“Maybe We’re Just People”: A Review of “No-No Boy,” a Play by Ken Narasaki

Ichiro Yamada (Chris Doi) Returns Home from Tule Lake Prison

The Origins of “No-No Boy”

Beloved Japanese-American actors, Pat Morita and George Takei, have no doubt made many Americans aware of the internment of Japanese Americans in American concentration camps during World War II. Ken Narasaki, the playwright who brings us No-No Boy, has adapted John Okada’s 1957 novel of the same name, about a particular, but perhaps less well-known, consequence of this racist episode.

John Okada himself was interrupted in his college studies by the internment, but he was allowed to leave the camp by pledging his allegiance and agreeing to be drafted into military service. His novel and Narasaki’s play both explore the consequence for those who refused to take the offer.

In facilitating this service amnesty, our government presented a loyalty questionnaire that divided the Japanese-American population including immigrants, who could not legally become citizens (Issei), and Nisei, American-born Japanese men and women, along with Sansei (next generation), according to their response to two questions about their “unqualified allegiance to the United States” and their “willingness to serve in the military” whether in (male) combat roles or the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. Those who refused to answer questions 27 and 28 affirmatively were branded “No-No Boys” (the play does not mention the girls) and imprisoned at Tule Lake.

The New York Production of No-No Boy

Questions 27 and 28, along with the logo of Selective Service System, are painted in large letters on the walls of the black box Studio Theatre in the Theatre Row complex on 42nd Street in New York City.

The havoc those questions invoked looms over everything and forms the sole backdrop and focus of this play about the aftermath of the War for Japanese Americans. Scenic Designer Sheryl Liu has pared down the details to profoundly basic elements: one table and many chairs. And it works.

The Victims of Japanese Internment

Ron Nakahara (Director) comprehends the transformative argument of Ken Narasaki’s character-driven play, and the well-directed ensemble, led by Chris Doi, as nay-sayer Ichiro Yamada, performs with subtlety and grace. Particularly poignant are the performances of Ichiro’s parents: Karen Tsen Lee, as Ichiro’s Ma, who clings to the beautiful story of her past, lost-cause heritage, binding her son to her faulty thinking, while Dinh James Doan, as Pa, sadly watches the plot move on, waiting for a chance to help Ichiro find a future.

Tony Vo, as Ichiro’s desperate-to-assimilate younger brother, does an excellent job of defining the family conflict about being American in those times. Leanna Cabrera, doubling as two women struggling in their left-behind status, does an excellent job of distinguishing the long-suffering sweet and the world-wise Emi, from the promiscuous tough woman 2-A, making gentle transitions as fluid as replacing a shawl with a sweater.

Ichiro’s Journey

Predictably, Ichiro faces a divided population when he returns from prison, including his friend, Freddie, delivered with stubborn, get-even-with-life attitude by Eric Elizaga. Freddie tells “Itchy” how it is, highlighting the intolerance of those who said “yes,” like Eto, a resolute blamer who touts his six months of service rescued by a medical discharge. Played with great belligerence by Claro de Los Reyes, who morphs convincingly from Eto to Jun, the compassionate best friend of the deceased Bobbie Kumasaka, who never appears in the play. Indeed, we weep with Mr. and Mrs. Kumasaka, played poignantly by Scott Kitajima and Shigeko Sara Suga, respectively, as they struggle to both subdue and express their sadness. Scott Kitajima triples as well in the personae of Judge and Policeman; Shigeko Sara Suga also takes on the more-nuanced mother role of Mrs. Kanno, who must live with the regret of allowing her son, Kenji, to say “yes” to the fateful questions.

Perhaps the most complex relationship in the play is the one Ichiro shares with Kenji Kanno. Actor David Huynh tackles the complexity of this wounded warrior in some of the play’s most highly charged scenes — balancing his anger with a compassionate acceptance of his Ichiro’s decision — as he comes to grips with the inevitable, ultimate sacrifice. Kenji shows Ichiro a way forward, a path away from regrets.

About the Mise-en-Scène

The subtleties of the actors are well complemented by Hyun Sook Kim’s fine Costume Design. Kim works with a palette of mostly gray-toned colors that underscore the textured complexity of moral positions in this world. While the characters are often drawn allegorically, they are not defined by primary colors or black and white, but each one is distinct, and the doubled characters’ clothing makes a subtle statement about their connected mirror images.

Sound Design by Ian Wehrle sketches in the period details effectively through music and car engines; Lighting by Leslie Smith contrasts the drama with Ma’s interwoven stories of mythical times; Fight Choreography by Michael G. Chin raises the dramatic stakes.

Production Coherence

I want to say more about the set design by Sheryl Liu — the bare chairs of which was dismissed as a “budget” issue by another reviewer even while praising the play.

“No-No Boy” is a series of intimate moments played out by reconfiguring these chairs, which become cars, hospital beds, couches — whatever is needed. When a character’s moment is over, he or she recedes in Noh-like fashion to a chair, maintaining the essential body language of the moment.

The play is very much about the survival of the basics of life — but what of the complex emotional life of the people who’ve been harmed? How to seal over the wound when the emergency ends without forgetting what caused it? To live again is a choice made or not made by the members of any so oppressed group, and those individual choices make the play’s message universal, the abstract set a clean metaphor for its essence.

Stripped of our rights and property as citizens, who among us wouldn’t resort to ad libbing with the bare sticks of wood around us, each according to his or her own personality? The Platonic point about essences is well taken by the production team.

While there are actions that could be amplified by more dramatic backdrops or furnishings, the sparse set amplifies the poverty of spirit that hangs over an afflicted community. What is it like to give up everything in the hope of being an American? We’re still pondering this question about immigrants in 2018. To my mind, a roomful of empty chairs is an apt visual metaphor to begin and end Narasaki’s play and the discussion we need to have.

How “No” Becomes “Yes”

So much of American life is lived waiting in chairs — birth, marriage, death. War. For long stretches, Ma’s moving story is the only artful contrast to the sterility of waiting. And her defiance, woven around the stage, appears crazy. I have waited in a chair with my mother for my father to return from a war. The movement you choose after he returns is everything. Life is actually lived away from the chairs, in a dance, when Ichiro stops waiting and allows himself a partner. When “no” is replaced by a motion to “yes.”

“Maybe we’re just people,” muses the reconciling ensemble chorale at the end of the play. The word “just” cuts more than one way as the “maybe’s” dissolve the emotional prison. People are liberated from the prison of hateful words.

Now in its 41st Milestone Season, Pan Asian Repertory continues to present ground-breaking stories under the Artistic Producing Direction of Tisa Chang. The production continues Tuesday through Sunday, concluding February 18. For tickets, priced at $43.25 for all performances, contact Telecharge at www.telecharge.com, or call 212–239–6200. For information on Group, Senior, or Student Discounts, email info@panasianrep.org, or call (212) 868–4030.

© 2018 Deborah S. Greenhut, All Rights Reserved.