Plan-B Theatre: Block 8 | Buzz Blog

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Plan-B Theatre: Block 8

Posted By on February 18, 2009, 11:48 AM

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Starting off the 2009 portion of their season, Plan-B immediately jumps into the historic with a play that touches topics that still hit hard to this day. BLOCK 8 takes a look at a darker chapter from World War II, focusing on the imprisonment of Japanese living in the United States into interment camps, one of which was located just west of Delta here in Utah. The play kicks off to already sold out shows on February 20th and runs until March 8th over at the Rose Wagner. I got a chance to chat with playwright Matthew Ivan Bennett, actors Anita Booher and Bryan Kido, and director Jerry Rapier about the play. ---

Matthew Ivan Bennett, Anita Booher, Bryan Kido, & Jerry Rapier
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Gavin: Hey guys. First off, tell us a little bit about yourselves.

Matthew: My first dramatic experience was in the “Pied Piper Of Hamlin” in the fourth grade; unless you count playing with He-Man action figures theatre. I knew I wanted to be a writer in the third grade. Having lots of books, being cloistered, growing a beard, and living in front of a typewriter (this was the '80s) seemed like a good life to me. I knew I wanted to be in theatre specifically when I was 14. The first serious acting I did was the part of Death in the play "Everyman." From there I devoured Shakespeare, began wearing all black, and replaced the white light bulbs in my room with blue bulbs. I'm now wearing color again and I use compact fluorescents.

Jerry: I've been in SLC since 1994, with Plan-B since 2000, and have recently developed an addition to Wii Tennis!

Anita: A native of the South, I’ve been acting since college. Salt Lake theatre companies have provided me with the gifts of challenging roles and wonderful actors and directors to work with.

Bryan: I first became interested in drama when I was 12 years old. My mom forced me into a summer youth drama program and at first I hated it. Then I began to enjoy it. My mom also took me to lots of plays/musicals and some operas. Slowly, I became fascinated with the magic of the theatre and of stage performance. A few years later I took some drama classes in High school and realized I needed lots of work on my "acting" it was terrible, I KID YOU NOT! So I began reading lots of plays and auditioned for the U of U Actor Training Program. The first time they didn't accept me but the next year they did. I spent 4 years of college studying scene work, monologues, singing, voice, and movement techniques etc etc. Also did some college plays. So after graduation I had my BFA in Acting and BLOCK 8 definitely tests all of my acting skills!
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Gavin: Tell us about the upcoming play BLOCK 8.

Jerry: BLOCK 8 is a two-person play set inside Topaz, the Japanese internment camp that was in operation sixteen miles west of Delta, Utah during World War II. Ken is a young internee grappling with whether to enlist in the military to prove his loyalty to the United States. Ada is a Caucasian librarian whose son is fighting in the Pacific. Their unlikely friendship offers insight into the paranoia, distrust and xenophobia that led to the existence of Japanese internment camps.

Gavin: How did you learn about the camp set up here in Utah, and what was some of the history behind it?

Matthew: I first learned about the camp through my mother at seven or eight years old. On a family camping trip at Topaz Mountain she explained to me that there had been a concentration camp a few miles away for Japanese. I didn't understand at first that the camps were run by Americans; I thought the Germans sneaked inside US borders, rounded up the ethnic Japanese, and operated the camps without us knowing. My understanding of good and evil changed a lot when I figured out that we (the Americans) ran the camps. I grew up in the Cold War in the '80s and at the time I was playing "Kill the Commie" with my cousins.

Jerry: Fifteen years ago, I happened upon a shelf of books about the Japanese internment in the City Library. Even though I knew I was half Japanese, I had never really thought about that as a part of me until that moment. Since then I've wanted to develop a piece of theatre about the internment specific to Utah.

Anita: I knew, of course, about the internment in our history, but my knowledge of Topaz was limited to the fact that it was one of the camps and was located in Utah. After we were cast, Bryan and I were treated to a tour of the camp and the Topaz Museum by Jane Beckwith of Delta. The images from that trip inform much of what we do on stage.

Bryan: It's literally part of my family history. I have family members who were interned at Minidoka (in Idaho) and here in Utah.
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Gavin: Where did the idea come from to write a play based on it, and what was the process like writing it?

Matthew: The idea for a play evolved out of conversations with Jerry about pieces of Utah and U.S. history that are little known and should be known. The play is expressionistic in a lot of ways, so the process of writing it was similar to the poetry writing process. I re-visited the internment site and noted as many "small noticings" as I could: ravens, greasewood, mountains like the corpses of giant lizards, dirt like moondust, etc. I imagined what Ken and Ada's dreams were like--and I put those images in the play. On a thematic level, I started out trying to write a "balanced" treatment of the pro-camp versus the anti-camp viewpoints. However, I soon realized I couldn't write that play because I personally find the internment to have been racist and unconstitutional. So I focused instead on the question of: "If your country imprisoned you on suspicion of being a spy and then asked you to prove you weren't by serving in a war, would you do it?" Given today's general attitudes about government, this may seem like an uncomplicated question; but to the interned Nisei it was incredibly complex. The Nisei grew up American and wanted to be American. They wanted their immigrant parents to be able to stay in the country and not be shipped back to Japan. They were lonely in the camps. And being Nisei, being between cultures, a lot of them were possessed with a fundamental desire to prove themselves.

