Tondemonai-Never Happen! (play)


Tondemonai—Never Happen!, a two-act play written and directed by Soon-Tek Oh (then referred to as Soon-Taik Oh) that premiered in Los Angeles in 1970, is a theatrical drama that portrays the experience of Koji Muyayama, a Nisei who experiences flashbacks to his traumatic wartime experience in the Manzanar camp. Tondemonai is notable not only as the first professionally-staged theatrical work to center on the wartime confinement of Japanese Americans, but for its forward-looking discussion of race and sexuality.

Background

Tondemonai came into being through the Asian American theater company East-West Players. Formed in 1965 by a collective of actors led by Mako [Iwamatsu], East-West Players had the mission to promote the talent of Asian American actors and to use them in non-stereotyped roles. Although in its first years the company performed both translations of Asian works and adapted dramas by non-Asians, its members felt the need to feature works by Asian American playwrights, as these would best express their particular experience and point of view. In 1969, with proceeds from a Ford Foundation grant, East-West Players established a playwriting competition to attract original plays, with a $1,000 prize for the author of the work selected.

The announcement of the contest led Soon-Tek Oh, a Korean-born actor who been a founding member of East-West Players, to begin work on a project. While Oh considered himself primarily a performer, he had also trained as a playwright. In 1967, Oh was awarded an MFA in creative writing from UCLA, and his thesis, the Korean War drama Martyrs Can't Go Home, won a Harry Kurnitz Creative Writing Award. Soon after, East-West Players produced Martyrs and another play by Oh with an Asian setting. After these were performed, Oh's colleagues pressed him to write plays on Asian American themes. Living in Los Angeles and working with Japanese Americans, he later recounted, he was absorbed by the stories he heard of the wartime confinement experience, and struck by the public code of silence that still reigned within the community regarding the wartime events. In response, he entitled his play Tondemonai—Never Happen! [Tondemonai is a Japanese expression meaning "unbelievable and absurd."] Oh later recalled that as a Korean he was subjected to hostility and racial slurs from older Japanese Americans for dramatizing the traumatic events.

In early 1970, Oh's play was awarded a first prize in the East-West Players competition, and was set for production, with the playwright's $1,000 prize going for production costs. Mako took the lead role of Koji, and was understudied by veteran actor Yuki Shimoda, who replaced him at later performances. East-West veteran Beulah Quo and young Filipino-American actor Alberto Isaac were the costars, and Elizabeth Berger played the pivotal role of Koji's wife. Other cast members included Shizuko Iwamatsu (Mako's wife), Ernest Harada, and John Mamo. Oh signed on to direct. After a rehearsal period in a church basement (according to one story, a church deacon was scandalized when he came upon a rehearsal with two "nearly naked" actors together), Tondemonai opened officially on May 28, 1970, at the Players Lab on Griffith Park Boulevard.

Plot

The action opens in the bunker-like basement room of Koji Murayama, a Kibei former inmate. Koji is awakened from a troubled sleep by Fred Chung (Alberto Isaac), a young third-generation Chinese American whom he has just picked up for sex. After a brief nude scene while he changes clothes, Fred lies down for a smoke with Koji. Fred confesses that Koji's tenderness, plus his vulnerable smile, have won his heart. Koji coldly insults him by offering him money, and tells him to leave. His feelings hurt, Fred stalks off, calling Koji, "Jap!"

The hateful word causes Koji to imagine himself back in Manzanar, with his Issei father Goro, a World War I veteran (John Mamo) and mother Ume (Shizuko Iwamatsu), plus a Nisei friend, Michael Takeno (Ernest Harada). There he is visited by a young hakujin woman, Jane Franks (Elizabeth Berger), who pleads with him to marry her and relocate outside of camp so that he can complete his musical studies. News arrives that Koji's brother, a Nisei GI, has been wounded overseas. Goro asks to visit his son in the hospital, but is denied leave. His honor wounded by the refusal, Goro commits suicide.

