Members of the Grateful Crane Ensemble’s “Moonlight Serenaders” in “The Camp Dance: The Music & The Memories,” include (front row) Keiko Kawashima and Jason Fong; (back row) Kurt Kuniyoshi, Darrell Kunitomi and Haruye Ioka. (Photo by Phil Nee)
You wouldn’t think that the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II would make for great source material for a stage musical. But it does, and in a way, makes a much more effective vehicle to tell people about that time, and what happened to JA families, than heavier, dramatic works such as the novel and movie, “Snow Falling on Cedars.”
“The Camp Dance: The Music & the Memories” is proof that internment can be explained in an entertaining way through a musical.
Written and produced by Soji Kashiwagi, a sansei, and performed by his Grateful Crane Ensemble of actors, the play combines narration (the actors announcing what’s going on on the stage), acting (there’s plenty of terrific, believable and historically accurate dialogue), music and dance to entertain and educate audiences about the internment experience.
The difference is that although there are plenty of tears to shed, Kashiwagi’s script deftly weaves the sadness with flat-out humor, and then overlays the storytelling with the joy of the music and dancing of the big-band era. The overall effect is a very warm and enjoyable nostalgic performance where you walk away thinking, “man, I didn’t know all that happened to Japanese Americans.”
This level of education even goes for JAs, many of whom (especially if they’re younger) haven’t been told about internment by their parents or grandparents, and were never taught about internment in history books.
One reason “The Camp Dance” works so well is that the music isn’t an original score set in the time and place of the story. The songs are classic swing numbers from “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and “Moonlight Serenade” to “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (with Anyone Else but Me)” and “Sentimental Journey.” Also included are a handful of Japanese songs that were popular at the time.
The music serves as the framework for the troupe to explain the injustice of internment, when more than 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry were forced to leave behind their homes and incarcerated in concentration camps away from the West coast. The script weaves the facts in deftly, without preachiness, and focuses on the power of the dances to elevate the spirit of the young people who were imprisoned along with their families.
One emotionally powerful segment is a tribute to the Nisei soldiers who fought during WWII, through a humorous skit explaining how soldiers from Hawaii learned to respect the mainland soldiers when they were taken from their Army base in Mississippi to an internment camp in Arkansas, and they realized the mainland JAs enlisted to fight even while their families were imprisoned behind barbed wire and guard towers.
With elements of sketch comedy along with great singing and dancing, the troupe — under the name “Moonlight Serenaders” — share snapshots of history with accuracy. Kashiwagi’s writing is informed with research, and with the impact of real-life anecdotes. A lot of the stories are universal, scenes of boys and girls awkwardly circling each other like at any high school dance anywhere, even now as then.
The performance even includes the real-life â€œSongbird of Manzanar,â€ Mary Kageyama Nomura, who entertained internees at Manzanar in eastern California during the war. She’s now in her 80s, and is a show-stopper when she comes out during “Camp Dances,” especially with her first number, “I’ll Be Seeing You in All the Old Familiar Places” which was the last song she sang at camp.
“The Camp Dance” strikes deep in the heart of its audiences in large part because of the audiences themselves. Most in the theater for the Denver performance were Nisei, the generation that the Grateful Crane Ensemble was formed to pay tribute to. You can see them singing along, and in some cases they haven’t heard these songs or thought about those dances in half a century. You can see in their younger family members — the fourth and fifth generations — the recognition of what their elders went through. Just having those who lived through the experience in the audience made the performance itself that much more heartfelt … and heartbreaking.
And those who didn’t know about internment at all are introduced in the most gentle and entertaining way to one of the most shameful passages of U.S. history.
Erin and I were fortunate enough to see the play being rehearsed by the Grateful Crane Ensemble in LA three years ago in a warehouse near Little Tokyo, and we’d looked forward to seeing the proper production on a stage.
The opportunity finally came when the Japanese Association of Colorado, celebrating its 100th year, underwrote bringing the play to Denver. The troupe performed it yesterday to a full house of almost 1,000 at the thaeter of Teikyo Loretto Heights University.
But it wasn’t just the stage that made the play so special. It was the audience.
It’s to Kashiwagi and the actors’ credit that they could pull off such an amazing combination of emotional peaks. It’s a cliche to say you’ll laugh and cry, but that’s what I did.