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Monday, November 23, 2015


Note: I published this post a couple of years ago, but its message is worth repeating— BE GRATEFUL.


 A couple of days ago, I picked up my father's diary from 1940 to peek into my parents' lives during the month of November that year. His words made me think about all I have to be thankful for and how little we really need to be happy. In Norman Rockwell's famous painting "Freedom From Want," the artist created a scene that has become our ideal image of Thanksgiving. We see a smiling, laughing family gathered around a table heaped with food while the grandparents present the turkey. Even though mine was a loving and happy family too, real life in the '40s wasn't quite so perfect as nostalgia would suggest. I was the sixth of seven children, a child of the '50s and '60s, so I wasn't there, but thanks to Dad's diary, I can picture that time.

Howard and Rosalie Willsie with the first three of their seven children.
 In November of 1940 my parents, like others in their small community, still struggled to recover from the effects of the Great Depression. My father already had a wife and three young children to support.  A national election that month meant President Franklin Delano Roosevelt would serve a third term, and Congress had passed the Selective Service Act in September, requiring all men between the ages of 18 and 35 to register for the draft. During that year, the news on the radio reported the latest, none of it good. Nazi Germany invaded and conquered one country after another. Japan controlled Indonesia and Italy controlled Greece, and most disturbing of all, over 400,000 Polish Jews had been forced into the Warsaw Ghetto.  

Reading the diary, I though about what must have been on my father's mind daily as he worked hard, spending long hours driving a freight truck, picking up meat from Carsten's packing house in Tacoma, roses from Beall Greenhouse on Vashon Island, moving furniture, hauling groceries, and more. He had livestock to care for, as well as other chores around their place, and he dedicated any spare time available toward his effort to get a new barn built before winter. In that month, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapsed, complicating freight delivery. With everything else that concerned him, he also followed the news as World War II grew ever more devastating, not realizing that within a year his own country would be involved.

As for my mother, her days revolved around the household their two-month-old infant daughter and young boys, one a toddler and the other three years old. The domestic duties she took in stride included not only caring for small children, but also washing laundry in a wringer washing machine. Since she had no electric clothes dryer, she dried everything on a  either a wooden clothes rack indoors or outside on the line on days with no rain, even in freezing weather. She sewed, baked, cleaned, canned, and worked as hard as my father, morning 'til night. Mom kept a diary through her teen years and at the beginning of their marriage, but by November of 1940 she had left it to my father to preserve the days of their busy, hardworking lives in the little leather-covered book I now hold in my hand, 73 years later. Repeated throughout is some form of the statement that they both went to bed exhausted.

In the small space allowed for each entry in the five-year diary, my father crammed together bits of home life, social life, and current world events.

Sun. Nov. 10 - "Finished my sawhorses and went over to the place and cut the sill and joists for the barn. It snowed most of the morning. Dad went duck hunting."

Mon. Nov. 11 - "No freight trip today. I got in a full day on the barn. I'm all ready to start laying flooring. The girls had the baby shower today. Neville Chamberlain is dead."

Wed. Nov. 13 -"Too busy again to day to work on the barn. The English scored quite a naval victory over the Italians. The big Narrows Bridge collapsed last Thursday."

Thursday. Nov. 14 - "Very foggy until noon in Tacoma this A.M. Had another busy day. Paid some more bills. The lodge is giving a card party but we are too tired to go."

The next day they asked a friend to watch the children so they could have a little date night. They "took in the show," meaning they went to a movie at the small local theater. He mentioned the death of a community member on the following Monday. On Tuesday, Dad rejoiced that he had a small load of freight. Even though it meant less income, he could spend over two hours working on the barn. A week earlier, my mother had taken her babies to a clinic set up at the local high school, for smallpox vaccinations, and on Tuesday a county nurse came to their home to check on the children. For dinner that night, she roasted a duck her father had shot when he went hunting.

Wednesday, Nov. 20

"Rained all day. Grandpa and I went up to the bank and he gave me the deed to our place as we have it all paid for at last. Tomorrow we eat turkey."

