Pouring out Topaz memories

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2005, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

There was little to see when San Francisco resident Donna Nomura Dobkin drove out to Topaz about seven years ago. The rough-wood buildings where her parents lived between 1942 and 1945 were long gone from the flat, desolate terrain outside Delta. Other than a monument marking the place, scraps of lumber and a few battered household items were the only mementos of the 8,000 Japanese-Americans from the San Francisco Bay Area who were confined in Utah's western desert during World War II.

Driven to collect shreds of her family's history, Dobkin gathered some weathered wood, rusty nails, pieces of broken glass and a worn-out suitcase at the site of the Topaz Internment Camp. Back in San Francisco, she and her friend Liebe Wetzel, who specializes in "object theater," talked of developing a performance piece based on the Topaz artifacts.

Dobkin never saw it happen. Her life was cut short by cancer in 2001, but Wetzel pursued the project as a way of honoring Dobkin's memory. The result is an unusual play enacted by puppets made from found objects and manipulated by a San Francisco-based theater troupe called Lunatique Fantastique. The group is traveling to Utah this week to present "E.O. 9066" in Delta and Provo in conjunction with the 60th anniversary of the war's end and the closure of the Topaz camp.

Dobkin and her company members developed "E.O. 9066" by interviewing former internees in the Bay Area and reading about the inland camps where more than 120,000 people were interned.

Inspiration for the play's title came from Executive Order 9066, which permitted the removal of Japanese people and Americans of Japanese ancestry from Western coastal regions to guarded camps in the country's interior without due process of law. The order was signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on Feb. 19, 1942 -- just nine weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

"That document was my starting point for examination," said Wetzel. "I was curious as to how our country got to that point so quickly."

Among those she consulted was Oakland, Calif., resident Keith Nomura, Dobkin's brother, who spoke with The Salt Lake Tribune last week. Nomura said his parents, Kiyosuke Nomura and Elly Akamatsu, knew each other before the internment, but married in the camp at Topaz. His father was a senior at University of California at Berkeley when the war broke out.

"Rather than graduating with his class, he was taken to the camp," Nomura said. "He received his diploma in a mailing tube."

Nomura loaned Wetzel the aluminum plates his family ate from in the camp for her theater piece.

"You had to bring your own utensils," he said. "[Wetzel] turns them into the wheels of FDR's wheelchair. There's some irony there."

Wetzel said that though the play treats its topic seriously, it is not highly political. It is a story of a family -- a mother and two sons, one of whom is drafted into the U.S. Army. The characters are "composites," said Wetzel, developed from her interviews and research.

"I became very interested in the fact that [the U.S. government] had also drafted men from the camps," Wetzel said. "It's a piece about incarceration and war, and the cost of both of those things to the human spirit. It does end on a hopeful note."

The characters are created before the audience's eyes from a Japanese tea set Wetzel received as a wedding gift.

"Two Japanese teacups, a teapot, napkins and a tablecloth are the lead characters," said Wetzel. Perhaps she should have said the objects become the characters in the hands of the puppeteers.

"If I'm not putting intention or actor instincts into a cup and a napkin, they are just a cup and a napkin," said Wetzel. "Once you put intention, action and objective into those things, it comes alive in a beautiful way."

Several puppeteers, dressed entirely in black, are required to animate each character.

"Essentially, we give them movement and life and breath," Wetzel said. "They come to life in the imagination of the audience, so that the audience is actively involved in the process of creating the story."

Nomura saw the play during its 2003 premiere run at San Francisco's Exit Theatre. He approved of Wetzel's treatment of a subject that has deep resonance for his family.

"They did a really good job of capturing the emotions and historical perspective," Nomura said. "[Wetzel] was able to use real objects to represent the characters she's portraying in a way that doesn't trivialize them."

That's important, he said, because public conversation about the Japanese internment is quite recent. People of his parents' generation often don't like to speak of it, so even their own children grew up knowing little about it.

"My generation, the third generation, was part of a group that were activists making sure that the civil rights aspects, the injustice, has been dealt with in some fashion," Nomura said. "The fourth generation is the age of my children. They are learning more about it in schools now -- but not a lot."

Seeing "E.O 9066" can help the larger American community understand the Japanese internment and the basic issues of human rights that surround it, Nomura said.

"It's a vehicle for people to have conversations, then people can make connections to other events and other possibilities. You interpret it in many different ways. It lends itself to a rich conversation."