Arts & Culture

2 Tacoma plays bring the World War II Japanese internment to life

The Hashimoto family prepares to leave their home for an internment camp during World War II in “Nihonjin Face,” a play by the Broadway Center for the Performing Arts.
The Hashimoto family prepares to leave their home for an internment camp during World War II in “Nihonjin Face,” a play by the Broadway Center for the Performing Arts. Courtesy

In Tacoma’s Geiger Montessori School cafeteria, two actors are summing up what’s wrong with condemning people based on ethnicity.

“We’re not the enemy!” says Arika Matoba, who’s playing Tomiko, a young Tacoma girl with Japanese parents.

“But we look like the enemy,” grimly says her brother Kio, played by Tyler Dobies.

“That doesn’t make us the enemy,” shoots back Tomiko.

Tomiko and Kio are characters in a new Broadway Center play, “Nihonjin Face,” currently touring Tacoma schools and theaters to honor the 75th anniversary of the federal order to incarcerate more than 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. And, like a separate production at Dukesbay Theater, “Never Again,” the play offers a way for local audiences to think hard about how those issues are playing out now.

“Some of the rhetoric that’s been happening in American politics lately has been talking about registering or banning certain groups based on religion,” said Aya Hashiguchi Clark, the Dukesbay director of “Never Again.” “And some people are using the Japanese American internment as a precedent to allow this. The Japanese American community sees this as our moment to stand up and say, ‘We can never let this happen again.’ 

On Feb. 19, 1942, 10 weeks after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order authorizing the forced removal of American citizens of Japanese ancestry, as well as resident aliens, from their homes. They were rounded up, allowed to carry one or two suitcases each, and taken to places like Camp Harmony (now the Washington State Fair Events Center) before being sent to prison camps. Most were detained until the end of the war, when they were allowed to return home — only to find that many of their homes and businesses had been claimed by others.

“Nihonjin Face,” written by playwrights Janet Hayakawa and Tere Martinez and produced by the Broadway Center for the Performing Arts, tells the story through the eyes of 10-year-old Tomiko as she sees her father taken away by the FBI, loses her best friend and copes with guard violence inside the camp. In alternating scenes, the play also follows her grandson Tommy in 2017 as he teams up with his friend Reginald for a civics project that explores current-day racism and civil rights.

At Geiger, the young audience shuffled a little during the introspective dialogue, but was gripped by the scenes in which Tomiko gets yelled at by the guard, reunites with Alice in 1960, and when, at the beginning, her mother explains why she, a Tacoma girl, is deemed a threat to her own country — because of her “Nihonjin” (Japanese) face.

One by one, the kids offer suggestions in the talkback on how to avoid this kind of racism again: to be kind, to look for the truth, to support those who feel different.

At the Geiger show — performed on the day when President Donald Trump was signing executive orders to ban incoming travelers from seven countries for 90 days and block refugees from around the world for 120 days — was parent Meegan Stanton and her father, Masa Miki, who was born in the Tule Lake, California, camp.

“It makes me happy my children are hearing about this,” said Stanton, starting to cry. “I’m happy … they brought in what is happening today, that will impact their lives. That’s the most important thing. This isn’t just what happened to Japanese people. It’s something people (should) understand the injustice of and how it can shape the country.”

In “Never Again,” produced by Dukesbay Theater at Tacoma Little Theatre, the stories come directly from camp survivors. Densho, a nonprofit documenting oral histories of Japanese Americans, has recorded the camp experiences of some 800 people. Clark, whose parents were imprisoned, chose stories from about 40 Seattle and Tacoma people, melding them into a chronological story that will be read onstage by six actors: four Asian American, two African American.

Jazz vocalist Stephanie Anne Johnson, who thought of the idea, will sing original and cover songs on social justice themes, interspersed with the readings.

“We want to make the point that if any group at all in this country loses their freedom, we all lose our freedom,” says Clark.

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568, @rose_ponnekanti

Nihonjin Face

Who: Broadway Center for the Performing Arts.

When: 1, 3 and 5 p.m. Feb. 19.

Where: Studio 3, 915 Broadway, Tacoma.

Cost: Free, but an RSVP is necessary.

Also: Join a historic walking tour of Tacoma’s former Japan Town, led by Tamiko Nimura and Michael Sullivan, at 2 p.m. Feb. 19, meeting at the W sculpture at the top of the stairs at University of Washington Tacoma, South 19th Street and Jefferson Avenue.

Panel discussion: 4 p.m. Feb. 19 in Studio 3, with playwright Janet Hayakawa and speaker Mayumi Tsutakawa.

Information: 253-591-5894,

Never Again

Who: Dukesbay Productions.

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

Where: Tacoma Little Theater, 210 N. I St., Tacoma.

Tickets: $10 general; $7 seniors, students and educators.