Yes, they did eat turkey the following day at the home of my grandparents, but before the meal, Dad spent the morning working on the barn. The next day the sun came out and my mother did a big wash. They picked up several boxes of apples from a friend and soon the kitchen would have been filled with the sweet smell of homemade applesauce and pie. I can close my eyes and remember that smell, still part of home life after I came along.

Next he wrote, on Saturday, November 23, "The Greeks are forcing the Italian Army back into Albania. It's warmer tonight and raining. Couldn't get over to the barn today at all. Eggs are forty cents a dozen."

A few days later he noted that my mother "... hung out a big wash yesterday and boy how it rained all night. She went out and wrung them out on the line."

Thanksgiving day passed and life went on. His noted that his gross income from hauling freight that month was $36.00 lower than in November of '39 and he had put 22,000 miles on his Diamond T truck. My mother sewed a snowsuit for their oldest son. Christmas would soon be upon them and year later, war. After the shock of Pearl Harbor, the news that came over the radio would no longer seem so remote. My father wanted to join the Navy but remained a truck driver, his trade considered vital to the nation. 

When you sit down to Thanksgiving dinner this year, be thankful. I am thankful for my parents and I miss them. The world is still a troubled place and always has been, but rich or poor, in times of war or peace, home is home and family dear. Put aside your little aggravations, petty issues, negative thoughts and feelings of never having enough. You have enough. Look around the table. Others will go hungry. Others are alone. Some are refugees or homeless in your own town. Think of those missing, those who should be in the empty chairs. In memory of them, their struggles, their happy times, and most of all their love and good example, be grateful.

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Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Saying Goodbye to Summer 2015 — Last Look at Dahlia Gardens in Tacoma's Point Defiance Park

It seems like hot and haughty Summer, making a quick exit, passed mellow Fall in a doorway about a week ago without so much as a glance or goodbye. The appearance of fog, lower temperatures, and a softer kind of daylight signal the change. Soon the plants will too. Last week, my husband and I decided to visit Point Defiance Park in Tacoma one early evening, to look at the flowers, knowing they won't last too much longer. I'm glad we did. Our combined cell phone snapshots, taken in the fading light, don't really do them justice, but I hope you enjoy the tour anyway.

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Thursday, September 10, 2015

SEPTEMBER 11-12 CALENDAR ALERT! A Northwest Historian Brings THEODORE ROOSEVELT Back to Washington State in FREE Program

Theodore Roosevelt speaks to a crowd in Olympia, Washington, in 1903   Photo provided by Scott Woodward.
Few people now living realize that in 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt toured the state of Washington, visiting seventeen towns and cities, large and small. Long before presidents flew on Air Force One, this one had a private six-car train and entered the state from the south, crossing the Columbia River on a specially designed train ferry, five years before a bridge was built. His staff and members of the press accompanied him. In spite of the limitations of communication at the dawn of the 20th century, word of Roosevelt's tour traveled quickly, bringing out throngs of admirers who eagerly waited to greet him at every whistle stop. He had a knack for bringing people together, even if they held diverse views, uniting them as Americans.

Now the spirit of Roosevelt visits this state once again, personified by a fascinating man named Scott Woodward, a retired educator who, for thirty years, taught American history, Washington state history, and anthropology at both high school and college levels. He lives in Richland, Washington, and these days, in addition to dedicating himself to volunteer work and serving as president of the Tapteal Greenway and Ridges to Rivers Open Space Network, he travels around the state giving a presentation he has created titled Theodore Roosevelt: Wilderness Warrior in Washington State. These programs are made possible by a grant from  Humanities Washington.  You can read an interview with Scott Woodward here: The Bull Moose and the Evergreen State

Two of presentations take place this weekend, FREE to the public. On Friday, September 11, at 4 p.m., Woodward will be at the Steilacoom branch of the Pierce County Library, followed by an appearance at the Shelton Timberland Library on Saturday, September 12, at 2 p.m. (Click on library links for directions.) Although he has no programs scheduled during the month of October, they resume in November. You can see the dates and locations on the Humanities Washington website's calendar and events page.

