BWW Review: Texas Rep Premiere HAIR LIKE THE SUN Exquisitely Explores Life in WWII Internment Camps
In HAIR LIKE THE SUN, the aftereffect of Executive Order 9066 is seen through the eyes of 15-year-old Ruth Mix (Jenna Malisheski) who, initially against her dearest wishes, travels with her mother, Frida Mix (Sally Burtenshaw), to go live as volunteers in a Japanese internment camp in the Arizona desert. Ruth's brother, Edward Mix (Nathan Wilson) soon leaves to go fight in the war. At the camp, conversation between the volunteers and internees is strictly prohibited, but despite the regulations and prospective arrest, Ruth forms secret friendships with Chie Tanaka (Asia Kreitz) and Kuni Matsuo (Jackson Perrin). She is given the nickname Taiyo, from the phrase "taiyo mitaina kaminoke" (The Girl with Hair Like the Sun) by Miyoko Fujimoto (Regina Ohashi). However, for Michiko (Susan Ly), she is known only and angrily as "white girl."
The script was never heavy with exploitive dialogue over thoughtless tragedy. Instead, Charles B. French's writing is simple and authentic, which allowed the flow and emergence of believable characters. Under Steve Fenley's direction, the actors matched the simplicity of the script by performing with candid patience, letting scenes naturally bloom into the space, sometimes relying on silence, subtle movement, or emotions frozen in time to gently propel the story forward. The cast's pacing was sublime.
Malisheski's portrayal of Ruth is exquisite. She is young, brash, and brave, but never needlessly aggressive. Her emotional development from being an ignorant child to a mature, open-hearted young woman is complex and full. She and Wilson maintain the quintessential big-brother-little-sister dynamic. Wilson's performance of Edward comes across as smooth, carefully twisting prejudice with patriotism. Burtenshaw gave Frida such compassion and grace as a mother to two children caught up in dual sides of the war. There is never condescension in her tone, no hostility in her words. Chie and Kuni are such sweet and kind characters, and their chemistry with Ruth is undeniably pure and joyful. Michiko Fujimoto was the only Japanese-born character, and although her English was broken, Ohashi gave her short phrases a beautiful fragility. Ly's Miyoko bore a high amount of tension in her body, the physical manifestation of the hatred she harbored toward "all white people" for what they did to her family.
The costuming is humble and realistic to the early 1940's. The set design is versatile and the lighting poignant, all coming together to create scene transitions that are as stunning as they are smooth, choreographed with sliding walls pressed against an ever-changing colored backdrop. The dark silhouette of barbed-wire fences and watchtowers can be seen through the panels looming over the camp, and in the distance stretches the barren Arizona horizon.
The evacuation of the Japanese-Americans - of the men, women, children and the elderly, regardless of their loyalties to the United States, regardless that their sons and husbands were fighting in the war for the U.S. - was allowed to occur with neither a trial nor due process of law, signed by a President pressured by a sea of the white majority screaming, through fear and anger, for the elimination of "the Japs."
Hate breeds quickly, but compassion is stronger and more resilient. It is good to be reminded, especially in these times, of our nation's history, and to be open to confronting those mistakes, so that discrimination and persecution will never again define America.
HAIR LIKE THE SUN continues through April 10. Showtime is 7:30 p.m. on Thursdays; 8:00 p.m. on Fridays; and 3:00 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets are $38. The Texas Repertory Theatre Company, 14241 Stuebner Airline Road. For information, please call 281-583-7573 or visit texreptheatre.org.