Photo courtesy of Sean Graff.
Only a few Americans probably know that the U.S. Supreme Court in December, 1944 upheld, by a vote of 6-3, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s executive order from two and a half-years earlier that forever had changed the lives of more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans and Japanese immigrants from the West Coast area.
It would be another 40 years before the Supreme Court overturned that ruling and still another four years before the U.S. would formally apologize to the internees and their families and compensate them with a modicum payment of $20,000 per internee.
The late Fred Korematsu, a Nisei (first-generation Japanese-American) and who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998, was at the center of that infamous court case. He and his family members were among the internees at the Topaz internment camp in a central Utah desert area.
He had defied the original internment order and was eventually arrested. For his conviction – an act of moral defiance as he described it – he received five years’ probation.
The stigma of that conviction remained in the back of his mind for decades until a California attorney in the early 1980s discovered that government prosecutors had suppressed evidence and military intelligence in Korematsu’s original trial which confirmed that Japanese-Americans posed no threat to national security and that they were as loyal and patriotic as any other American citizen.
The extremely pronounced sense of injustice in Korematsu’s story as well as thousands of others who suffered the indignation and humiliation of being imprisoned at Topaz echoes with unfiltered pulses in Matthew Ivan Bennett’s script for Block 8, which Plan-B Theatre will premiere in February.
“I first began writing with the intent of producing a balanced treatment,” Bennett, the company’s resident playwright whose works comprise Plan-B’s entire season this year, says. “There was no way I could write that play. My own feelings also had hardened – that such attitudes and treatments were so blatantly and egregiously racist and unconstitutional.”
Unlike some historians and civil libertarians who are apologists for that troubling period, Bennett is struck that the broader psychological and emotional impacts of those years have hardly waned, even among the descendants of those who experienced first hand the humiliation of internment. It is indeed shocking to think that U.S. Justice Hugo L. Black, now remembered as one of the most prominent civil liberties advocate in the judiciary, wrote in the 1944 Supreme Court opinion that Korematsu was not excluded “because of hostility to him or his race” but because the United States was at war with Japan, and the military feared an invasion of the West Coast.
Bennett’s own history with Topaz goes back to his childhood days. Located 16 miles out from Delta, the desert area at the foot of Topaz Mountain is brutal in the summer – hot winds blowing sand, rattlesnakes, and baked lava rock. However, every April and October, when the weather was bearable, Bennett camped in the area with his family. In his formative years, he gradually came to his own epiphanies about Topaz, clarifying the muted, watered-down recollections he occasionally heard from family members and townspeople. “I was confused for a while,” he recalls. “After all, our American history books had glossed over the interment camps here while in the meantime we learned a great deal about the camps in Europe.”
Even in his family, Bennett saw varying tones surrounding the history of Topaz. He learned first about the camps from his mother. His grandfather, as a result of his wartime service in the Pacific theater, had hardened attitudes about the Japanese in general. Bennett also recalls the story that his father was forbidden to date a young Japanese-American student during high school.
The utter sense of disenfranchisement and displacement that he imagined at such a camp further drew his attention to the topic. Bennett immersed himself deep into the secondary sources of history in print and video form, primary archival letters and documents, and interviews with those who were, in one way or another, connected to the camps either as an internee or employee.
Countless stories about internees popped up in his research – such as the farmer who came to the United States and had cultivated the same land for nearly a half century before being yanked away permanently and sent to a camp. Or, the traumatic memories of a woman walking to the camp latrine at night with her figure illuminated by a piercing spotlight, which terrified her as it was trained on her and followed her every step to and from the latrine. “The plain lack of privacy forever had been imprinted on her mind,” Bennett adds.
Strains of those stories find their paralleling voice in Bennett’s script. The genesis for his theatrical treatment came from a recorded recollection shared by one of his friends, the granddaughter of a librarian who worked at Topaz. This gives further insight into the type of justifying rationale rampant in the courts of the 1940s:
“I worked in those camps. We were there to help those people. It was wartime. Your generation has no idea about what it was like in those days. We couldn’t trust them, you see. Not after Pearl Harbor. They understood that, some of them. They knew that their people had betrayed us and that we had to protect America at all costs.
“Plus we needed the money, they were paying real good money to go up and teach the Asian people in Topaz, so I applied to be the camp librarian. It was good work. Good money. I helped get books for the little ones and helped the adults find appropriate books for them. Books that would help them be better Americans. We had a good, solid library of books donated by the good people of Utah to help them, so you see, it wasn’t so bad for them.
“They seemed to take it all right. And afterward, they went home and I went home. So don’t you think that it was all some terrible conspiracy against the Asians. It was what had to be done.”
The apologia also struck a visceral note with Jerry Rapier, Plan-B’s producing director. His natural mother was a child in Nagasaki during the atomic bomb attack. When he moved to Utah in 1993, he discovered the story behind Topaz and explored ways in which this sheltered piece of Utah history should eventually be a part of an ongoing discourse, made even more urgent in the days following 9/11 when real and imagined enemies resurrected tones and emotions uncomfortably similar to what were expressed decades earlier in the Second World War.
Even as current signs are bright and hopeful – the election of Obama, the proposed dismantling of the prison at Guantanamo, and the appointments of a truly diverse executive-level staff that includes the appointment of General Eric Shinseki (born in Hawaii in 1942 to a Japanese-American family) as Secretary of Veteran Affairs – these stories serve as a vigilant caution that our constitutional freedoms are never automatic nor fully guaranteed.
Bennett’s play centers on Ken (played by Bryan Kido), a young Nisei internee at Topaz, who is grappling with whether or not to enlist in the military to prove his loyalty as a U.S. citizen. He begins a tentative friendship with Ada (Anita Booher), a librarian working at the camp whose son is fighting in the Pacific. There certainly are underlying currents in this two-person counterpoint that Bennett hopes will stimulate the dialogue long past the play’s end – the realization that there can be no excuse or apologies for a nation that went over the edge into an unimaginably ugly abyss of racism.
The play will run from Feb. 20 to March 8 in the Studio Theatre of the Rose Wagner Center for the Performing Arts. Performances on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays will be 8 p.m. and Sunday shows will be at 2 p.m. Ticket information can be obtained by calling 801-355-ARTS or by going here.
Block 8 also is the centerpiece of the 2009 Day of Remembrance events, which are designed to pay respect to Japanese-Americans who were forced to report to internment camps during World War II. Details are available here.
Find Today's Daily Deal on the Best in Salt Lake City!