“You’d give up your citizenship for some slanty-eyed Jap?”
I was taken aback when I heard that question, but then I considered the source, Major Lloyd “Ace” Gruver, a flying ace in the U.S. Army; the time, 1952; and where I heard it, at a performance of Sayonara: The Musical, running through July 26 at the Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row.
Based on the James A. Michener novel of the same name, Sayonara is Pan Asian Repertory Theatre’s commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and a study in how prejudice and misguided opinions of Japanese women affected the attitudes of the U.S. military during the early post-war years. Tisa Chang, the founder and Artistic Producing Director of Pan Asian Rep, directs the musical, which highlights interracial relationships during a difficult part of U.S.-Japanese history. The dialogue is peppered with liberal use of the word “Jap” as well as other unkind statements about the Japanese. It was jarring to hear in 2015, but those words reflected the mindset of Americans in the 1950s.
The plot revolves around career military man Ace Gruver (Morgan McCann), the son of a four-star general who is engaged to Eileen (Jennifer Piacenti), the daughter of General Mark Webster (Scott Klavan), Ace’s commanding officer in occupied Japan. Ace shares the General’s disdain toward interracial relationships and describes Japan as having “dirty streets, paper houses, a lot of squat, little people.”
Interracial marriage is against the law, and there are strict rules against soldiers “fraternizing” with Japanese women. Despite this, Private Joe Kelly (Edward Tolve) receives special permission to marry Katsumi (Natsuko Hirano), and Ace reluctantly serves as a witness in the civil ceremony although he discouraged the union. Ace doesn’t understand how Joe and other fellow soldiers could be attracted to Japanese women, but his attitude soon changes once he dumps Eileen and begins hanging out with Captain Mike Bailey (Justin McEllroy), who gives Ace great advice by telling him to “drop the adjective” and stop worrying about race. They’re just “girls,” not “Japanese girls.”
Mike dates Fumiko (Rumi Oyama), a performer in TAKARAZUKA, a song-and-dance troupe with all dames – er, I meant, all females – as the performers. The girls work and live together under the direction of Teruko-san (played by Japanese actress Ako), a taskmaster who does her best to enforce the company’s no-dating policy. Of course, the main rule-breaker is Fumiko, a stereotypical Japanese character who delivers eye-rolling lines such as “We glue together like stick,” and “Marines not short. Very tall.”
Goofy dialogue aside, Fumiko and Captain Bailey, along with Joe and Katsumi, are instrumental in introducing Ace to Hana-Ogi (Ya Han Chang), the star – who plays a male – of TAKARAZUKA. One look at her, and Ace’s prejudices melt away. But Hana-Ogi has prejudices of her own, and wooing her presents a challenge to Ace. The two eventually begin an improbable relationship, highlighted by a scene set around a Tanabata festival, the Japanese celebration of star-crossed lovers Orihime and Hikoboshi.
The three couples of Sayonara are as star-crossed as the folktale characters, and the drama intensifies once the military intervenes in their relationships.
Despite the stilted 1950s dialogue, Pan Asian Rep’s production of Sayonara does a fine job overall. Oyama’s other role as Sayonara’s choreographer is brilliant. The traditional Japanese dance scenes, as well as the ones inspired by the dance of the ‘50s, provide some of the best entertainment of the show. The Japanese costumes by Keiko Obremski are stunning as well. In stark contrast, the military uniforms were ill fitting and a bit wrinkled, and the awkwardly sliding set pieces left something to be desired. McCann and Tolve shine as Ace and Joe, respectively, and Ako is a formidable Teruko-san. The message of love conquering all boundaries is clear, even if the vehicle driving that message sputters a little.