Sisters reminds America of shameful chapter

By Lily Janiak

Posted: 04/04/17

As the U.S. seriously contemplates mass deportation, a border wall and a Muslim ban, Center Rep’s production of “Sisters Matsumoto” reminds us that these ideas, and the prejudice, intolerance and even hate that drives them, aren’t new, and that we have already been heinous enough to act on them.

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Heartbreaking legacy of Japanese internment camps haunts Walnut Creek Stage

By Sam Hurwitt

Posted: 04/05/17

This year is the 75th anniversary of a shameful chapter in American history, the rounding up of around 120,000 people of Japanese descent — most of them American citizens — into concentration camps during World War II. Berkeley’s TheatreFIRST just finished a run of a new play about one of those families in March, “Beneath the Tall Tree,” and now Center Repertory Company revives “Sisters Matsumoto,” eminent Berkeley playwright Philip Kan Gotanda’s drama about another such family, at Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center for the Arts.

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 "This is a powerful play that is a 'Must See!'"

- Vince Mediaa, VMedia



By Vince Mediaa

Posted: 04/15/17


Three struggling sisters return home after spending time in a WWII Japanese internment camp -- one of the worse times in American History. Philip Kan Gotanda's "Sisters Matsumoto," is now at the Center Rep through April 29th. This important play first premiered at the Seattle Rep in 1999 directed by Seattle Rep’s artistic director, Sharon Ott. Then “Sisters” went on to premiere at the San Jose Rep later that year. “Sisters Matsumoto mirrors the history of my mother’s life,” playwright Philip Kan Gotanda says. Gotanda is a widely produced playwright and respected independent filmmaker. He has received numerous honors and awards, three awards from the National Endowment for the Arts. He is a Bay Area native and resides in San Francisco and is close to the Japanese American experience. He also said “This play is inspired by several sources - my mother’s life that mirrors closely the return of these sisters - after being incarcerated for two years in a Relocation Camp.”

This is is a story of dislocation and the end of a way of life for Japanese families . The Margaret Lesher stage takes us back to 1945, and a worn down farm home with anti Asian graffiti written on the outside walls.This year 2017 is the 75th anniversary of FDR’s executive order to send Japanese Americans to concentration camps across the country. Gotanda’s play comes at the perfect time to revisit these tragic times.

Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard" comes to mind as this is a family lost between two countries. The powerful "you can't go home again" message takes on a driving new dimensions for these sisters and family. Japanese-Americans returning from internment; released from the Rohwer camp in Arkansas. To this family the term "home" means everything including their farm and their feelings for the American dream, and the adopted homeland of the family Matsumoto. Gotanda's play makes its East Bay debut in an intriguing production by the Center Rep Repertory Theatre, directed by the artistic director of San Francisco’s Crowded Fire Theater, the bold Mina Morita. With a moody authentic house set by Andrea Berchert. Featuring a compelling cast including the riveting Keiko Shimosato Carrerio as Grace, Melissa Locsin as Chiz, and Carina Lastimosa as Rose. The sisters have returned to their family farm being cofined in the camps of Arkansas. Now they deal with racism after being one of the most wealthiest families in Stockton.

The Matsumoto sisters including Grace's husband, Hideo, played by the keen Ogie Zulueta, and Chiz's husband, Bola, played by the magnetic Tasi Alabastro and their baby take the return in stride. They attempt to put the home back together and remove the racist vandalism to the family farm. The home has fallen into despair and feels strange to Grace, Chiz and Rose without their father, who died. Mr Matsumoto, a leader of the Japanese-American community, died back at the camp.

The loss is difficult for the family and they find their own hometown changed and not friendly. They know if they can bring their home back to its pre war status it will help them to return to the norm. Their father was a pure patriot and his loss destroys the family. The group itself is divided on issues of patriotism vs the drama in the camps. Hideo is very much pro-Japan and voices his distrust of the U.S. government; Zulueta brings forth that passion. While Grace remains true to her father's loyalty to the U.S. even after his imprisonment that killed him.

