terrible conditions for no crime other than their identity, are not featured in the play, but drive its tensions.
At the story’s core is the Ishii family: first-generation Japanese immigrants Natsuko (Toni Rae Salmi) and Tamihei (Dylan Arredondo), and their American-born son George (Kramer Kwalick). They share their home with two spirits, wisdom in the form of Paper Crane (Rae Venna) and luck in the form of the slightly mischievous cat Maneki Neko (Phillip Reid). The spirits have apparently traveled with the family throughout time and space in the physical form of small “trinkets,” as they relate tales from at least as early as 1600s Japan.
The Ishiis are, by all appearances, successfully assimilating into U.S. norms. Natsuko has made friends with their white neighbors and puts on shoes in the house when they visit to make them feel comfortable. Tamihei has a good job in agriculture. They want George to know Japanese, but don’t speak it often at home, and try to balance their desire to carry forward cultural traditions with wanting their son to fit in and be safe. Nonetheless, the buffer against ostracization and oppression that their adopted habits provide crumbles when the bombs strike. They are driven to a more dramatic performance of patriotism: along with other Japanese community members, they decide to organize a bonfire to burn all of their books, letters, and objects associated with home.
The story unfolds as the Ishiis struggle to decide what must be burned, what must be forgotten, and what must be preserved. Not wanting to destroy every family correspondence in their possession just because they contain kanji (written Japanese characters), George asks a reasonable question: “Why burn it all if nothing we have is grounds for imprisonment?” But his parents know better: “They will not look closely enough to distinguish.” As a collective and as individuals, the family makes choices about what survival means. When is it acceptable to hide or destroy who you are to keep yourself and your family safe? To what extent is it possible to deny yourself, and still survive?
American Spies and Other Homegrown Fables closes August 4, 2019.
Details and tickets
The Hub Theatre’s rendition, directed by Kathryn Chase Bryer, is the first full production of a play by Sam Hamashima. He describes his work as “the collision between his queer identity and his Japanese-American identity.” American Spies is surefooted in its exploration of its characters’ multifaceted identities, and it treats the Ishiis with care, making time for moments of softness, humor, and love within the family while their world falls to pieces around them.
Kwalick stands out as George, a teenager just coming into his sense of self only to be told he must devote himself to blending in. Venna plays Paper Crane with a light touch, at once the incarnation of ancestral wisdom and sharply present as George’s concerned big sister figure. Meanwhile, Reid makes Neko-san a comic character with the bearing of a disgruntled but loyal feline companion, whose inherent luck is a powerful resource for the family, but may not be enough to hold off the forces they’re up against.
And on the other end of the spectrum, there’s Carolyn Kashner, who plays the sinister forces of racism and tyranny in three forms: the police officer who uses Tamihei’s broken tail light as a dubious excuse to search the Ishiis’ home, the white neighbor and wife of a government official who gets wind of the impending forcible relocation of Japanese Americans and scopes out the Ishiis’ house for valuables, and one surreal incarnation better left a surprise. Still, the neighbor is Kashner’s most insidious role, as she uses her identity as a “fellow immigrant”—from Ireland—and a “fellow woman” to establish a false sisterhood between Natsuko and herself for her personal gain.
Tinged with the surreal at every turn, this play makes space for ancient spirits and an ordinary family, for a traditional Japanese dance and anime-style combat (courtesy of Movement Director Catherine Oh), for soft 40s music and jarring interludes with songs that wrench us into contemporary decades. The pieces don’t always congrue, and some of the more fantastic—including a kind of stop-motion, strobe-lit fight scene—require a small appetite for camp. But this is a play with a vision, a heart, and an important story to tell.
American Spies and Other Homegrown Fables by Sam Hamashima. Directed by Kathryn Chase Bryer. Featuring Toni Rae Salmi, Kramer Kwalick, Rae Venna, Phillip Reid, Dylan Arrendondo, KyoSin Kang, and Carolyn Kashner. Costume Designer: Grace Kang. Set Designer: JD Madsen. Lighting Designer: Kristin A. Thompson. Sound Designer: Reid May. Movement Director: Catherine Oh. Props Designer: Amy Kellett. Stage Manager: Laura Hawk. Assistant Director: Kylie Levy. Produced by The Hub Theatre. Reviewed by Hannah Berk.
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