Scott Woodward Bio Pic
Scott Woodward

"This program has traveled to communities all across Washington State," Woodward said, "met with receptive, appreciative and inquisitive audiences. It has been my pleasure to share this story in my home state."

Woodward's multimedia presentations incorporate narrative and images on history and anthropology, and even include music. His fascination with Theodore Roosevelt is contagious, and you might find your self equally captivated by TR's ability to bring people of all kinds together as Americans, regardless of their political views. 

"It has been a very rewarding tour with the Humanities Washington Wilderness Warrior program," Woodward said. "Most audiences are fascinated with how a politician could get things done crossing all party lines and tie the state together both east and west, and the country for that matter. It certainly would be a breath of fresh air if we could do that today."

Theodore Roosevelt in Bremerton, 1903 

All photos were provided by Scott Woodward. Please watch for reminders of upcoming programs by Woodward to be presented on the east side of the state. You might also like to know about the Theodore Roosevelt Association. Thank for reading Good Life Northwest and visiting the blog's Facebook page

Tuesday, September 1, 2015


Roger Shimomura, Classmates #1, 2007Acrylic on canvas24 × 36 inchesCollection of Tilman Smith, Seattle, WA.

With the sudden change in the weather here in the Northwest, we are reminded that nothing lasts forever, including summer and two excellent exhibits at the Tacoma Art Museum closing on September 13, 2015.

One of these two exhibits, An American Knockoff, features 53 paintings and prints by Seattle native Roger Shimomura. His distinctive style shows influences of both vintage American comic book art and traditional Japanese woodblock prints and provokes thought on topics such as racial stereotypes, politics, and personal identity. 

Shimomura's family was incarcerated at the Minidoka Relocation Center during World War II and in his lifetime he has experienced presumptions about himself based on his ethnicity, including having others believe him to be a foreigner when he is an American citizen and shares their American culture. All of these feelings have informed his art. The exhibit was organized by the Museum of Art at Washington State University, Pullman, Washington. 

The other soon-to-be-gone exhibit is Partners in Northwest Art: Selections from the Aloha Club Collection at TAM. The Aloha Club's roots go back to 1892 when it began as a women's study club. Now this Tacoma institution promotes the development of Northwest artists and supports and encourages participation in the city's cultural life. In 1971, the club donated its collection of important works by Northwest artists to Tacoma Art Museum in order to give more people the opportunity to see the pieces the club began to acquire in 1948. This exhibit includes 21 pieces from the collection.

Why not end summer and celebrate September's arrival by visiting Tacoma Art Museum before these outstanding exhibits leave? You will be glad you did. The museum is located at 1701 Pacific Avenue, Tacoma, WA, 98402. 

HOURS – Tuesdays–Sundays 10 am–5 pm

ADMISSION – Adult $14; Student age 6-17, Military, Senior (65+) $12; Family $35 (2 adults and up to 4 children under 18).
Children 5 and under free. Third Thursdays free from 5–8 pm. Members always free.
CONTACT – 253-272-4258,

Note: Active-duty members of the military and their families can still take advantage of the Blue Star Museums program sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, but only through September 7, 2015.  

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

“The Passion as Told by Antígona Pérez” — New Version of a Classical Greek Tragedy Examines Humanity in the Digital Age

The press release from a Seattle organization called Thriving Artists, about a play called The Passion as Told by Antígona Pérez, intrigued me. So did the comments of Director Arlene Martínez-Vázquez. In addition to translating and directing this important play, written by Puerto Rican playwright Luis Rafael Sánchez, she also founded Thriving Artists as a way of promoting, through example, the widespread acceptance of the idea of living wages for those who choose to work in the arts. The play will also feature an all-Latino cast in the roles of citizens of a fictitious Latin American dictatorship. Within minutes of reading the release, I arranged an interview.