With such different points of views within this family, Gotanda explores the issues of the American Dream and the struggle to deal with their heritage and culture. Grace, Chiz and Rose are nisei, second-generation Japanese-Americans. Born in the U.S., they are citizens who feel betrayed by their imprisonment, a feeling made more intense by the sisters' having been raised on their father's clear cut patriotism. Keiko Shimosato Carreiro as the oldest daughter brings the inner pain to Grace, who is torn as the new family patriarch. Director Mina Morita helms an excellent ensemble cast who turn in believable performances which walk a very engrossing line between rage, acceptance and revelry.

Andrea Bechert’s exceptional set beautifully creates the feel of the farm house and its surroundings including the photos and their traditional altar. Morita brings an important feel to her enthusiastic direction keeping the movement flowing and bringing some the drama down stage. The lighting design by the skilled Kurt Landisman completes the distant look of the trashed home, and Cliff Caruther’s sound design gives the space an open feel especially after the sunsets. The skirts, jackets and 40’s look is the best part of the design of this story, Maggi Yule costume design hits the after war feel that include Amy Bobeda wigs for the three sisters. Lynne Soffer, dialect coach, kept the Asian rage solid as the three sisters become very emotional during their arguments.

The leads are naturals and tragic Californians – Ogie Zulueta’s is forceful as Hideo is sensitive and with a winning performance. Tasi Alabastro’s is likable as Bola, and local favorite Colin Thomson is Mr. Hersham their next door neighbor who brings the arc of the story all its predictable drama. The Matsumoto’s do their best to heal and return to the norm with dealing with other issues their father left them. The Sisters Matsumoto offers a humanized illustration of the caution between their needs and realities that is the American experience and the common bond of true sisterhood. Sister Grace rallies the anthem, “We are Matsumotos,” as she makes sure her lost family will turn around and prosper as they did before the War. This is a powerful play that is a “Must See”, the cast and craft team is terrific. Next up at the Center Rep is ALTAR BOYZ that opens May 26th.

"...powerful story of love, hope and restoration..."

By Charles Jarrett

Posted: 04/12/2017


“Sisters Matsumoto,” now playing in the Lesher Center, is a powerful story of love, hope and restoration of a central valley Japanese family torn apart by the highly controversial Executive Order 9066 in February 1942. This story is penned by the brilliant American playwright and filmmaker, Phillip Kan Gotanda

“Sisters Matsumoto” introduces three sisters who have just returned home to their farm in Stockton, Calif., from the Rohwer, Ark., relocation and internment camp after two years of incarceration. To their great pain and sorrow, they find that the property has been substantially vandalized and left in disarray, with their farming equipment implements and hard-earned property improvements in near unusable condition.

Their father and family had been financially comfortable and highly respected before the war, even active members of the community’s social circles and golf club inner circle. Now, upon returning home, they discover that the hatred of the Japanese is still pervasive, forcing them to bravely start all over again. Further, the financial challenges and resurrecting the farm to make it operational again create divisions among family members, producing more stress and frustration.

Questions and fears mount as the family members ask themselves as to what kind of business the family should now engage in with so much hostility around them.

The family consists of married older sister Grace (Keiko Shimosato Carreiro) and her husband Hideo (Ogie Zulueta), married middle sister Chiz (Melissa Locsin) and her Hawaiian husband Bola (Tasi Alabastro), and finally, the youngest unmarried sister, Rose (Carina Lastimosa). In addition, former close family friend Mr. Hersham (Colin Thomson) and a former Asian childhood friend, Henry Sakai, are callers at the farm as the family tries to make repairs and regenerate the family farm.

“I don’t know who we are anymore or where we fit in,” a sister cries in frustration. The ongoing painful memories of their miserable incarceration, plus memories of a brother who volunteered to serve in the famous 442 Army regiment and died in Italy, are still tormenting the family.

All is not well, and the end of their problems is not fully in sight. Gotanda has delivered a poignant message of determination and hope as echoed by sister Grace, who challenges the family to be strong. After all, she says, “We are Matsumoto!”

Director Mina Morita presents this story with a great sense of compassion. The actors are really quite superb in every respect.

As Center Repertory Company Artistic Director Michael Butler points out, this story of real American history is “One that sheds light on the present, while bearing witness to the past.” Costume designer Maggi Yule weaves her magic in presenting attire that fits the period well. Scenic Designer Andrea Bechert has created a marvelous canvas upon which Gotanda’s story can realistically and beautifully come to life. I highly recommend this show.

