Gotanda’s dramatic time travel

Bay Area playwright Philip Kan Gotanda has focused a significant amount of his considerable artistic powers on one subject: Japanese American internment during World War II.

He addressed the subject in his play Sisters Matsumoto for San Jose Repertory Theatre and again in Manzanar: An American Story, an orchestral collaboration with Kent Nagano of the Berkeley Symphony and Berlin Philharmonic, along with composers Jean-Pascal Beintus, David Benoit and Naomi Sekiya.

This weekend, Gotanda’s latest world-premiere drama, After the War. is in previews at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater.

The drama takes us to San Francisco’s Japantown in 1948 as the internees return to find their neighborhood quite changed, with an influx of African Americans and others from the neighboring Fillmore District.

Last week at an event hosted by the San Francisco Public Library’s Japanese American Internment Project, Gotanda talked with theater writer Chloe Veltman (who has an excellent Web site and blog: about the artistic process of bringing After the War to life.

Originally commissioned by ACT artistic director Carey Perloff to adapt Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film Rashomon for the stage, Gotanda, a Sansei or third-generation Japanese American, set to work and found his focus leaving Rashomon and heading toward a story about Japanese internment.

“I’ve had this storyline about a San Francisco boarding house floating in my head for years waiting to find its moment,” Gotanda said. “As I worked on Rashomon, those other stories worked their way through, and I just followed them. You’ll still see elements of Rashomon in the play, but you’ll have to look very closely.”

Perloff, who is directing After the War, didn’t resist Gotanda’s new direction, and he proceeded for nearly four years to hone the script through 50 drafts and five workshops.

When rehearsals started, Gotanda considered the play to be finished, but he has done considerable rewriting, and he and Perloff are even restructuring and reordering scenes.

It’s all making the play stronger, Gotanda said, and it further helps him find a new approach to a historical subject he has dealt with before.

“If you’re Japanese American, this part of history, the internment camps, is part of your body,” he said. “I was born post-war in the 1950s, and the camps weren’t talked about a lot, but they were certainly there. They had a huge effect on the psyche and behavior of entire communities. It’s absorbed whether it’s talked about or not.”

In the late ’60s, as the self-identifying label Asian American began to take hold, Gotanda and other members of his generation began to see the value in revisiting the topic of the camps and telling the stories.

He has been doing so in one form or another ever since, but always with an eye toward making the stories fresh and relevant to contemporary society.

“I’ve been living with this stuff for 30 years,” Gotanda said. “It keeps challenging you to stay on the edge of your knowledge and the edge of your art form.”

The new angle with After the War is how the returning Japanese Americans interacted with the African Americans and others in their neighborhood.

“How do communities interact when they rub up against each other? That is so much of what America is,” Gotanda said. “I wanted to see if people of different backgrounds can really get along when the bottom line is drawn.”

Adding to the richness of Gotanda’s story is the strong jazz presence in the Fillmore in the
late ’40s, when performers like Billie Holiday, Count Basie and Duke Ellington were playing clubs such as Bop City, the Plantation Club and Jack’s Tavern.
Gotanda’s main character, Chet (played by Hiro Kanagawa, left), is a horn player, which means jazz has to be part of the story. So Anthony Brown, a composer, percussionist and ethnomusicologist, is composing an original jazz score for the production.

After the War opens March 28 and continues through April 22 at ACT, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Showtime is 8 p.m. Tickets are $13.50 to $56.50. Call (415) 749-2228 or visit

Gotanda’s personal Web site is pretty interesting (and beautifully designed): This entry was posted in American Conservatory Theater, backstage, local theater, theater news by Chad Jones. Bookmark the permalink.

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