Based on Julie Otsuka's novel The Buddha in the Attic, Certaines n'Avaient Jamais Vu La Mer, in performance in the Avignon Theatre Festival's Cloître des Carmes, is a look at the lives of Japanese immigrants in America from the turn of the 20th century to FDR's internment camps. Director Richard Brunel's multimedia and elemental staging is supremely inventive, and the performances spark with vitality. Those familiar with the history might find themselves treading familiar territory. However, Certaines n'Avaient Jamais Vu La Mer can serve for some as a theatrically dynamic introduction to one of America's great historic shames.

Taking a Ken Burns style macro view of historical events, the play sprints through its two-hour run time. Anouk Dell'Aiera's transformative scenography is in constant motion. Beginning with large white-screened boxes, an assembly of female actors enters. Videos by Jérémie Scheidler are projected of the actresses giving testimony of their aspirations as they move to America. Of course, once they arrive, things are not as they'd hoped. Tearing through a pile of black sponges, then working at sewing machines the women work hard to claim their stake as "Americans." Moving ever forward, they have children and struggle with containing an inter-generational culture shock in their own homes. Then 1941 arrives and with it the war. The adult immigrants discuss their overwhelming denial that the wrath of American insecurity won't turn against them. The children express their resentment towards their Japanese heritage. One by one they are all expelled from their homes. The final scene exchanges vantage points to that of an affluent white woman and her family. The woman observes how the absence of her Japanese-American neighbors begins to fade from perception. The trials of what were once friends are out of sight and out of mind.

Brunel's direction has a choreographer's eye for continual movement. He works with Bausch like movement metaphor that suits both history and the relentless journey taken by immigrants. He also integrates multiple languages very smartly, and his political intentions are supremely honorable. However, the inclusion of white actors among the Japanese population should be noted as an, at best, distracting choice. While I think discussions of cultural appropriation are nuanced, this historical event is unique. This event centers on the politicization of bodies, specifically Japanese bodies. To include people whose bodies have not been politicized in such a manner within these scenes and watch them claim the struggle as their own undermines the social reality of the time, and the political intentions of the work.

Regardless, the performances on stage are a fantastically even canvas of the spectacular. The actors fall into different worlds, different characters, and different states of being at a moment's notice. Music and sound by Antoine Richard are exceptional as he mixes the documentarian with the dramatically material. Costumes from Benjamin Moreau are marvelous, at once romantic and historically grounded. Certaines n'Avaient Jamais Vu La Mer presents that sublime blend of clear intentionality and the delicately poetic that is so often searched for. As an American I will admit that there was little explored in the piece that surprised me historically or dramatically. The swiftness of the runtime was definitely no aid, and macro views of immigrant tribulations are regretfully familiar territory. However, most of the French I spoke to were unaware of the Japanese internment camps, and were quite moved by the history. I profoundly appreciate that such a story is being offered such a prime platform in France. I hope we all heed its warnings with vigilance.

Photo Credit: Jean-Louis Fernandez

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From This Author Wesley Doucette

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