New York and Connecticut theater reviews and news

Ethnic Theater - Japanese

"Senpo Sugihara: The Japanese Schindler"
Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College, Manhattan

It is most remarkable that Japanese playwright Koichi Hiraishi's drama about the rescue of Jews from the Holocaust is enormously popular in Tokyo-and indeed around the world. But even more remarkable is that this piece about the heroic efforts of a Japanese ambassador is a true story.

In 1940 the city of Kaunas, Lithuania, was in turmoil, as thousands of Jews poured over the border from Poland. Lithuania would soon be annexed by the Soviet Union and then overrun by the Nazis. Sugihara, without approval of his government, took an unprecedented step by issuing the Jews thousands of exit visas. An escape route had been worked out, overland across Siberia and half way around the world to the western hemisphere, where entry to Curacao was possible. Risking his own career, family and life, Sugihara handwrote those visas, enabling some 6000 Jews to escape. (Today, those Jews and their families number some 40,000). Even after his embassy was closed and he was recalled, he continued, working from his hotel room and finally tossing visas through a train window as he departed.

Why did he do it? Because, as he explained, it was the decent thing to do.

"Senpo Sugihara" now returns to the U.S., having made its first New York appearance in 1998. The play itself is a powerful piece which focuses on the plight of two Jewish families from Poland and on the moral dilemma of Sugihara.

It is difficult to judge the quality of the dialogue (for those of us not fluent in Japanese). Though the overhead translation allows one to follow the story, it hardly offers a literary experience. The grammar and syntax leave something to be desired.

But under Shoichi Yamada (who co-directed with Hiraishi), the tale unfolds beautifully. Film and slides interspersed with the silhouettes of actors, providing a stunning backdrop for the drama of the two Jewish families and the one Japanese family. The intimate stories are spelled out in the foreground, the panoramic saga in the background.

Though it is strange to see an all-Japanese cast (the Dora Theatrical Company) portray European Jews, the actors are remarkably convincing. Jew or Japanese, the common humanity dominates. And Fumio Sato, who plays the ambassador, gives a stature and calm dignity to the character. One truly believes that this is a figure of sanity in a world gone mad.

"Senpo Sugi" has a very short New York run, at Hunter College from Oct. 21-24. But it goes on to Washington, DC, where it plays at American University on Oct. 29 and 30, before returning to Japan.

-- Irene Backalenick
Oct. 22, 2004

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