"'Innocent When You Dream' is a Tom Waits song," explains playwright and actor Ken Narasaki. "It starts in a bar, and the feeling of the song -- the feeling of regret and longing and sadness at the end of one's life -- fueled the play. When I was writing the first scene, I was listening to the song thinking, 'This is what the play is about.'"
Between the six actors (Sab Shimono, Ken Narasaki, Emily Kuroda, Sharon Omi, Mike Hagiwara, and John Miyasaki) and their director (Alberto Isaac), the upcoming production of Innocent When You Dream has over 220 years of theater experience. The group also has over 200 combined IMDB listings, consisting of the film and television credits they've acquired over the last thirty-something years -- back when Sab Shimono was warring on M*A*S*H, Emily Kuroda was litigating on LA Law, and Ken Narasaki was Sam Yemoto in The Young and the Restless.
More recently, Kuroda has gained quiet but loyal admiration for her work on the recently-terminated Gilmore Girls, Narasaki went international for his German TV series Zwei Profis, and Shimono has been all over the place -- including voicing Jackie Chan Adventures and The Simpsons, to acting in notable Asian American projects such as Robot Stories and Americanese.
In the last couple of years, these long-time friends and constant co-workers have been workshopping Narasaki's latest play, Innocent When You Dream, which won the 2006 Pacific Rim Playwrights Award and is having its world premiere this October in Venice, California.
Innocent When You Dream is the story of Dan (Sab Shimono), an 80-something Nisei man who recently had a stroke. Knowing that he has a slim chance of recovery, angry at life, and determined to let it all go, Dan communicates to his two adult Sansei children, Joy and Merv (played by Emily Kuroda and writer Ken Narasaki), that he wants them to pull the plug.
The play jumps back and forth between present time -- with the children dealing with the hospital administration and contemplating their sparse relationship with their father -- and Dan's dreams, as he's contemplating the end of his life. Dan is continually visited by memories from his youth, flashing back to a time in the mid-1940s, just before Japanese Americans started leaving the internment camps. There was battle (the 442), there was internal politics (soldiers vs. No-No boys), and of course, there was a girl.
Narasaki casually found his dream cast through his actor friends, who luckily didn't take much convincing. In fact, when actor Shimono agreed to participate in the play, he barely knew what he was getting into.
"[My character] get[s] a stroke and can't talk," he explains. "So I thought, I'll just raise my hand in the last scene. I'll say a few lines. This will be a snap."
At their first reading, when it came time for the character of Dan (as a youth) to speak, Shimono was silent and patient.
"It's your part."
"What? I'm playing the young guy too? Me, 18? Are you kidding?"
Shimono had unwittingly inherited the dual task of not only playing Dan at 80, sitting borderline comatose in a hospital bed, but also transforming himself into Dan at 18 and 21 -- all without the luxury of hair, makeup, and costume changes.
"It's not going to be because of my looks," Shimono laughs. "It's going to be the energy, the voice. It's a theater piece, so it's going to require the audience to accept it."
The play seamlessly goes from one reality to another: there are no blackouts, so Dan ages before the audience; he reverts back to adolescence in front of the audience; one minute they're at the hospital, the next minute they're in a bar and it's 1947. The challenge for the cast and crew is to take the audience on the journey with the characters whilst bouncing all around through time and space.
While constructing Innocent When You Dream, Ken Narasaki was partly inspired by his own father's death seven years ago. His father was a Nisei man who had been through the internment camp and fought in the 442, but had rarely talked about these experiences with his children.
"[Our parents] had a whole life before we came along, and we have no clue," observed Narasaki. "And I think that's probably true of most fathers and children, but it may be more true for the Nisei [2nd generation Japanese Americans] and Sansei [3rd generation], because the Nisei really blotted it out. They didn't like to talk about their childhood."
A few of the stories that his father did tell gave Narasaki glimpses into the past which inspire significant moments in the play. One account was about one of Narasaki Sr.'s war buddies who had made it through camp, made it through Europe, and made it back to the U.S. safely -- only to commit suicide when he got home because he couldn't handle it. The veterans were expected to go back and have a normal life, but many of them didn't know what that meant anymore.
