The story of a Japanese American soldier during World War II is brought to vivid life in Marla A. Hirokawa’s dance piece, Nisei, performed by the Covenant Ballet Theatre of Brooklyn as part of the New York International Fringe Festival. The show’s title refers to the second generation of Japanese Americans (the first generation, the Issei, mostly immigrated to the U.S. during the early part of the 20th century). While born in the U.S., the Nisei were still treated as foreigners who came under wartime suspicion due to their ethnicity.
The main action is framed by a present-day sequence featuring an Old Nisei (Lawrence Lam), who we initially see playing with his young grandson (Sebastian Huynh) and teaching him to move in a military march. Soon enough, the old man is remembering his youth as a Young Nisei (Kei Tsuruharatani), newly enlisted in the U.S. Army.
Unlike most representations of Japanese American soldiers during this period, the Young Nisei is not part of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team or 100th Infantry Battalion, which were comprised of nearly all Japanese Americans. Instead, he trains with a predominantly white unit. But while his fellow soldiers are given guns during basic training, the Nisei is handed a broom, as he is apparently not trusted enough by his commanding officer (Matthew Westerby) to handle a lethal weapon.
The Nisei’s explosive dance solo—full of leaps and performed to the fast-paced, hard-driving rhythm of a drum—captures the young man’s frustration. Then, as a vision of his mother (Mandy Sau-Yi Chan) appears, the Nisei’s movements slow down, as does the tempo of the music. He grows calmer and begins to mimic the movements of the other soldiers, using his broom in place of a rifle. This earns him the respect of his commander and by the time the fighting starts, the Nisei is a valued member of the unit.
Both the training exercises and the later combat moves are a well-choreographed combination of military drills and ballet. Hirokawa also plays around with other movement forms, particularly in a party sequence where company members swing dance to a version of “In the Mood.”
Tsuruharatani brings a vibrantly kinetic energy to his role as the Young Nisei. Also making a good impression is the limber Dylan Baker as the Army Friend who is the only one who does not turn his back on the Nisei’s family after the news about the attack on Pearl Harbor breaks. Jessica Higgins and Tanya Trombly are also exciting to watch as the swing partners of these two men.
The remainder of the company—composed of professional dancers and students at Covenant Ballet Theatre’s Dance Academy—are of varying skill levels, but they all contribute to the effectiveness of the performance. It was particularly heartwarming to see the young children involved in the show, and at the performance I attended three actual military veterans—including a Japanese American man who served in the army during World War II—were featured in a Veterans Day Parade sequence.
The production is framed by Harold Payne’s “Quiet Heroes,” sung by Nick Morrison who also plays bass in the six-person live band. The sentimental folk ballad, originally written for the Go for Broke Foundation, is another tribute to the Japanese American men who served their country even as their families were placed in internment camps during the war. Their stories are still fairly unknown to the general public, which gives performances like Nisei an added value for the way they uncover a largely forgotten history.
Nisei, part of the New York International Fringe Festival, performs at The Theater at the 14th Street Y (344 East 14th Street) through August 16. Tickets are $18 in advance, $24 at the door. The show plays a variable schedule. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.niseiproject.com or www.fringenyc.org.
For more of my FringeNYC coverage, also check out my list of shows with Asian or Asian American connections and reviews of Princess Pyunggang and Forgetting the Details on this blog, my preview of LGBT-inclusive works that I wrote for GLAAD, and my NiteLife Exchange reviews of MANish BOY, No One Asked Me, Bedroom Secrets, and Joel Creasey: Rock God.