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YoshiŽ Bancroft and Nicole Yukiko in Japanese Problem presented at Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto.Bob Baker/Mona Stilwell

Japanese Problem

Created by Yoshié Bancroft, Daniel Deorksen, Joanna Garfinkel, Brent Hirose and Nicole Yukiko

Directed by Joannna Garfinkel

Produced by Universal Limited

Presented at Soulpepper Theatre


2 out of 4 stars

It took the Canadian government more than 40 years to apologize for the internment of 22,000 Japanese-Canadians in the Second World War, and details of their detainment, dispossession and relocation are still inadequately documented. It’s estimated that 8,000 people were detained inside stables and exhibition buildings at Hastings Park in east Vancouver (part of the Pacific National Exhibition grounds). What happened inside these buildings is the subject of Japanese Problem, a 45-minute historical re-enactment produced by Vancouver’s Universal Limited and currently being presented at Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto.

Taking us through a back hallway of the Young Centre for the Arts and into a sparsely decorated studio, the cast of four alternate between playing themselves in 2018 and playing characters involved in the 1942 story. The concept is that they all have a stake in this history’s retelling, either as descendants of Japanese-Canadian survivors or as conscientious Canadians, and thus part of a national collective memory. So there’s tension about what’s told and who tells it; at times, the actors resist playing the perpetrators for fear it renders them complicit and this conflict between truth and silence becomes a metaphor for the complexities of trauma and guilt.

The re-enactment centres on Sam (Yoshié Bancroft) a young woman and aspiring dancer, who is forced from her home and incarcerated at Hastings Park with her sister and baby niece. She’s separated from her family and assigned a shared stall (the detainees sleep on benches separated by sheets) with a nurse named Maggie (Nicole Yukiko). Sam is both appalled and terrified by the primitive conditions – she balks when Maggie directs her to the washrooms, which consist of open troughs.

Using shadow puppets and projections, director Joanna Garfinkel creates some interesting effects with photographs, historical documents and silhouettes. The audience moves around a set (designed by Andrew Duffy) that is divided into sections by sheets. Performer Daniel Deorksen accompanies the action with short, inspired melodies on his banjo and recorder, and Brent Hirose gives an entertaining monologue about his dapper grandfather in pre-war Vancouver, a bon vivant who loved to take his wife out dancing.

But the problem with Garfinkel’s re-enactment is that it’s more of a history lesson than anything else – and not an especially sophisticated one. Sam never feels like much of a real character; her story is simple and predictable and details, such as her love of dance, become undeveloped throwaways. There’s a flirtation with a charming fellow detainee Kenji (Hirose) that ends when he’s relocated to a different holding site. The dialogue between these proto-lovers seems intended for school-aged audiences– it’s stilted and too earnest, a romance without substance or heat.

While the concept of having the actors discuss what should and shouldn’t be re-enacted has potential, there isn’t enough depth in the related writing to save these parts from becoming cringingly didactic. There’s a confusing scene about what should happen to a sick baby; Yukiko breaks the action to explain that babies suspected of having mumps or tuberculosis were quarantined and the actors proceed to throw the “baby” on to the floor. Worse than the material’s simplicity is the ongoing instruction of how and why we should care. At one point, Bancroft earnestly reminds us that Canada still unlawfully detains people today.

Japanese Problem was originally presented inside a PNE building in Vancouver and perhaps the overlap between the events’ original site and their re-enactment made the material more powerful. Early in the piece, we’re shown a photograph of the interior of one of the buildings: a long row of sheets inside a vast, concrete room. There are no doubt horrifying stories that transpired in this space, and ones that we should spend time hearing and thinking about. It’s too bad the collective focused on justifying the importance of their project rather than taking that importance for granted and making a more imaginative and affecting work of theatre.

Japanese Problem continues at Soulpepper Theatre until Oct. 28.

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