Sisters Matsumoto focuses on an important moment of American history

By Jan Miller

Posted: 04/07/17

Center REPertory Company’s production of “Sisters Matsumoto,” currently showing through April 29 at the Lesher Center for the Arts (1601 Civic Drive) in downtown Walnut Creek, CA., is an interesting, delicate story about a Japanese American family who returns home from the World War II internment camps to grapple with lost opportunities, new beginnings, and trying to find the answer to a well-kept secret from the past.

Mina Morita directs this touching tale of strength and survival. Set in 1945, acclaimed Berkeley playwright Philip Kan Gotanda's 1999 drama focuses on the return of three sisters to their family farm after their formerly prosperous father died in the internment camp. The father remains a major presence through the effect his personality and drive (through his initial American business success) has on the next generation. The mother seems to have passed away leaving scarcely a trace behind. The farm is in ruins, and the three very different sisters have to figure out where to go from here. Memories of the camp and their father's death there are uppermost in their minds as they return to the family farm to pick up the pieces, where they encounter constant reminders of their lives growing up in a close-knit family in Stockton, Calif. Loving memories and sad ones are interwoven in an often poignant, sometimes harsh recollection of who they were and their present place in a universe they once believed they inhabited as equal American dreamers. But memories play tricks and so, sometimes, do fathers, it seems, when family skeletons are exhumed and family secrets start to surface. Xenophobia and racial profiling, subjects that had no remembered relevance in their entitled years, rise up to haunt their post-war hopes and dreams.

The death of the father is very much an emotional presence in the new household. The one bit of life changing shock is the uncovering of an action taken by the family patriarch before his death which affects everyone's future but which he never revealed.

The dutiful eldest daughter Grace (Keiko Shimosato Carreiro) struggles to bring back the family's dignity and remembered harmony, though too many shadows stand in the way. Grace considers herself the head of the family, and no one really challenges her on this. The two elder, married sisters seek a suitable husband for Rose (Carina Lastimosa) before she hits 28. Rose is in mourning for her betrothed, who volunteered for the suicide squad manned by Japanese Americans motivated to prove their intense loyalty to their adopted country by fighting in the front lines against their country of origin. 

Grace appears to have little respect for Hideo (Ogie Zulueta), her scholarly conservative husband, whose dream is to publish a newspaper, but who seems ill-fitted to this environment. Middle sister Chiz (Melissa Locsin), the most Americanized of the sisters, is married to Bola (Tasi Alabastro), a loud, colorful Hawaiian physician who is full of fun but doesn't quite get the family business. All these characters are preparing to build new lives to replace those forcibly disrupted by the internment and the confiscation or forced sale of their property, beginning by reviving the homestead farm as a going agricultural concern.

Then there's Henry (Alexander M. Lydon), an old friend from the past whom the girls remember as "the ringworm kid" from his bout with that embarrassing disease, and the villain, Mr. Hersham (Colin Thomson), a possible double-crossing American friend of the late Mr. Matsumoto and his family. His scenes are somewhat awkward as it makes one wonder how the Matsumotos could have lived with such a person, and yet still grant him the forgiveness he desires. Therein lies a good part of the tale. 

The sisters and their lives are fuel for fascinating speculation, and the cruel internment policy whereby America singled out some of its citizens as potential traitors and imprisoned innocents for the crimes they might commit is one of those dramatic moments where our nation's ideas and practices conflict in the most illuminating way. At its conclusion there’s a bit of a storybook ending, offering a promising future as the Sisters Matsumoto begin to rebuild their lives as Americans. 

Andrea Bechert's scenic design is wonderful, and blends beautifully with an idealized homestead glowing offered by Kurt Landisman's lighting, which somehow offers a glimpse of warmth and hope. Ironically, it is at odds with the text of the bleak and battered reality that makes the sisters' homecoming so painful. The Costume Design by Maggi Yule is spot-on for this postwar period. 

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the executive order that sent 120,000 American citizens of Japanese descent to internment camps around the country, which makes for perfect timing to see “Sisters Matsumoto.” 

