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Theatre Review: 'No-No Boy'

by Photo of Paul Hansen

The Pan Asian Repertory Theatre presents a play about a painful episode in U.S. history.

I have to admit that I was looking forward to Pan Asian Repertory Theatre's production of No-No Boy, which recently ended its scheduled short run in New York.   I had seen two previous performances by the company -  A Dream of Red Pavilions and Incident at Hidden Temple – and I found both plays serious, compelling and memorable theatre productions.  No-No Boy certainly did not disappoint in terms of the gravitas of its subject matter. 

The play is adopted from the novel of the same name by John Okada.   Published in the mid-1950's, the story deals with the painful subject of the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.   The title refers to Ichiro (performed by Chris Doi) who, appalled by the U.S government's treatment of his ethnic group, refuses to be inducted into the U.S. armed forces during the war.   He was subsequently jailed for his refusal to serve. 

The play opens in Seattle in 1946 as Ichiro returns home from imprisonment.  He arrives to a maelstrom of conflicting loyalties and emotions.  Ichiro is still embitterred at his country, while his brother (Tony Vo) is angered at him for refusing to serve.  Ichiro's mother (Karen Tsen Lee)  walks about in something of a daze, unable to believe that Japan lost the war.    The father (Dinh James Doan) has resorted to the popular palliative for dealing with seemingly insoluble problems and tension – alcohol. 

The ninety minute script was concisely adapted by Ken Narasaki from Okada's novel.  Direction was by Ron Nakahara who creatively used the relatively small space at the Studio Theatre at Theatre Row. Sets were quite simple,  largely consisting of chairs along the walls of the stage.  The material of the play was so poised with tension, that the absence of extensive scenery was not missed.   When not performing, actors observed the action from their chairs,  creating something of the impression of a particularly troubled Our Town atmosphere.

I thought that the relatively large cast was uniformly compelling and energetic. The performances of Doi and Vo as  brothers with very different responses to a tragic situation nicely complemented each other,  with the bitterness communicated by Doi being particularly palpable.   Lee's performance was also quite memorable as someone with a delusional,  Ophelia-like response to being caught between the struggle of two cultures.   The conflict in the play about refusing to serve in the military reminded me somewhat of the atmosphere surrounding the current controversy about standing for the national anthem.  

Upcoming performances at Pan Asian Repertory Theatre include the world premiere of Daybreak by Joyce Van Dyke. The play, which deals with the Armenian genocide of the early twentieth century, performs April 21- May 13 at the Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row located at 410 West 42nd  St. in Manhattan.    Those interested in serious theater in New York should definitely keep track of this substantive,  thought-provoking company. 

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