On February 19, 1942, a little over two months after the Japanese attack on Peal Harbor, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 passing to the US Military authority to:
take such action necessary or desirable, to prescribe military areas in such places and of such extent as he or the appropriate Military Commander may determine, from which any or all persons may be excluded.
The military focused on a population of over 100,000 Japanese on the West Coast to yank them out of the their lives and plant them in desert camps. Playwright and San Diego resident Roy Sekigahama skips past the politics to focus on relationships. Presenting an American born 6th grader, on orphan of Japanese parents (Chloris Li as Penny) and an old man (Lane Nishikawa as Fuzzy), a Japanese immigrant having lived in the US most of his life, “Desert Rock Garden” brings home to the heart both the tragedy of the camps and the power of human connection.
The entire production takes place in one act on a gravel-covered stage strewn with small boulders and stones and a backing of fence posts with strung barbed wire. Footprints disturb the gravel and nothing looks intentional. Reiko Huffman and Robert Malave furnish the scenic and properties design, respectively. Lighting by Annelise Roquel Salazar uses a spotlight only once, near the end, but washes the white backdrop with light shades of color suggesting emotions and the passage of time. As the two actors engage with each other, the “rock garden” slowly transforms, with the dialog bringing each scene from the camp into focus.
The play begins in a future of 1964 with Penny in a monologue addressing the audience; preparing an important context, not well known, for the camps. Could be the high socks and school girl skirt she wore and the math to do to get her age that made it harder to see her at first as a 33 year old visiting the vacant site of the former camp. Later on, as her younger self in the early winter of 1943, her steady and rapid delivery of lines and some phrases made her sound more adult than 12 year old at times. And the range of clothes Penny appears in seemed extravagant for an orphan living in the single women’s cabin in the camp. But Chloris Li’s sparkling energy on stage as we meet the 12 year old at the beginning and how her character deepens through the play from the weight of events that turn that energy to defiance and determination serves Sekigahama’s story well.
On first meeting Fuzzy (Lane Nishikawa), he looks much the everyman of the camps. fedora, zippered light cloth jacket, khaki’s and an old man’s shuffle, head down. A seasoned stage artist (including San Diego’s Old Globe) with deep directing credits and a playwright himself, Nishikawa brings the gravitas of the camps out for us to see, even while humbly tending his rock garden and trying to track Penny’s whirling dervish. Through Fuzzy, Sekigahama explains the life of the camp with a wider context than Penny knows – how a simple question on a loyalty questionnaire creates conflict within a loyal American imprisoned by his own country. His character grows through the play from insular and begrudging to a warm and begrudging fan and protector of Penny.
Without giving too much away, the facts in the play including the way the play ends are accurate. We’re back in 1964 with the adult Penny out in the desert, this time speaking only to Fuzzy. All traces of the Topaz Relocation Camp (so named for local stones) were erased, including a monument called the Wakasa Stone that some tried to place but was removed as well. In the paranoia generated by the only foreign attack on American soil by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor, the military was given license to remove people from their homes with days notice so they lost their homes, their businesses, their community. And yet, the same year Penny is 12, 1943, that same military reinstated the draft of Japanese Americans and asked for volunteers from the camp. 800 male camp residents formed the 442nd Infantry Regimental Combat team that served with high honors in Europe even while their families were held behind barbed wires “for their protection” but with the guard’s guns facing inward.
It’s an eerily relevant story to be told in these days of political divides and the demonization of the opposition. Mr. Sekigahama’s approach makes for an easy way into such an important story.
Directed by Yari Cervas
Dramaturgy by Shirley Fishman
Stage Manager Nathan Waits
Original Music and Sound Design by Mac Akiyama
Costume Design by Jojo Siu
“Desert Rock Garden” runs through March 13th, 2022 at the New Village Arts Theater in Carlsbad.