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Theatre in Review: The Ephemera Trilogy (The Tank at The Paradise Factory)

Kimi Maeda. Photo: Kirk Murphy

In "Bend," the third and longest part of The Ephemera Trilogy, Kimi Maeda turns her complicated, and not entirely happy, family history into an elegant piece of performance art. The story she has to tell is one that will be sadly familiar to Japanese Americans of a certain age; it cannot be told enough, in my estimation. Maeda's father, Robert, was born in the 1930s; after Pearl Harbor, he, along with his parents, grandparents, and siblings, were interned at a camp in Arizona. A once-prosperous middle-class clan was reduced to living in one room in the middle of the desert. Maeda's grandfather drove the family there. "My grandfather said goodbye to the great big car that he had bought with his own money and led the family through the gate."

At the same camp, the Poston War Relocation Center, was the Japanese American sculptor Isamu Noguchi; already an art world celebrity, he was the only voluntary internee, having arrived to create a kind of arts-and-crafts community. Apparently, young Robert and Noguchi knew each other; does this help to explain Robert's future career as an art historian? It's hard to say, because today he suffers from dementia. "Confusion is our new baseline," Kimi says. "Have you seen the movie about my dad called Bend? My dad hasn't either, but he's pretty sure it's playing next Thursday. He doesn't know where, just like he doesn't know where he is right now. Is it a hospital? All he knows is it isn't home."

Using these two lives as her basic material, Kimi Maeda spins a fascinating and saddening web of associations into a powerful essay on identity, memory, and the definition of home. The latter concept certainly proves to be a rocky one, as she calmly discloses in sentences that often have the effect of bombshells. Kimi's grandparents never learned English, yet they were able to obtain driver's licenses; her grandfather and a cousin "got around the laws barring immigrants from owning land by purchasing in their children's names. By the time he was arrested in 1942 for hosting Japanese dignitaries visiting California, my grandfather's cousin owned 700 acres of land." (Between 1922 and 1952, thanks to a Supreme Court ruling, it was illegal for Japanese immigrants to become American citizens.) At the camp, the family's rituals were dismantled and replaced by institutional routines: "My family revolved around the dining room, and so I can only imagine how disorientating it must have been for Japanese mothers to be served cafeteria-style in giant mess halls." She adds: "Parents had little control over their children in the camps. In the minds of many administrators, the enemy became the family itself."

Noguchi's path to the camp was entirely different. Indeed, Kimi sees him and her father as a kind of matched pair of opposites. ("My dad's kindergarten photo shows him as one of two Japanese boys in a sea of Caucasian faces. Noguchi's kindergarten photo shows the opposite.") The illegitimate son of Yone Noguchi, a noted Japanese poet, and LĂ©onie Gilmour, his editor, Isamu, thanks to his biracial status, wasn't fully at home in either Japan or the US. He spent much of his childhood with his mother in Japan, his father keeping his distance. (According to Kimi, Isamu's father asked him not to use the name Noguchi, and, for a while, the boy was known as Sam Gilmour.) As a teenager, Sam/Isamu was sent to Indiana to study at the Interlaken School; it was shut down two months after his arrival - thanks to anti-German sentiment, although Kimi doesn't say so -- - and he ended up living with the family of a Swedenborgian minister. Taking up sculpture, Isamu moved to Paris and studied under Constantin Brancusi; by 1941, Kimi says, "He was living in Hollywood, sculpting portraits of people such as Ginger Rogers" -- a piquant detail, given the star's later history of red-baiting. He was eminently well-connected -- his friends included Martha Graham, Alexander Calder, Frida Kahlo, and Louis Kahn -- yet, Kimi says, "He was disappointed to find that his radical leftist friends did not seem to care about the situation." Persuaded by John Collier, commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, to turn himself in, he set about designing a model community, "creating plans for parks containing baseball fields and swimming pools, irrigation systems, as well as cemeteries all largely inspired by the classical Roman grid." None of it was ever built.

Kimi weaves together these two stories of Japanese Americans linked by a devotion to art and a sense that neither was fully at home in either of their parent cultures, a concept that is given added poignancy by the fact that her father's grip of on these events is being lost as his memory fades. The text of the piece, which includes her narration, contributions from Robert, and invented dialogue (various actors contributed voiceover work) is matched by a parade of fascinating visuals. Kimi, working in sand, creates a variety of images -- including portraits of Robert and Isamu, as well as the layout of the Poston camp -- which are projected on the screen behind her. (Early on, she stands, holding a suitcase with sand pouring out of it; it's a powerful image that evokes both the desert camp and the changes wrought by the sands of time.) This imagery is treated to look like a vintage black-and-white film, the better to make it blend in with excerpts from a contemporary documentary about the camp, Maeda and Noguchi family photos, and other relevant items. Two sequences stand out as especially provocative: A segment of "Appalachian Spring," Martha Graham's 1944 celebration of folk Americana, set to Aaron Copland's score -- and designed by Noguchi -- and a scene from a Three Stooges comedy, in which the trio find themselves cornered in a barn surrounded by a gang of Japanese who escaped from a camp. The Stooges hurl ostrich eggs at them, Moe saying, "If we gotta die, at least we'll scramble some Japs with these eggs!"

"Bend" takes up the second half of The Ephemera Trilogy. The first part, which is much shorter, consists of two pieces, "The Homecoming" and "The Crane Wife," which make use of a shadow puppet technology similar to that practiced by the company Manual Cinema. "The Homecoming" is a fable in which the narrator has an encounter with a magic turtle and an undersea world, returning to discover that centuries have gone by. "The Crane Wife" involves another narrator -- presumably Kimi -- recalling a beloved childhood story and tying it to the loss of her own child in an apparent miscarriage. Neither is particularly interesting, and the visuals are less than compelling.

In any case, the first half passes quickly and one is soon immersed in the many-layered meditation that is "Bend." The piece is so loaded with dismaying facts and rich ironies that Kimi doesn't need to comment on it; her restrained presentation is more than enough. Her evident compassion for her father is especially moving, as she tries to capture as much of his experience as she can before it fades from his mind altogether. As she suggests, human experience, captured by memory, may be the most ephemeral thing of all. -- David Barbour

(27 February 2017)

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