"My grandmother said that my dad came back and didn't do anything for a year," recalls Narasaki. "He had some buddies in Seattle, and he said 'I'm gonna see what it's like up there.' That's another thing that's in the play. He said: 'I just wanted to have a normal life. I wanted to get a job. I wanted to have kids. That's all I wanted.'"
"I've done a lot of plays that dealt with camp and the 442nd, and we talk about how we lost our rights," says Shimono. "But what struck me about this play is that it talks about the effects it had on the Issei, Nisei, Sansei. People were so distraught, they wouldn't leave their barracks. People died in the horse stalls; people committed suicide. There were many deaths."
Only two years old when it happened, Shimono remembers his grandfather having a stroke right before camp. At the time, if you had a stroke, the government would put you in a hospital and not allow you into the camp. Shimono's relatives wanted his grandfather in camp to be with the family, so when they were evacuated, his two uncles just lifted him up and pretended they were walking even though he was paralyzed.
"As [with] most Niseis or people who've gone through hardship, my parents never talked about the war or the camp," says Shimono. "As for my experience -- I remember my first touch of snow. I remember the scent of desert flowers. As kids, we were playing all the time.... I remember [soldiers] coming home to camp after their service, and I remember one person showing us his wounds. But I didn't understand the politics of it."
One of the conflicts that Innocent When You Dream explores through Dan's memories is his long-standing rivalry with a character played by John Miyasaki, who is a No-No boy. During World War 2, when the army started taking Japanese American volunteers from the internment camps, a loyalty oath was distributed to everyone over the age of 18. There were two questions: "Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty wherever ordered?" and "Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, to any other foreign government, power or organization?"
There was a great divide between the ones who signed Yes-Yes and the ones who signed No-No. There were violently opposing beliefs about whether being a conscientious objector of the war proved to the world that they were not loyal Americans, and therefore how those questions "should" have been answered. And this split persists to this day.
"[Around 2000,] JACL [the Japanese American Citizens League, who at the time strongly advocated Yes-Yes] wanted to draft an apology to the No-no boys, who were often ostracized by the community," says Nagasaki. "And the vets were very angry. They refused."
"People get riled up," says Shimono. "There's a visceral reaction from people who had their feelings about the No-No boys. But it's difficult because the questions were pretty tricky. I don't know what I would have done in that situation."
While Innocent When You Dream isn't a camp play, the structure allowed Narasaki to explore these conflicts of the past while ultimately concentrating on a more personal and contemporary narrative about family. Narasaki wanted to focus on how these scars get passed down to the children.
"There's a study that says, even though we [the Sansei] didn't live in the camps, we're still kind of messed up from that," says Kuroda. "There's a kind of forced humbleness that has even gone down to the third generation Japanese Americans."
"At the time, when our parents got out [of the camps] they were treated as second-class citizens," she further explains. "And they had gotten rid of all their Japanese stuff when they went into camp because it 'proved' that they were spies or something. So when I was growing up, I wasn't allowed to speak Japanese. We weren't encouraged to learn our language or our culture; we were encouraged to assimilate. And that's kind of a loss, I think."
"We were originally saying, 'How do we get the Nisei out to see the play?'" says Narasaki. "But then [we realized] 'You gotta get the Sansei out.' Because they're the ones that are going to be like, 'Oh my God, I know how you feel.'"
"It's realistic," Kuroda adds. "In times of crisis, families get childish. They fight. And the play is not precious, which is what I like about it. There're a lot of unanswered questions, and [Ken] doesn't try to tie up loose ends, because that's not what happens in life."
"There's a song that we use [in the play] called 'Blue Skies' by Irving Berlin," says Ken. "And there's a version by Judy Garland that just starts out so sad. It's about blue skies and how happy you are, but her opening is so melancholy. And I thought, 'That's also part of what I want to capture with this play.'"
Innocent When You Dream opens at Electric Lodge in Venice, CA on October 6th. Click here for more information.