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Pub date April 3, 2007
WriterRobert Avila
SectionArts & CultureSectionTheater


Philip Kan Gotanda’s After the War, enjoying an exceptional world premiere at the American Conservatory Theater, is set during 1948 in a Fillmore boardinghouse run by a laid-back jazz musician and second-generation Japanese American named Chester "Chet" Monkawa (Vancouver’s Hiro Kanagawa in an impressive US debut). The bustling Fillmore District of ’48 was a highly diverse neighborhood that in particular mixed an African American business-owning and working class (whose members had recently arrived in the Bay Area from points south to fill jobs in the burgeoning defense industry) with "Japanese Town" residents returned from the horror and shame of forced evacuation and mass incarceration by the US government during the war.

Chet’s laissez-faire boardinghouse (and Donald Eastman’s brilliant two-story revolving set) puts a cross section of the neighborhood under one roof. This tangle of lives grows affectingly more snarled as the story unfolds. The fragility of the characters’ bonds, fraught with divisions between and within various communities, is soon apparent. At the center is Chet, whose background as a no-no boy (one of the interned men who refused to sign a pledge to the US government or volunteer to fight for it) puts him at odds with the tightly coiled local moneylender, Mr. Goto (longtime Gotanda associate Sab Shimono, in a deft performance of supple humor and menace). The latter’s disapproval reflects the bitter divisions among Japanese Americans struggling to regain dignity and a social foothold in the aftermath of traumatic isolation and victimization by their own, racially combustible country.

Given Gotanda’s recent and successful foray into more experimental work with Campo Santo and Intersection for the Arts, After the War marks a return of sorts to the finely crafted realistic dramas — centered on Asian American scenes, yet of delicate existential and social import — that have made him an internationally celebrated playwright. This beautifully conceived and executed period piece, commissioned by the ACT and helmed by artistic director Carey Perloff, places that work on an unprecedented scale. It reminds one that few American playwrights are as capable as Gotanda of carrying on the kind of dialogue on race, identity, and history that the late August Wilson turned into a broad theatrical canvas embracing the evolving American experience. (Robert Avila)


Through April 22

See stage listings for showtimes

American Conservatory Theater

415 Geary, SF

(415) 749-2228