SANTA MONICA — “Seamless,” Dr. Dorinne Kondo’s play about a modern Japanese American woman’s awakening to the impact of the World War II camps on family dynamics and subsequent generations, will be presented as part of the New Works Festival.
Performances are scheduled for Sunday, Sept. 24, at 2 p.m.; Friday, Sept. 29, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, Oct. 7, at 4 p.m.; and Saturday, Oct. 14, at 8 p.m. at Morgan Wixson Theatre, 2627 Pico Blvd. in Santa Monica.
The director is Melodie S. Rivers. The cast: Ciel Choi, Abbey Eklund, Ross G, Michael German, Caroline Jones, Daniel Koh and Randi Tahara.
The production team: Samantha Barrios (also VP of marketing) and Michael Heimos (also president of the board), producers; Julian Hennech, assistant producer; Bill Wilday, set builder, lighting designer and production technical director; Melanie Anthony, dramaturg.
A drama with imagination, heart and history that asks: Is it possible to find happiness in our present and a path to our futures if we remain unaware and unsettled about our history and legacies?
This theatrical view of history and identity refracted through gender, work, family, and generation introduces us to successful Japanese American corporate attorney Diane Kubota, whose life is seamlessly perfect. When she is interviewed by Harvard psychologist Dr. Kathleen Goto about her parents’ incarceration during WWII, the questions launch Diane on a quest that compels her to ask how well she knows herself, her family, her culture.
A play about history and memory, the afterlife of trauma, and the (im)possibility of knowing the people you love most, “Seamless” illuminates the lingering impact of an episode of American history that remains too little-known. Spotlighting a picture-perfect “model minority” family, “Seamless” stages the fragmentation of the American Dream.
Kondo is an author, playwright, dramaturg, professor of American studies and anthropology, and former director of Asian American Studies at USC. She has written three full-length plays and, among other projects, is at work on a new one-act that explores the existential effects of COVID and anti-Asian violence.
Kondo is the author of award-winning books: “Crafting Selves: Power, Gender, and Discourses of Identity in a Japanese Workplace”; “About Face: Performing Race in Fashion and Theater”; and the recent “Worldmaking: Race, Performance and the Work of Creativity.”
She served as a dramaturg for three world premieres of renowned theatre artist Anna Deavere Smith’s plays and reprised her role as dramaturg in the 30th-anniversary revival of “Twilight: Los Angeles” at the Mark Taper Forum in last spring. She was represented as a character in the Broadway version in 1994 as well as the MTF revival of “Twilight” in 2023.
Part of the New Works Festival was a two week developmental program called Playwrights’ Gatherings organized by the Morgan Wixson Theater’s New Works Festival literary manager and dramaturg Melanie Anthony. During this time, artists volunteered to gather to read and discuss the plays.
For more information, contact the theater at (310) 828-7519 or visit www.Morgan-Wixson.org.
Interview with the Playwright
Following is an exchange between Dorinne Kondo and The Rafu’s J.K. Yamamoto.
Rafu: As suggested by the movie “No No Girl” and other recent works, the postwar generations of Japanese Americans are impacted by the wartime camp experience whether they know it or not. Has that been your observation as well?
Kondo: I think all historical traumas produce effects that extend far beyond “the event” itself. Psychoanalysis is based on the premise that history matters and continues to reverberate — consciously and unconsciously — over generations. The past is never merely “past.” Japanese American incarceration is no different in this regard. It has inevitably produced multiple effects over generations.
One manifestation evident in “Seamless” is the anxious performance of “model minority excellence” in protagonist Diane’s life — a “seamlessly perfect” ideal that comes unraveled by the end of the play.
Rafu: In the past 40+ years, we have seen major developments like the hearings of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, the passage of the redress bill, the coram nobis cases of Korematsu, Hirabayashi and Yasui, the federal and state public education funds, etc. Do you think this resulted in more parents sharing their camp experiences with their children, or has there still been a tendency not to talk about it?
Kondo: Without doing an empirical study — I am a cultural anthropologist by training — I cannot answer this with anything but anecdotal evidence. Certainly the legislation, hearings, exhibitions, films, novels, plays, scholarship have helped to disseminate the stories and to create an atmosphere where sharing stories becomes safer, more possible. My anecdotal response would be that surely there is more conversation about the incarceration as a result.
Rafu: Where were your parents incarcerated? Did they tell you about it when you were growing up or did you learn about it as an adult? How has this knowledge affected you?