Inspired by the Greek tragedy Antigone, written by Sophocles in 442 B.C.E., Sanchez wrote La Pasión según Antigona Pérez (The Passion as Told by Antígona Pérez) in 1968 with the leading role of Antígona based on the life of Olga Viscal Garriga (1926–1995). Martínez-Vázquez updated it to be a multi-media production relevant to today in world in which the technology people embrace, and have been made to believe is indispensable, can compromise, enslave and endanger them and society, if not used responsibly. Tragic themes rooted in politics, the media, distortion of information, disturbing world issues and the courage it takes to do the right thing will all be explored when this play opens at 12th Avenue Arts in Seattle at 7:30 p.m. on August 14. This production will run through August 30, Thursday-Sunday each week.

photo by Marquicia Domingue

Interview with Director Arlene Martinez-Vázquez — 

Candace Brown for Good Life Northwest: Please tell me about this production and its roots.

Arlene Martinez-Vázquez:  The Passion as Told by Antígona Pérez is the Puerto Rican adaptation of the great classic of Antigone. What makes this adaptation unique is that the author has converted the Greek chorus into a chorus of news reporters who you can see being manipulated by the way the dictator feeds news to them. Then you can see the crowds reacting to what they are being fed through the news. And what makes my version of it unique is that we have recorded all these news reporters and they are all being projected through video and the crowd reaction and they are also being projected through animation of Facebook, Instagram and Tweets. 

So, it is a comment on the overwhelming information we have access to all the time, through social media, and what our responsibility is, as global citizens, to be searching for the truth and being responsible for whatever it is we are accessing and sharing.

GLW: What is your background in theater? 

Martinez-Vázquez: I am from Puerto Rico originally, so I did my BA, in Puerto Rico. After that, I went to London for two years to do my master’s degree in theater directing. After that, I stayed in London for two years. I was a member of the CASA Latin American Theater Festival for its first two years. Then I moved to Seattle to start a theater career here. Ever since I moved to Seattle I actually focused on children’s theater and teaching artistry, because when I moved to Seattle it was very important to me to prove I could make a living out of my degree. And luckily I was very successful at that. I was Education Director at Stone Soup Theater for four and one-half years, which was a great experience. I directed musicals at high schools, and I was working full time as a teaching artist. Then I also directed a couple of fringe plays. I did some stage readings of Latino playwrights. After that I was just feeling that there were a lot of stories that I wanted to tell and I couldn’t tell in the avenues I had at the moment. So I decided to do The Passion as Told by Antígona Pérez and start Thriving Artists.

photo by Marquicia Domingue

GLW: How long has Thriving Artists been in existence?

Martinez-Vázquez: It actually has only existed since January 2015. This will be our inaugural production.

GLW: What was the concept that shaped it and how does it function?

Martinez-Vázquez: For a lot of years, I’ve been pondering how you can you make theater thrive in a capitalist society. While I was getting my degree, I always heard a lot about theater and social justice, which is really important, and about making theater accessible, which I also absolutely believe in and work towards on all my projects. But I never heard about how to make theater thrive in a capitalist society. 

Organizations, and corporations create all these products that people don’t really need, and they just create the need to sell them. Then everybody thinks they can’t live without them. So how can you do the same thing with theater? 

I don’t really have the answer to that yet, but what I am trying to do with Thriving Artists is to use a capitalist model to fund the not-for-profit theater company. After this project, the next step will be to figure out what the for-profit business of Thriving Artists would be, and I have a very concrete idea. I just need to do some more market research and raise funds. That business would donate the profits to Thriving Artists. 

The model for Thriving Artists would be to have almost all full-time employees who go at nine in the morning, expand their training and rehearse, and are done by 6 p.m. I would like to start with one or two artists as full time employees, just so they are able to really dedicate their time to their art.  And I would love to be able to offer them all the benefits. I think that’s very important to be able to really live from your art without having to do a very specific type of for-profit theater, like the big touring musicals.

GLW: Do you think this can happen in Seattle?

