Editor’s Note: Peter Golub, a young gifted writer, editor and scholar whose work was the focus of a feature last month in The Selective Echo, is a guest reviewer for Plan-B’s current production of Block 8, a world premiere by playwright Matthew Ivan Bennett and director Jerry Rapier. The production continues 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. An additional performance has been added for March 7 at 5 p.m. Further background about the play as featured in The Selective Echo is featured here.
Block 8, a play set in the Topaz, Utah Japanese interment camp, walks the razor edge that all retrospectives about government sanctioned racism and violence must walk. On one side there is the risk of being accusatory (i.e. committing the cliché of calling a wrong thing wrong); on the other side there is the risk of over empathizing with the perpetrator of the injustice, and thus being too sentimental. If we look at the evolution of retrospectives about the atrocities that took place during World War II, the early examples fall to the former category, and the recent examples fall to the latter (e.g. this year’s Oscar Nominee The Reader). Of course the problem with augmenting a particular take on history is the failure to portray the real complexity of the relationships that actually took place. Given the difficulty of the task, Mathew Bennett’s Block 8 is a cautious step in the right direction.
Bennett tells the story of two people: Ken, a 23-year-old Japanese man who was taken out of his classes at Berkeley and sent to the camp with his family, and Ada, a middle-aged Mormon woman whose son is fighting in the Pacific. The two meet when Ken (played by Bryan Kido) begins visiting the small school library at the camp where Ada (played by Anita Booher) is a librarian. At first the reserve of these characters feels like an impenetrable wall, but soon this sets up a sort of symmetry, which is one of the play’s greatest achievements.
For much of the play the two characters awkwardly inch to and away from each other like teens on a first date. The play is most veracious when it shows the impossibility of the two ever really communicating. When Ken tries to teach Ada to meditate, she politely tries, and then calls it a form of escapism. When Ada comments on the beauties of Tchaikovsky, Ken replies with curt one-word answers. Of course, it is not that a Mormon cannot meditate, or that a Japanese man cannot enjoy Tchaikovsky, but that a lacuna exists between the two characters.
Eventually the two do manage to form a thin line of intimacy, but it is constantly strained by the state of the war, and the general hostility that is thick in the air of the camp. The poignancy of the play is embodied not in the rather uneven soliloquies (which interrupt the action of the play by giving the audience a window into the characters’ private thoughts) but in the mirroring between the Ada and Ken.
Both are trapped in a world where their individual choices have been virtually stripped away. When Ada speaks about the importance of freedom it is as heartbreaking, as it is eerie. Her son is in the war, her husband works far away and she rarely sees him, and she works in the camp because the family is in penury and needs the money. She is clearly a patriot who believes her country is fighting on the right side — “there are good wars,” she says — but in Ken’s presence it is clear that even “good wars” have terrible consequences.
Both characters are under an enormous amount of stress, but they are supposed to act reserved and cordial to one another. Their inner rage must be hushed, which makes the choice of setting the play in a library a brilliant move by Bennett.
Bryan Kido is clearly the junior actor. At times his delivery seems more like poems read from memory than the speech of person in action. His outbursts seem a little too calculated, and his conciliations a bit too hasty. However, whatever imperfections there are in Kido’s performance they are made up by Anita Booher, who plays the pensive librarian with elegance. One can see Booher thinking of what to say when she talks to Ken, which, at times, achieves a Brechtian distance and creates a feeling of estrangement that punctuates the general unease in the play. In her performance, she successfully communicates the strain of a woman whose world takes more than it gives.
Block 8 does not demonize the human capacity for evil, nor does it heroize the victims. It succeeds not by magnifying injustice, but by showing an honest picture of two decent yet imperfect human beings in cruel circumstances. Matthew Ivan Bennett’s play transcends the topical element of his retrospective, and reminds the audience that we have not changed so much, that there is potential for decency and injustice running through all of history, and it is by helping us keep our eye on this potential that he has encouraged our hope in the former.
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