Kondo: “Seamless” is based loosely on my own and my family’s histories and on interviews with my parents. They were both from Oregon, near Portland, and were sent first to the assembly center at the Portland stockyards, then to Tule Lake. My father eventually was able to leave camp to finish dental school; my mother’s family was moved again to Heart Mountain.
However, “Seamless” has a specific origin story that I tell in my book “Worldmaking: Race, Performance and the Work of Creativity.” This incident spurred my desire to know more about my parents’ experiences, and I continued to interview them over a period of years.
A Sansei scholar in the Psychology Department at Smith (Donna Nagata) asked me to participate in her study on the “legacy of internment” among Sansei. I agreed enthusiastically. After all, I was down with the Asian American program. I had taught Asian American studies on course overload at Harvard, in the face of heartbreakingly insistent requests from students. It was taught through a “house” or dorm, which is not accorded the same “prestige” as a departmental course. (Harvard still doesn’t have Asian American Studies as such, though they have made individual hires in the field.) I was ready to talk — or so I thought.
She began by asking me a simple question. Interestingly, I don’t remember the question exactly; in my memory it was a general query, such as “Do you think internment affected you and your family?” I started to answer, but I couldn’t speak — as though, if I did, I might choke and break down sobbing. My reaction utterly shocked me. Where did it come from? The sensation of choking felt like a knot at the core of my being, an obstruction as physical as a furball.
Indeed, despite the fact that I have been director of Asian American Studies at USC, participated in leadership roles in protests to establish Asian American/Diasporic Studies at the Claremont Colleges, and am called upon to discuss the internment/incarceration publicly on occasion, I still cannot speak about the incarceration for long without experiencing this same sensation of choking/choking up.
Lest readers assume this is mere personal idiosyncrasy or character weakness, Judge Lance Ito, who presided over the O.J. Simpson trial in Los Angeles, did the same on television when he was talking about a relative whose life was shattered by the camps.
When I have publicly lost composure, some in the audience respond with pitying sympathy — “poor little Asian woman” is my reading — but the emotion that chokes is not merely sorrow or pain. It is rage: that this could happen in a nation presumably dedicated to equality and that it happened to my parents, who hardly deserved such a fate. I wanted to explore that legacy of sorrow and pain and rage in my generation, who are still marked in some way by the incarceration, though we were never in the camps and though it was barely discussed in our homes. “Seamless” asks, what does it mean to choke on history?
Rafu: Although the number of camp survivors is dwindling, is it your goal to have more of them open up to their children and grandchildren?
Kondo: “Seamless” stages the (im)possibility of knowing the past and our parents’ histories. How do we “know” the past given the gaps and silences in the archive, in memory, when people who were there pass away? If the Nisei want to share their stories, then wonderful. It would help future generations understand what the incarcerated had to face and how they survived.
I think, however, that there are reasons that people did not want to talk, and we should also respect what postcolonial intellectual Édouard Glissant called “the right to opacity,” that which we cannot know completely.
Further points I’d like to emphasize about “Seamless”:
1. Gender. Life-altering intersections of race and gender shape Diane’s family history and her conflict between work and family. “Seamless” challenges stereotypes of women as nurturers and child-bearers and of Asian American women as traditional and submissive. Masako, Diane’s Nisei mother, provokes a meditation on gendered histories in generations who had little choice but to marry and have children. Must we perpetuate those roles in a different historical era?
The fate of Grandma raises the issues of life and death due to medical racism and the potentially lethal complications of childbirth, especially for women of color. What traces do these traumatic experiences deposit in subsequent generations, even if stories remain unspoken? Yet perhaps the legacy of these stories is not simply traumatic. Diane’s dilemmas — how to balance career and family, whether to have children — point toward expanded possibilities for women.
2. Style and Tone. I’m primarily a comedy writer, and I can’t repress a certain fantastic, theatrical wackiness, even — or especially? — in the face of this serious topic. “Seamless” ventures into realms of fantasy, including spirited samurai swordfights over legal doctrine, an Alice in Wonderland “kangaroo court,” startling and ghostly visitations by Diane’s grandmother who died in childbirth, and Diane’s battle with personifications of her conflicting demands, who literally pull her to and fro.
The quick tonal shifts from humor to pathos to high theatricality upend expectations about the sober, earnest naturalism of many plays on historical trauma. Humor and fantasy can offer moments of life-giving delight, even in the face of oppressive conditions. I hope people will both laugh and cry when they see “Seamless.”