Next month marks the 80th anniversary of that time President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order authorizing the US War Department to kidnap more than 100,000 Japanese Americans from West Coast states and then imprison them for years in concentration camps. Roosevelt made that call following the Japanese attack on O‘ahu during World War II, which set off a wave of anti-Japanese racism that a vast majority of the country used to justify the camps.
That wave crashed onto the shores of Bainbridge Island, the first place to banish those of Japanese descent.
The piece of paper that made it all possible, EO9066, serves as the title for a vivid and moving and weirdly uplifting program running at Benaroya Hall this Saturday. The evening includes a stunning documentary full of Dorothea Lange photos, an affecting world premiere from Seattle-born composer Paul Chihara (who spent three years in Minidoka camp as a kid), a sweet and sweeping multimedia indie-pop performance from Kishi Bashi, and a bizarrely fitting Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4 to close.
Though each performer approaches the subject from different places, an unmistakable theme emerges: resilience and beauty and joy breaking through strife, like the bright inland light bouncing off the faces in those striking Lange photographs.
The show starts at Octave 9 with a screening of Pictures of Executive Order 9066, a brief documentary from JJ Gerber and Kishi Bashi. The two weave together stories from survivors with racist headlines, US propaganda videos, and Lange's photos of the camps, many of which the US Government censored at the time.
As they always do, the images of moms and dads and kids boarding trains to the middle of nowhere to live in long barracks ("horse stalls," they called them) automatically recall images from the Shoah, an experience that resonated for me a little louder than normal when I saw the exhibit yesterday, on Holocaust Remembrance Day. The shock of seeing the stars and stripes rather than a bright red Nazi flag up there billowing in the wind above Manzanar camp maintains its refresh value. To a lesser degree, the images of stuffed duffle bags and the anxiety about the government failing to return belongings people had to leave behind evoked the concerns voiced by homeless people subject to Seattle's cruel sweeps.
Chihara's Beyond the Hills kicks off the program in Benaroya Hall itself. The Seattle Symphony Commission and world premiere presents a melange of comforting tunes from the composer's childhood, a pleasant and kinda poppy mix of Japanese music, big band stuff, and cinematic scores interspersed with sudden swells of dissonant horror. The piece ends in a frantic hurry, like a cop busting in and dragging everyone out of the house. Which kinda happened! According to the program, "After the arrest of his father the evening of the Pearl Harbor attack, Chihara was forcibly removed with his mother and sibling from their Seattle home."
After that nostalgic and yet emotionally jarring needle scratch, Kishi Bashi (the name Kaoru Ishibashi uses when he performs) takes the stage for Improvisations on EO9066, a six-part multimedia performance rooted in his travels to the prison sites the US government constructed all over the western US, including one in the swamps of Arkansas. Silent video of Ishibashi playing violin in frozen fields cut with the long shadows of obelisks plays overhead while he actually plays violin with the orchestra onstage, singing songs inspired by the lives of people in the camps. The movements of Ishibashi on film and the sounds Ishibashi makes on stage do not synch up, but they both refer to the same thing, a bit of visual play that underscores the piece's epigraph: "History doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes." As he explains onstage, Ishibashi's family immigrated to the states after the war. Though he says his family has no direct connection to the camps, he connects to the trauma of forced assimilation and the understanding that the US could put immigrants in a similar situation again.
For me, the most powerful moment of Kishi Bashi's performance comes at the end, when he's singing "Summer of 42," a song about finding love in a camp. Images of people dancing, golfing, wrestling, and laughing while surrounded by barbed wire in the middle of a desert in the summer of 1942 had me thinking that photographers will be taking similar photos in the summer of 2142, when climate change turns the west into a wasteland. And yet there we'll all be, still trying to eke out a smile when we can.