Review: `After the War’

Opened March 28, 2007, American Conservatory Theater

ACT finds jazzy grace notes in Gotanda’s After the War
three [1/2] stars Great chops

Well into Act 1 of Philip Kan Gotanda’s world-premiere play After the War, a jazz trumpeter recalls his glory days of playing with great musicians in Chicago clubs.

“You show up with your chops, add to the brew and make it tasty,” he says.

That’s essentially what happens with “After the War,” which opened Wednesday at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater.

Everyone who shows up for this entrancing endeavor, from the actors to the designers to the playwright, definitely has chops, and boy is this brew tasty.

Gotanda’s story is at once sprawling and specific, universal and wonderfully intimate, and best of all it — like the playwright — is local. Set in San Francisco’s Japantown in 1948, the drama unfolds in the Monkawa Boarding House, where the denizens are as diverse as the city itself.

The building was originally owned by the Monkawa family, but when they were shipped off to internment camps during World War II, an African-American family took it over. With the end of the war and the return of the Japanese-American community, ownership has shifted back to the Monkawas, but like so many things during this era, the shift is an uneasy one.

Japantown — or Japanese Town as they called it then — is different as well. The Fillmore District is in full jazz swing, and the post-war economy is taking its toll on the African-American workforce.

Chester Monkawa (Hiro Kanagawa, above) is attempting to keep the family boarding house afloat. His brother, who fought and died in the war, left behind a fiancee, Lillian (Sala Iwamatsu, above), who now keeps Chester’s books.

The growing relationship between Chester, or Chet to his friends, and Lillian is only one of this ambitious drama’s love stories.

Earl (Steven Anthony Jones), the building’s last African-American tenant, is raising his young daughter (whom we never see) with the help of his sister-in-law, Leona (Harriett D. Foy). He’s also carrying on a secret affair with Mary-Louise (Carrie Paff), the blond lady who lives in the back of the building with her mentally impaired brother (Ted Welch).

Olga (Delia MacDougall, below left), the Russian immigrant maid, has a mysterious relationship with Mr. Goto (Sab Shimono), one of Japanese Town’s leading businessmen, but she’s quite taken with the house’s most eccentric tenant, the beret-wearing Mr. Oji (Franics Jue, below left).

However melodramatic Gotanda’s multi-pronged plot gets, he and director Carey Perloff never lose sight of the fact that this play is about race — about prejudice, injustice, stereotypes, grudges and just plain ignorance. In other words, it’s about America.

We get major drama involving pregnancy, poverty, desperation, shame and prostitution (literal and emotional), but we also get a whole lot of period charm along the way.

One of the best scenes in the 2 1/2-hour play comes at the end of Act 1 when all the tenants gather to watch that newfangled contraption called television. With Perry Como singing up a storm, the tenants dance, cavort and reveal more of themselves than they realize.

The actors are uniformly excellent, with startlingly good work coming from Jones as Earl, a man whose pride and compassion turn out to have their breaking points. MacDougall’s Olga, with her Russian-tinged English, is also a character who tends to linger in the memory. Her scenes with Jue are fraught with mostly unspoken emotion, and their sad, charming relationship adds some wonderful layers to this already complicated tale.

Helping to simplify the telling is Donald Eastman’s extraordinary set, a giant, revolving structure that faithfully captures the Sutter Street boarding house, from its entry and living room, to the kitchen, the rooms and the multi-level backstairs.

In addition to James F. Ingalls and Nancy Schertler’s lighting, the production is further enhanced by Anthony Brown’s original score — jazz, piano, traditional Japanese sounds — used primarily to underscore scene changes as the set revolves.

After the War creates a conversation about race that feels like life. Even though it takes place 60 years ago, it feels current and vital.

There are hitches along the way. Act 2 can get a little strident, especially when Chet delves into his status as a “No-No Boy,” which means that while imprisoned in the camp, he was asked to swear loyalty to the U.S. and to serve in its armed forces. He answered no and no, while his brother answered yes and yes, and died a war hero.

The action in Act 2 is also swift and tidy, but it almost has to be because there are so many secrets needing revelation and stories needing resolution.

That’s part of what makes After the War so compelling: It’s so overstuffed with plot, period detail, likable characters and cultural insight we just want it to keep going.

For information about After the War, visit

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