Martinez-Vázquez: Seattle is a city that really values art. Seattle is very liberal, very progressive. There is a big cultural scene in Seattle. I think a lot of people love going to the theater and love supporting arts and artists, yet the fringe scene is larger than the professional scene. You can probably count with your two hands the amount of artists who actually make a living out of being an artist. It is very normal in Seattle for artists to have day jobs to be able to live. So I find it kind of worrying that in a city that really values art there is not really a culture of prioritizing artists, of making sure that artists get paid. There’s this big expectation that because you love doing your art you shouldn’t be getting paid for it. 

photo by Marquicia Domingue

GLW: How can you change public perceptions and help people understand how great a need there is for this kind of support for artists in our society?

Martinez-Vázquez: A lot of what I’m trying to do is to be very clear about what it takes to put on a show. Our play’s program is three pages, partly because I have all the bios of my cast and crew, which is really large. I built fund raising on this play for two years. I had two fund raising events, received four grants for it,  and did a Kickstarter campaign. All of that is in the program. So there’s a clear notion of “You are here today, and this is really exciting, and these are all the people who had to come together for this to happen,” because I think a lot of people don’t know. A lot of theaters don’t really communicate it clearly either. A lot of theaters just say, “Ticket sales don’t cover the cost of production. Please donate today,” and people don’t know what that means. I think a big part of it is educating people and letting them know how much it really costs to put on a show.

GLW: Please share your thoughts on why it was important to have an all-Latino cast.

Martinez-Vázquez:  I was assisting the Intiman Theatre Festival in summer of 2013, and as part of the emerging artists showcase that they do, I staged two scenes of this play. One of the things I noticed in that is that I really needed Latino actors to tell this story, because it is told from a Latino point of view.

Here is a story that is relevant to this. I was directing A Child’s Christmas in Wales quite a few years ago and I was feeling very awkward about it, because I am Puerto Rican. What do I know about Christmas in Wales? So I was kind of really wracking my mind about the cultural gap and pondering if I should change the setting of the play to make it more culturally accessible to both me and my audience. I asked Valerie Curtis Newton about this and she said:

 “You can change the setting of the play, but the play was written to be set in Wales, and before you change the setting, you need to ask yourself, ‘What is Welsh about this play that is going to get lost when I change the setting?’ And be intentional about that.” That was a big eye opener for me, because I had never asked myself that question before. 

So going back to when I staged the two scenes of The Passion as Told by Antígona Pérez, I staged it with white actresses and they really did a fabulous job with the text and the characters and they understood what it was about. But everything that is Latino about that play got lost. There was no way they could have portrayed it or even known it was getting lost. So I thought, I need to do this play and I need a full Latino cast. 

Then the other piece of this that I am very excited about is the opportunity to make a play that features an all Latino cast that is not about being Latino. It is not about being an immigrant and not speaking English and all this immigration stories. That is not to say that those stories are not important, because I think they definitely need to be told, but I also think Seattle is ready to see a very universal story that is simply told from a Latino point of view. I think it is very important for audiences and artists alike that you can tell a universal story that features an all Latino cast, that “universal” is not white any more. So I am very excited about that. 

Good Life Northwest thanks Director Arlene Martinez-Vázquez for sharing her time, insights, and inspiring ideas for a better world.

For more information about this production or to get your tickets, please visit  or

Please donate to the play's Kickstarter campaign.

