Musical revisits dust and tears of Manzanar

Times Staff Writer

A direct attack on the United States. Hate crimes against those who resemble “the enemy.” Members of that minority group rounded up and detained by the government.

Current events can’t help but resonate with musicians Rus McCoy and Dan Taguchi. Their fledging musical, “Manzanar: The Story of an American Family,” is about the U.S. mass incarceration of Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II, told through the experiences of a young girl and her family in the Manzanar internment camp in Owens Valley.

The work in progress is having a concert reading Sunday at the Japan America Theatre, presented by Asian American theater company East West Players in association with the Japanese American National Museum and Little Tokyo Service Center.

“Sixty years later we have history kind of repeating itself,” said McCoy. “9/11 and Pearl Harbor mirror how we were attacked on American soil, and the fear that people have when they don’t trust their neighbors or the people walking down the street -- that’s what led to what happened to the Japanese when they were interned.


“I’ve got kids in my classes now whose nationality would make them appear suspect,” said Taguchi, director of jazz, mariachi and musical theater orchestra at Hamilton High School Academy of Music in Los Angeles. “I hope that in the year 2003 we’re not as shortsighted as we were in 1942.”

Several years in the making, “Manzanar” is loosely based on the childhood experiences of Taguchi’s mother and other family members. Its emotional course is charted through big-band, swing and classically orchestral songs that reflect adult anguish, teenage confusion and the bewilderment of children.

Tim Dang, East West Players’ producing artistic director, gave the pair a call after hearing a demo tape of the work. “I told Dan and Rus, ‘You’ve written a huge play,’ ” Dang said. “ ‘How is it that we can help you develop this?’ ”

The company sought funding from the California Civil Liberties Public Education Program for the first public reading of “Manzanar” last March, then helped pare the sweeping epic down from its original four hours to just over 2 1/2.

“Manzanar is a very important event in the lives of Japanese Americans,” Dang said, “something which affected not only people who were interned, but generations after.”

While a full-blown production of “Manzanar” would be an “insurmountable” challenge for his company because of its size, Dang said, he hopes to get funding for a 45-minute version of the musical that would tour schools as part of East West Players’ Theatre for Youth program.

This year, in part through another grant from the California Civil Liberties Public Education Program, the revised “Manzanar” script and a newly produced CD of the musical will be distributed to public libraries across the state as an educational resource. Sunday’s performance is funded as part of East West’s $200,000, three-year grant from the James Irvine Foundation for the development of new works by underserved communities.

The company’s strong support has validated a “labor of love,” said Taguchi, who began pressing best friend and fellow musician McCoy to write a Manzanar musical nearly a decade ago. Until then, McCoy, like many Americans who came of age after World War II, had been unaware that the camps existed.


“It just wasn’t something that we heard about in school,” McCoy said. “When Dan told me, it was almost like I couldn’t believe it.” It was difficult for McCoy to “wrap my mind around it,” he said, until he found his musical approach in conversations with Taguchi’s mother, who described how she used to sing in the camp, play pinochle and smoke forbidden cigarettes, away from the eyes of preoccupied adults.

“It was, ‘there’s no school, let’s have fun,’ ” McCoy said. “The parents were so distraught and the kids had no one to answer to. That really resonated.

“And the injustice of it, being torn from one’s home -- I mean, being a man of color myself, thinking of what it was like when slaves were taken from Africa and brought to America, I could understand the pain.”

Even so, McCoy understands that there are some who may feel that “Manzanar” isn’t his story to tell. “It reminds me of when Spielberg did ‘The Color Purple.’ It was ‘Why is he doing this story?’ and he said, ‘Because I care about it, and I care about these characters.’ It’s the same thing for me.”



‘Manzanar: The Story of an American Family’

Where: Japan America Theatre, 244 S. San Pedro St., Little Tokyo, downtown L.A.

When: Sunday, 2 p.m.


Price: $18-$30

Contact: (213) 680-3700