Laughter and False Teeth (play)


One-act play by Hiroshi Kashiwagi first produced in 1954 that is likely the first produced play set in the Japanese American concentration camps. The play was revived years later by Asian American theater companies in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The play revolves around a character named Boiler Man, a laborer who shovels the coal that provides hot water to the unspecified camp, and Madame, a woman made reclusive by missing teeth. A calm and wise figure, many others come to seek Boiler Man's advice, while Madame encounters corruption and black markets in her efforts to get dentures made in camp. Though comedic in tone, the play depicts the decay or moral values in the demoralized and incarcerated population, including corruption, gambling, mental illness, underground distilling of alcohol, and violence.

Playwright Kashiwagi wrote the play in 1953 while a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley. In his memoir, Swimming the American, he wrote that the play was based in part on a Japanese American dentist who performed shoddy dental work on his mother in the period just prior to exclusion and who subsequently refused to make her dentures in the concentration camps because she wouldn't bribe him to do so. In the spring of 1954, the UC Berkeley Dramatic Arts Department staged the play (with Kashiwagi himself acting in it), and the Nisei Players of San Francisco performed it in the community later that fall.[1]

After writing "Laugher and False Teeth" and other plays and stories, he gave up writing for many years until his work was rediscovered by "Sansei activists" in the 1970s. The Center for Japanese American Studies in San Francisco formed a theater group called the Center Players and began performing plays in including Laughter in 1976. Among the performances was one at the "A View from the Inside" symposium at the Oakland Museum. Later, it was produced by by both the Asian American Theater Company in San Francisco (1987) and East West Players in Los Angeles (1989). Laughter and False Teeth also appears in the anthology The Big Aiiieeeee! published in 1991 as well in Kashiwagi's 2008 collection, Shoe Box Plays. Given the changing politics in the community since the 1950s, Kashiwagi revised the play and it became "more political as I rewrote it through time."[2]

Authored by Brian Niiya, Densho

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For More Information

Kashiwagi, Hiroshi. "Laughter and False Teeth." In The Big Aiiieeeee!: An Anthology of Chinese American and Japanese American Literature. Edited by Jeffery Paul Chan, Frank Chin, Lawson Fusao Inada, and Shawn Wong. New York: Meridian, 1991. 314–38. Reprinted in Shoe Box Plays by Hiroshi Kashiwagi. Ed. Tamiko F. Namura. Introd. Ron West. San Mateo, Calif.: Asian American Curriculum Project, 2008. 67–101.

———. Swimming in the American: A Memoir and Selected Writings. San Mateo, Calif.: Asian American Curriculum Project, 2005.

Footnotes

  1. Hiroshi Kashiwagi, Swimming in the American: A Memoir and Selected Writings (San Mateo, Calif.: Asian American Curriculum Project, 2005), 78–80; Pacific Citizen, May 28, 1954, 2 and Sept. 3, 1954, 9, both accessed on June 4, 2014 at http://www.pacificcitizen.org/digitalarchives/assets/images/full/PCN_19540528_002.jpg and http://www.pacificcitizen.org/digitalarchives/assets/images/full/PCN_19460903_009.jpg.
  2. Hiroshi Kashiwagi, Swimming in the American, 188–90; Pacific Citizen, Oct. 15, 1976, 1; "Asian American Theater Company Season Listings, 1980–1990, http://www.asianamericantheater.org/shows/pastseasons/seasonlistings2/ and "Finding Aid for the East West Players Records, 1965–1992, UCLA Performing Arts Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, http://www.oac.cdlib.org/findaid/ark:/13030/tf1489n74f/entire_text, both accessed on June 4, 2014. Last quote from Densho interview with Hishoshi Kashiwagi by Alice Ito, Segment 27, July 3, 2004, accessed on May 19, 2015 at http://archive.densho.org/Core/ArchiveItem.aspx?i=denshovh-khiroshi-02-0027.