Sisters Matsumoto: Caught Between Two Worlds

By Victor Cordell

Posted: 04/08/2017

Having returned to their family farm outside of Stockton after three years of incarceration at the Rohwer, Arkansas Japanese Internment Facility, the Matsumoto sisters face a new reality. Troubled by what they had been subjected to and what may lie ahead, youngest sister Rose cries that she doesn’t know who she is any more or how the family fits in. Eldest sister Grace responds with assurance, “We are Matsumotos,” convinced that with determination, they will recapture their pre-war lives.

Playwright Philip Kan Gotanda provides his perspective on the most discussed and most tragic period of Japanese-American history. Born after World War II, he draws on the experience of his mother who was one of three sisters, from the Stockton area who were interned during the war.

The play is a veritable catalogue of common plights during this sad period and of personal characteristics of the victims. Some were issei, first generation immigrants from Japan, who may or may not have become U.S. citizens. Most, like the sisters, were nisei, or American-born second generation and by birth, U.S. citizens. Play goers who are not well-aware of the particulars of the internment will find the play very informative. Those who are knowledgeable may find nothing new at the macro level of the action, but they will still be moved by the individual stories that give life to mere statistical renderings of internment.

Before the war, the sisters had left the farm to live their own adult lives, but now they must pool resources at their childhood incubator. They share memories from those bucolic days in the rural Delta – of cool nights, starry skies, tule fog, and listening to the corn grow. But reality crashes down as they realize that one bathroom and their childhood bedrooms are inadequate for five adults. Unanticipated circumstances will take their lives in new directions, yielding poignant drama of the unexpected.

Though the sisters’ characters differ, they are loving and mutually supportive. Grace is married and childless. Preserving Japanese traditions, she is conservative and was obedient to her late father to the extreme. In contrast, middle sister Chiz is highly Americanized, vivacious and has three children. At age 28, Rose represents a fine catch but is still single, and arranging a marriage for her is a family priority.

Conflict in the family centers on the intellectual Hideo, Grace’s husband through an arranged marriage. His deep resentment about internment and the discrimination that he observes since release from camp distress him. While Grace insists on revitalizing the farm, Hideo instead wants to publish a Japanese language paper, a notion that reflects his elitism and his unresolved loyalties. His flinty relationship with Bola, Chiz’s voluble and easy going husband, also strains the family.

Gotanda’s characters are well differentiated, and the conditions that they have to deal with ring true. We are saddened by their travails; wince at the racial injustice they face; and admire their courage to keep the faith. The sad commentary on society is that despite these innocents’ illegal internment; the impoverishment of having to abandon and sell assets for a fraction of their value; losing their professions and livelihoods; comporting themselves admirably in the deprivation of the camps; and having their brethren become the most decorated and perhaps most sacrificed Army units in World War II, many “white” Americans vilified Japanese-Americans on their return home. Their dignity in the face of unfathomable discrimination and their ability to resurrect their lives in the face of further adversity is a tribute to the Japanese-American collective character.

Andrea Bechert’s single set beautifully captures the look of the farm house and its surroundings, and director Mina Morita assembles the other staging elements to create an impression of the Central Valley of the time. The female leads fit their roles well – Keiko Shimosato Carreiro as Grace, Melissa Locsin as Chiz, and Carina Lastimosa as Rose. Ogie Zulueta’s severe and intransigent Hideo is appropriately and effectively off-putting in a fine performance. Tasi Alabastro’s accent and mannerisms as Bola seem curious at the start, but his infectious enthusiasm easily wins out in the end. In all, it is a compelling step back in time and well worth the visit.

Philip Kan Gotanda asks "What is an American?"

By Sydney Roberts

Posted: 04/09/2017

“Sisters Matsumoto” by Philip Kan Gotanda tells a moving and heartwarming story that sheds light on the after effects of Japanese internment camps during World War II. Directed by Mina Morita, the play is set in 1945, and tells the story of three sisters who return to Stockton, California after spending two years in a U.S. concentration camp in Arkansas.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of FDR’s executive order to send 120,000 Japanese Americans into concentration camps across the country. Growing up in Hawaii, I found out about this forgotten and terrible time in our history. Japanese American friends told me about the thousands of families who were forced from their homes after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. However, for most Americans, the camps remain a secret.

“Sisters Matsumoto” shows us three sisters: Grace (Keiko Shimosato Carrerio), Chiz (Melissa Locsin), and Rose (Carina Lastimosa)—as they return to their family farm, after years of exile in Arkansas. Although the family was once rich and well known in Stockton, now they must face racism in their home town.

