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From middle class to a dirty barn: The Japanese Problem

Lorraine Graves   Sep-14-2018

A talent show, shown in shadow, lightens the mood and spirits for internees and audience alike.

Photo (JpsProbTalentShow) courtesy Universal Limited Theatre


Sam is a teacher’s assistant, a young woman who loves to dance and sing. She looks to a career as a teacher and lives the typical life of a middle-class teenager in Steveston. Until the spring of 1942.

The play, “Japanese Problem,” explores Sam’s life from the moment she arrives in the PNE horse barn at Hastings Park. A horse barn that is the venue for the play. The horse barn that became her home after the federal government took everything but one small suitcase of goods. Even that suitcase was taken from each internee as they arrived on the PNE grounds.

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Sam, like the other internees had been there before, for fun. Like all Canadians they’d been to the fair. They’d seen the horses and livestock in the barns, watched as the dung was sluiced down the shallow trenches behind the box stalls. Little did they know those sluices were to become their only toilets. Their flush conveniences, running hot and cold water, were things of their past life, seized from them by the Canadian government. It was quite legally done. The War Measures Act, you know.

Even though most were Canadians, either through birth or naturalization, the federal government labelled them Enemy Aliens. In all, 8,000 Canadians went from their comfortably- furnished homes to the barns at Hastings Park. Many were from Steveston.

It started small. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese government, at first, Canadians of Japanese ancestry had to turn in their radios, then cameras, then cars and trucks. Eventually, everything in their homes, lives, stores, shipyards, farms and boats was meticulously catalogued and taken.

Originally told the government was holding it in trust, everything was sold for pennies on the dollar to other Canadians all too glad to scoop up a quality bargain. None of the money went to those who’d built and paid for everything.

In the play, this loss, this cold reality hits home for Sam, and through her, to all in attendance. We follow her through the cavernous barn, as she learns to cope with a straw mattress, the stench, the lack of privacy, even the decision in the cold barn whether to use the blanket for privacy or warmth. It was a particularly cold spring that year.

In the play, coughs start to spread through the barn. Sick children are quarantined in a coal cellar with only each other to provide care down in the darkness.

Later, when Sam tries to quiet her newborn niece, she asks the nurse for some medicine for the baby’s cough. Instead, the nurse takes the baby to the quarantine cellar.

It’s not all bleak. Sam meets a handsome young man, Ken, short for Kenji. A simple romance looks ready to blossom until he is abruptly shipped out. Men, young and old, were often separated from their families to work on road crews. Families who agreed to work as labourers on farms, far from the coast, could stay together.

A talent night, shown in shadow behind a lit sheet, shows the skills of the internees, skills that most have had to leave behind with their dancing shoes and sheet music. The irony of singing and dancing in the talent show to “We’re in the Money” hits home.

The guard, once a band leader, has rules to enforce. The difference between his youthful life and the internees’ is stark.

The sets for Japanese Problem were minimal, as were the lives of those who struggled to live in the PNE horse barn at Hastings Park. The set and the setting were used with finesse.

The lighting and use of shadow images adds depth to the production. The music, both in the background and when poignantly performed, adds yet another layer of depth. The reality of the situation is never in doubt.

The real stand-outs are the meticulous research, the staging, the writing, and most of all, the acting. At one point, the audience stands in a large concrete room with drains in the floor, presumably for washing race horses. The only two actors in the room have all of us rapt. All reality outside that room is gone. The action wrenches our emotions. Then we see the dedication and compassion of the acting troop come into play as the woman playing the quarantining nurse breaks down, saying she cannot play this part anymore.

The play does go on. We follow the action to another part of the barn.

And then, beautiful young Sam also develops a tuberculin cough.

While each of the actors strikes exactly the right note, the program did not make it clear who played which role so, at the risk of getting it wrong or leaving out the name of one of the flawless actors, I have left out specific mentions.

This is a play you experience as much as you watch. It is neither lengthy nor expensive to attend. There is a brief discussion time after each performance. The feedback time is good.

This is theatre at its most powerful. With this week’s poisoning in Russia of the Russian-Canadian performer, Pyotr Verzilov, and with this play, we see the power of the arts, the crucial need for the arts in Canada and around the world. It is not mere entertainment. It has power. Power to teach. Art, creativity, has the ability to speak truth to power, be it in a painting like Goya’s The Third of May 1808, Pussy Riot’s songs, the daily political cartoon that skewers a politician, or a play like Japanese Problem. We need these artists to prick our balloon of self-satisfaction with the status quo, to remind us what has happened, and to teach us why it must never happen again.

Experience this play. Because, we must remember.

Japanese Problem plays Sept. 13 to 29 at the PNE’s Hasting’s Park horse barn.


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