Gavin: For the actors, what was your first impressions of it when you got wind of the script?

Anita: I liked Matt’s script from the moment I read it. Not only does it educate us about the internment history and experience, but it does so beautifully by focusing on the tender and unlikely friendship between these two characters. I love the idea of these two people finding caring and support in each other to help them through a very, very dark time in their lives.

Bryan: When I first got a hold of the script it really kept my attention and it was very refreshing to read something that is not often talked about, especially from Japanese Americans from that generation.
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Gavin: What was the audition process like for you going in? And how did it feel to know you had the part?

Matthew: The audition process was cake for me. Everyone who showed up was excellent, and it was only a matter of finding the combination of Ada's and Ken's that clicked. When Anita and Bryan read opposite of each other it was clear that these two actors could have actually been people like this in the early '40s.

Jerry: I was nervous we wouldn't find a Japanese actor - but we had 6 to choose from! And there's such a wealth of talent among actresses in their 50s in this city we knew we'd have our pick of the best - which we did!

Anita: I was ecstatic to learn that I had been cast. The script was beautiful, and it is always such a treat to work with Jerry and Plan-B. I feel very fortunate to have this experience.

Bryan: The audition was a very great feeling and I knew being Japanese American was very important for this play and for the role of Ken. Since I was auditioning for a part that fit my age and ethnicity I didn't worry or second guess myself.

Gavin: The opening happens the day after Day of Remembrance. Tell us a little about that order, and what is Plan-B doing to reflect?

Jerry: To be honest, it's simply serendipity. We have to schedule our rentals in the Rose Wagner several years in advance. And the stars aligned (like they seem to do for us) for the timing to be perfect. We couldn't have scripted it better.
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Gavin: Are you looking to draw in the comparison to more recent events in history, or did that come about as more coincidence than design?

Matthew: I could see the parallels from the beginning, but as I researched the internment and the war, the parallels became ever stronger. There was a surprise attack on US soil. A few thousand were killed. The country revved up into a patriotic fervor and propaganda rained from the sky. Racism became excusable. We went to war. We made mistakes.

Jerry: It's inevitable in the wake of 9/11. One of Obama's first acts as President was to sign an Executive Order to close Guantanamo Bay. The order FDR signed to authorize the creation of the Japanese internment camps, Executive Order 9066, is the order that remained open and made Guantanamo possible. So it's coming full circle. In the case of the Japanese internment, 120,000 people were displaced from their homes, 110,000 of them interned. And not one of them was charged, much less convicted of espionage.

Gavin: You already sold out some of the dates in advance. Did you expect that kind of reception or are you surprised?

Jerry: I always err on the side of caution with ticket sales - I never want to expect sellouts. But I hope! And it's wonderful to see the response - it looks like we'll be about 85% sold out by the time the show opens on February 20th. I couldn't be happier, particularly in this economic climate.
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Gavin: Are there any future plans for the play after its run?

Jerry: We are touring the show to Delta and Moab in late April. Delta because it's the location of Topaz. Moab because there was a smaller camp there (Moab Citizens Isolation Center) where men, considered a possible threat at Topaz, were sent. I find it ironic that 'Citizens' is part of the title.

Gavin: Is there anything else you'd like to say about BLOCK 8 and this experience so far?

Matthew: Writing and preparing the play for production has altered the way I think about politics. I was a debater in high school and I earnestly believed in the democratic process. I still believe in the democratic process, except now I see how democracy is hid behind and is used as an excuse for anti-empathetic behavior. I also see that nothing is ever resolved by the fierce collision of viewpoints. A man with imbalanced views only regains balance through risking empathy.

Jerry: Honestly, it's a dream come true.

Anita: I hope the audiences find the play as illuminating and touching as I do.

Bryan: BLOCK 8 has made me reflect a lot on what it was like being Japanese American in the 1940s. I don't think I could EVER imagine what some of my family had to endure--the prejudice and hate they all had to put up with.
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Gavin: Aside from the obvious is there anything you'd like to plug or promote?

Jerry: BLOCK 8 is the centerpiece of this year's Day of Remembrance events. There is also series of free events--a photo exhibit and several film screenings--through February 24.  Details can be found here.
Check out our next production, DI ESPERIENZA, a dissection of the man, the myth and the self-doubt of Leonardo da Vinci. April 3-10.  Click here for more info.

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