Vancouver Opera's “Naomi's Road” goes to the heart of Vancouver's old Japantown – a fundraiser for Powell Street Festival


Vancouver Opera's “Naomi's Road” goes to the heart of Vancouver's old Japantown


– a fundraiser for Powell Street Festival

The Japanese Canadian community used to thrive along Powell St. in
Vancouver.  I remember walking down there in the late 1960's and
visiting the different stores, on the search for more origami paper,
after being taught to fold origami paper figures by my father. 
Today it is a shadow of its former self.  But it's memory is kept
alive by both the annual Powell Street Festival
and the Japanese Hall / Japanese Language School on Alexander St.

Naomi's Road opera, put on by the Vancouver Opera Touring Ensemble, came to old Japantown on Saturday night.  It was presented in the hall at the Vancouver Japanese Language School,
newly built and connected to the Japanese Hall, built in 1918, which
stands alone as the only property among any Japanese Canadian
private citizen, business or organization to retain ownership after the
war.

About 100 people filled the new hall, in anticipation of watching the
touring production which has been playing to schools throughout
BC.  This was about the 95th presentation of the production so
far, and the cast does a remarkable job of keeping each presentation
fresh. 

It was also the 4th time I had seen Naomi's Road, writing a review of the premiere weekend, and also the excerpts presented at the Laurier Institution / Roy Miki lecture at the Chan Centre, and the Vancouver Arts Awards.  Everytime I have seen it, it is enjoyable.  I even find myself humming the songs afterwards now.

Naomi's Road, is the children's version of Joy Kogawa's
award winning novel, Obasan.  It tells the story of a family being
torn apart by the events of WW2.  The mother goes off to Japan to
look after her sick grandmother.  The father's sister comes to
help look after the children.  WW2 breaks out, and anybody of
Japanese ancestry is “evacuated” from the BC coastal region, and sent
to “internment camps.”  The father is unexplainedly sent to a
different camp (as able-bodied working males were sent to work
camps).  The two children Naomi and Steven, aged 10 and 14, learn
to deal with racism, and being separated from their parents, as well as
the negative impacts of war.

All the performers, Jessica Cheung (Naomi), Gina Oh (mother, Obasan,
Mitzie), Sam Chung (Stephen), and Gene Wu (father, train
conductor,bully, Roughlock Bill), perform well.  Cheung really
conveys the innocence and wonder of a 10 year old, while Chung plays
her foil expressing the anger and resentment of being forced into the
internment camp. 

Oh and Wu perform well in their multiple roles, convincingly altering
ther performances with each character.  In Oh's case from a loving
mother, to a reserved aunt, and a youthful child named Mitzie.  Wu
does the same, first as a concerned an playful father figure, a racist
bully, and also as Rough Lock Bill, a First Nations character that
befriends the two children.

The action moves quickly, with multiple scene changes which the actors
create by moving screens around as part of their stage action.  It
is a wonderful way to experience a small performing arts production,
watching all this stage action unfold, as the set evokes Powell St, a
living room, a train, an internment camp, and a lakeside beach.

For this performance, it was a treat for the performers to be on a
raised stage, rather than floor level at the West Vancouver, or
Vancouver Public libraries.  But unfortunately if the performers
stood too close to the front the stage, they became back lit and their
faces were difficult to be seen.  The piano was also woefully out
of tune, but giving the performance and “old-time feel” to fit with
it's 1942 setting.

A question and answer was held folowing the performance, and a special
treat was that author Joy Kogawa came up on stage with the
performers.  Joy exclaimed that she is moved to tears, everytime
she sees the opera.  She said that it is a wonderful opportunity
for sharing the story of Japanese Canadians and for creating healing.

Questions covered many topics, but in this setting at the Japanese
Language School in Japantown, it was interesting to hear that many
former internment camp survivors thanked the performers for sharing the
story, and that they related very strongly to the performance.

At the end, I stood beside the pamphets for the Land Conservancy campaign to help save Kogawa House, and answered questions about the Save Kogawa House campaign.

also see:
my review of Naomi's Road premiere weekend,
my interview with Naomi's Road performers

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