The action returns to the present day. Cherry Williams, Koji's landlady (Beulah Quo) comes to visit. Cherry is a Japanese war bride, married to a disabled black GI; her pet name for him is "my gorilla." Cherry says she found Fred in tears and scolds Koji for kicking him out—she knows something is odd because Koji stayed home and waited for him instead of going to work.

In the second act, Koji is visited by Michael Takeno, who now heads a JACL-type community group. He asks Koji to donate the proceeds from his evacuation claims to a youth agency Michael is supporting. In a flashback, we return to Manzanar, at the time of the loyalty questionnaire. Ume, embittered by the family's treatment, has decided to go to Tule Lake, then back to Japan. Koji, whose request for student relocation was denied, answers "no-no" in order to stay with her. Jane insists on marrying Koji. Faced with Jane's courageous resolve, Ume gives the union her reluctant blessing. Just then, a pair of hooded Nisei superpatriots burst in. To punish Koji for his "disloyalty," they break his fingers so that he can never pursue a musical career. Back in the present, Koji refuses to help Michael, since he ordered the beating that crippled Koji's hands—Koji says that it "castrated" him. Believing that Koji is making excuses for his homosexuality and trying to fix blame on him, Michael calls Koji a "pervert," and then leaves. Cherry then returns. She extracts the truth from Koji, that he got rid of Fred because he is frightened by the intense love that Fred's open emotion has awakened in him.

After a last flashback with Jane, Koji is interrupted by Fred's return. Fred explains that he has joined the army, and has come back to apologize before reporting. Koji tells Fred that he has just recovered the traumatic memory that has long haunted him: while he was at Tule Lake, his pregnant wife was raped by a racist guard. When Koji stabbed the guard in revenge, the rapist covered his crime by denouncing Koji as a Japanese spy. Koji was sentenced to life in prison, and his wife killed herself in despair. Koji thus feels that he killed his wife. This revelation makes things awkward. Still, Fred recognizes that Koji loves him, and asks Koji to wait for his return from the army. Koji has a flash forward to their future life as a couple. He realizes that living together would suffocate them both. Koji promises he will wait, but once Fred leaves, he realizes he must go on alone. Koji collapses, and the play ends with him in a mental ward, aided by a nurse who resembles Fred. Has the strain of memory and emotion been too much? Has Koji imagined it all?

Dramatic License

Although Tondemonai's two acts each open with a slide and sound show presenting iconic photos and newspaper headlines about the "evacuation" of West Coast Japanese Americans, the play is not a documentary: numerous elements of Koji's story are exaggerated, and some invented. Most importantly, while there was indeed conflict within the camps, there were no organized attacks on "no-no" boys. Rather, the main targets of organized intimidation and beatings by other inmates were JACL leaders and pro-government inmates, who were perceived as inu [informers]. No West Coast Nisei was ever convicted of spying for Japan—even under fraudulent pretenses. The presentation of Koji's family is similarly unrealistic. Hardly any Nisei soldiers were posted overseas in 1942-43, before the loyalty examinations were produced, and it is implausible that a Nisei GI would have been wounded in combat during that time. There were few Issei World War I veterans in camp (and no recorded cases of seppuku there). Finally, while the time period of the play is unclear—the action is described as occurring "Sometime in between wars"—it is clear that at least a generation has passed since World War II. Even if Koji had even been able to obtain an Evacuation Claims payment (not a simple task for a man described as in prison for treason throughout the postwar period) the funds would have been paid off and dispersed long before the time of the action, unless he had received them but refused to touch them.

Response and Legacy

Tondemonai received decidedly mixed reviews. Mainstream newspapers praised the play's message and the author's attempts to recover the lost history of the camps, but also found it difficult to follow and were bewildered by the succession of flashbacks (some discussed it in orientalist terms as "inscrutable.") The Los Angeles Times stated, "The suffering and bewilderment of the American-born Japanese in this grim era is deeply affecting as we view it in hindsight."[1] The Hollywood Reporter praised the research that went into the play and its examination of bigotry, but added that it was "A far too sprawling family chronicle, condensed, convoluted back and forth in time, and scrambled together with fantasy."[2] The gay newspaper The Advocate, in a review plagued by some inaccuracies, underlined Tondemonai's groundbreaking nature as a "homosexual play." The Advocate cited Yuki Shimoda's theory that the work was about emasculation, as "The masculine Image is torn away under any kind of discrimination."[3] The play was covered as well by the crypto-gay magazine After Dark, whose reviewer praised the performances, especially that of "handsome Alberto Isaac."[4]