Antígona - Javonna Arriaga
Aurora (Antígona's mother) - Maristela Díaz
Creón - Carter Rodríquez
Pilar (Creón's wife) - Angela Maestas
Irene (Antígona's friend) - Ashley Salazar
Monsignor Bernardo Escudero - Steve Gallion
Ensemble - Jazzy Ducay, Adrian Cerrato and Robin Strahan
American News Reporter - Emily Shuel
French News Reporter - Meg Savlov
Turkish News Reporter - Duygu Erdogan
Japanese News Reporter - Keiko Green
Latin American News Reporter - Fernando Cavallo

Director/Translator - Arlene Martínez-Vázquez
Assistant Director - Marquicia Domingue
Production Manager - Noah Duffy
Stage Manager - Rojo Davis
Lights - Tess Malone
Costumes - Fantasia Oslund
Sound - Eric Santiago
Video - Yomarelis Lorenzo & Sarah Rici

Props - Bethany Hystad

Sunday, August 2, 2015

"Hold These Truths" at ACT Theatre Hits Close to Home With This Reviewer

Actor Ryun Yu in the role of Gordon Hirabuyashi at ACT   Photo: Michael Lamont
When I attended the press opening of  Hold These Truthsa play by Jeanne Sakata about the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII—my body might have been at ACT-A Contemporary Theatre, in Seattle, but my mind was in the strawberry fields across the road from my childhood home. We lived on nearby Vashon Island, and our Japanese-American neighbors owned those fields. 

By my early teens, I was aware of the fact that this fine family, the Matsudas, had spent time in internment camps during WWII, even while their son served in the 100th/442nd Regimental Combat Team, but none talked about this during the 1960s when I picked strawberries on the Matsuda farm for a summer job, alongside my siblings and friends. It was not a topic of conversation in our home either, although initially it must have deeply upset my parents. I knew they thought it wrong. I was born as next to the youngest in a large family, but the Matsudas had always been friends, good neighbors, and went to the same church. I was brought up to respect them. I could tell that this past, the years when their modest farm house stood empty, represented a touchy subject, carrying a sense of embarrassment and shame, but it was before my time. If there had been any outrage in the community over this injustice, little trace of it remained evident during my youth.

As an adult, I read a book published in 2005 by a member of the Matsuda family, Mary Matsuda Gruenewald. She gave it the title of Looking Like the Enemy-My Story of Imprisonment in Japanese-American Internment Camps. Mary was a teenager when she, along with her parents and brother, were abruptly evacuated from their island home, as were as many as 120,000 other Japanese-Americans on the West Coast. After I read her book, I loaned it to my father, who was by then in his nineties. I will never forget how profoundly it affected him. When he read about how the Matsudas purposefully destroyed their precious family heirlooms and photographs to avoid any appearance of loyalty to Japan, he felt extremely sad, saying if he had only known he would have gladly stored and protected their belongings for them until the war's end. Whether of not it occurred to my parents or others in our community to dig into the truths of our neighbors horrible and unjust experiences, or whether or not they stopped to imagine the sacrifices involved, I cannot say. I know my father and others seemed to believe the internment actually might have protected the Japanese from violence, but who can say? Surely that protection could have been provided in a more humane way. 

My father was old enough to remember the arrival of Japanese families on the island during the 1920s and how well they were accepted, how their children and the island's other children happily attended school together and became good friends. By 1936, 37 Japanese families lived on Vashon. All contributed to and participated in that small society. The attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the anti-Japanese prejudice that followed, would change everything. That it was a time of confusion and uncertainty for all does not erase the horribly wrong acts that followed.

Ryun Yu as Gordon Hirabayashi
Photo: Michael Lamont 
That change in how the government and society viewed Japanese-Americans and how it impacted the life of a young Seattleite and University of Washington student named Gordon Hirabayashi (1918-2012) is the basis for the play Hold These Truths, which opened on July 17 and runs through August 16. In this one-man show, actor Ryun Yu, in his role as Hirabayashi, tells the true story of how his character came to be one of only three Japanese-Americans to openly defy the government's orders. He refused to report for evacuation to an internment camp. For his defiance, he found himself behind bars. His first conviction was for a curfew violation in 1942 when he stayed at the university's library to study, like other students, instead of going home by 8 p.m. He turned himself in to the FBI and served 90 days in prison. Then, in 1943, his case was appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which ruled against him, resulting in his year-long incarceration in a federal prison. 