Andrea Berchert’s scenery wonderfully captures the desert-like foliage around their quaint farm house. On the fence outside, racists have written: “Japs go home!”

Keiko Shimosato Carrerio plays Grace, the eldest sister, with maturity and sincerity. Grace does her best to lead the family through the transition, while dealing with strain in her marriage with Hideo (a strong and moving Ogie Zulueta). Grace, the backbone of the family, deals with complex and disturbing challenges.

Gotanda’s “Sisters Masumoto” is packed with humor. Melissa Locsin shines as Chiz, the rambunctious and opinionated sister. Chiz’s banter with her husband Bola (an energetic Tasi Alabastro) provides terrific comedy.

Carina Lastimosa struggles to find depth in her character, Rose, the youngest daughter, who is searching for love after losing her fiance during the war. However, when Rose rekindles a friendship with her old childhood friend Henry (the dreamy Alexander M. Lydon), Lastimosta’s performance takes off, with tenderness sure to touch your heart.

Director Mina Morita evokes a poignant story of sisterhood, optimism, and growth. Although “Sisters Matsumoto” reminds us of a great and illegal outrage in U.S. history, Gotanda shows us how brave people deal with cataclysmic events.

Many Americans are still unaware of the displacement of Japanese Americans during World War II. Gotanda gives us context for exploring the immigration issue we are facing in the U.S., today. It is frightening to think that we live at a time when the U.S. is still displacing immigrants, deporting families, and building walls to prevent people from entering.

In a time when we must think about what it means to be an “American,” we must study Gotanda’s past in order to make a future.

"Sisters Matsumoto": Superb acting, chilling message, at Center REP Walnut Creek"

By Suraj Ramrakhyani

Posted: 04/21/2017

Playwright Philip Kan Gotanda gives us the feel and taste of a Japanese-American family's isolation, when they return from internment-broken and bare-to their abandoned home in Stockton, California. After the Matsumotos were taken away and locked up for two years in a U.S. internment camp, they come home to learn that their lives have changed - for the worse. The terrible aftermath of the illegal incarceration of U.S. citizens comes across powerfully at Center REP's production, at the Lesher Center in Walnut Creek.

Speaking with playwright Philip Kan Gotanda, I found out where this historical play comes from? :The play is based on my Mother's family. I wrote it to pay respects to the hardships that they went through during the war, and to show others that history must not be forgotten, but to be learned from." The play is based on Gotanda's own family's history, and it has been emblematic of his writing career.

What strikes me about “Sisters Matsumoto” is the critical dichotomy between Acts One and Two. In Act One, the actors embody their characters forcefully: Hideo’s heavy accent, Bola’s jolly nature, and Grace’s staunch traditional mannerisms. In Act Two, the built up tensions and energy explode into masterful performances, bringing the racial, political, and domestic catastrophes to a climax.

The Eldest sister, Grace (Keiko Shimosato Carreiro) is starkly proud of her family name, and holds the family together, offering hope. Her husband Hideo (Ogie Zulueta) quietly stands by her side. The middle sister Chiz (Melissa Locsin), a tomboyish optimist, is married to Bola (Tasi Alabastro), a man full of laughter and quite a bit of alcohol.

The youngest sister Rose (Carina Lastimosa), a sensitive dreamer, loses her fiance in WWII, and looks elsewhere for love. Rose falls for Henry Sakai (Alexander M. Lydon) an old childhood friend who brings the family back to the times before the war. Mr. Hersham (Colin Thomson), another family friend, plays an ambiguous role, as he timidly visits the Matsumoto’s, and reveals a dark secret.

The real peat soil on the stage and the spectacular roof floating by wires capture the farmhouse settign, perfectly. Antique tables, chairs and knick-knacks are scattered around the living room, making it even more old-fashioned. We can “feel” the layer of dust that has settled on the house and land, after their years in the U.S. concentration camps—later declared illegal and unconstitutional, years later.

Gotanda’s “Sisters Matsumoto” gives us family hardship, love and loss–and the embodiment of racial injustice. “Sisters Matsumoto” provides chilling and realistic performances, sending us a wake-up call about how we treat immigrants in the U.S.