Japanese community newspapers were more measured. Kats Kunitsugu, writing in Kashu Mainichi, found the dialogue stilted and the camp scenes not credible. Speaking as a Kibei herself, Kunitsugu criticized the insufficient focus on the clash of loyalties that the Kibei faced between Japan and the United States.[5] Ellen Endo Kayano, reporting in Rafu Shimpo, focused rather primly on the nudity in the play, which she considered "shock value," and on the lead character's "sordid" homosexuality. She did, however, praise the historical accuracy of the camp depiction, and the "exquisite" treatment of the characters in their reaction to their situation. Expressing her pleasure at seeing a play that "for the first time gives an Oriental's version of an Oriental," she enthused over the play's potential to transform stereotypes of Asians.[6]

Tondemonai 's premiere run lasted five weeks. It was not revived afterward, either by East-West Players or other companies, and was quickly forgotten. In theatrical terms, its repeated shifts in time and between fantasy and reality make it difficult to follow, while the author's efforts to take on a wide variety of issues make it unwieldy. Yet the writing is graceful and the play has genuinely moving passages (Oh's impressive ear for dialogue is all the more remarkable considering that he was writing in English, his third language). Furthermore, the play has enormous historical value. Tondemonai is the first-ever commercial play to portray mass wartime removal (Hiroshi Kashiwagi's one-act drama Laughter and False Teeth was staged by amateurs in Berkeley and San Francisco in 1954), and it offers an early stage representation of the WRA camps (There was a single scene set at a rather sanitized version of Manzanar in the 1960 film Hell to Eternity.) Its hard-hitting look at family breakdown and clash of loyalties among inmates prefigured a host of literary and dramatic treatments of camp life in the years that followed, notably the play and movie Farewell to Manzanar. Tondemonai also was daring for the period in its portrayal of interracial marriages, its inclusion of a nude scene (on the model of the musical Hair and other theatrical works of the period) and in the characters' use of profanity. Perhaps most remarkable is Tondemonai's treatment of homosexuality. The play's plot revolves around a pair of three-dimensional LGBT protagonists, and there is no suggestion that their sexuality is evil or that they are diseased. This was nothing less than revolutionary in 1970, a time when homosexuality was illegal in California, and mention of it was all but taboo in Japanese American communities.

Authored by Greg Robinson, Université du Québec À Montréal

For More Information

Kurahashi, Yuko. Asian American Culture on Stage: The History of the East West Players. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1999.

Lee, Esther Kim. "Transnational Legitimization of an Actor: The Life and Career of Soon-Tek Oh." Modern Drama 48.2 (Summer 2005): 372–407.

Morioka-Steffens, Tamayo Irene. "Asian Pacific American Identities: An Historical Perspective Through the Theatre Productions of the East West Players, 1965 to 2000." Ph.D. dissertation, Claremont Graduate School, 2003.

Robinson, Greg. "The Great Unknown and the Unknown Great: Early Play Took an Unflinching Look at the Trauma of the Wartime Incarceration." Nichi Bei Weekly, May 30, 2013.

Footnotes

  1. Margaret Harford, "Tondemonai Staged by East-West Players," Los Angeles Times, May 30, 1970.
  2. John Mahoney, "Play Review," The Hollywood Reporter, June 3, 1970.
  3. Darby Summers, "Tondemonai a Unique Theatrical Experience," The Advocate, July 22-August 4, 1970.
  4. "Viewed in Perspective," After Dark, July 1970.
  5. Kats Kunitsugu, "Tondemonai—Never Happen," Kashu Mainichi, June 1, 1970.
  6. Ellen Endo Kayano, "Tondemonai has Surprises," Rafu Shimpo, May 29, 1970.