The U.S. Court of Appeals Ninth Circuit finally overturned Hirabayashi's conviction in 1987, by which time the revelations of previously hidden documents proved that there had never been any military reason for Executive Order 9066, which deprived Japanese-Americans of their rights and freedom, even for those who were born here and had full citizenship. That order, by the way, could have been applied to Americans of German or Italian heritage too, but never was. The majority of the Japanese, naturally law-abiding, complied with the order, just as the majority of non-Japanese citizens also felt the government could not be opposed, even it they truly wanted to oppose it. Then, like now, many seized the opportunity to justify their prejudices and exploit the misfortunes of others. Sometimes even good people, in difficult situations, do not know how, or if, they should become involved, regardless of their beliefs. That is why Hirabayashi, who boldly lived his beliefs, was a hero.

In addition to becoming more educated about American history, those who attend this play will experience being in another's shoes, a reminder of how we humans are far more alike than we think we are. Yu does a fine job of bringing into our consciousness the young Hirabayashi, who was no different any other college student, except for his ethnicity and perhaps the fact that he likely had more knowledge of the Constitution than his peers, and loved it. He was proud to be American born, a citizen, like them. He worried about his grades, wanted to have fun, fell in love, like them. He also became a Quaker and pacifist. 

Ryun Yu as Gordon Hirabayashi
Credit: Michael Lamont 
It cannot be easy to be the sole actor on a stage set with nothing but three wooden chairs for props and enhanced by some dramatic lighting, both designed by Ben Zamora, but Yu manages to stimulate the imagination to the point of painting his own scenery with words, under the direction of Jessica Kubzansky. At times, he uses the voices of others with whom he has conversations, and that aspect was the cause of my only slight concern. The accents he used were right on for some of these invisible characters, but as a native of the Northwest, I was puzzled when a milder version of a southern drawl, or perhaps a Hollywood cowboy western drawl, seemed to tint his renditions of our Northwest dialect. Someone else, I know who saw the play more recently did not notice this.

I highly recommend Hold These Truths for its ability to both move us deeply and enlighten us, through personalization, on the topic of one of our nation's most shameful and ugly periods. The seriousness of the subject made the play's many moments of humor surprising and a relief. Yu is convincing as Hirabayashi and will cause you to go home with respect and admiration for this hero, his courage and convictions. 

Ryun Yu as Gordon Hirabayashi
Photo: Michael Lamont 
Writing this, my memories of three generations of the Matsuda family swirl through my head. No finer, more honorable, members of our community ever existed. I am a better person for having known and worked for them during my childhood. In fact, my father always said, "The Matsudas helped me raise my kids," referring to their examples of a strong work ethic, commitment, fairness, and other virtues. When some other kids quit picking as the summer heat came on and the berries grew smaller and the fields dustier, we stayed, taught that employment was a two-way street. The Matsudas paid us for picking, but they also counted on us to be there to help bring in the crop. Even though our government had let them down, our parents were not about to let us do the same, even on such a small scale.

In the prologue to Looking Like the Enemy, author Mary Matsuda Gruenewald, who was nearly 80 years old when she wrote the book, penned words she might have said to her innocent four-year-old self as seen in an old photo, a happy and secure child. 

"Have faith in your family and the ultimate goodness of people," would have been her advice. "Especially have faith in yourself to survive the catastrophic events yet to come. In spite of all the terror, pain, depression, and tears in your future, you will reach a final hopeful conclusion."

I am so glad I saw Hold These TruthsThe real facts of history, like a strawberry on a vine too close to the ground, sometimes become soiled with dirt that hides the truth. Only when we brush it away, turn it over, examine it's shiny redness in the honest light of the sun, then taste it for ourselves, can we perceive whether it is bitter with decay or filled with sweetness. The lives of all people, and the nations they live in, always contain a portion of both.

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Thursday, July 23, 2015


Danny Zuko (Bryan Gula) and Sandy Dumbrowski (Solea Pfeiffer), center, with the Company of Grease at The 5th Avenue Theatre.
Photo credit Mark Kitaoka
I looked forward to the musical “Grease” at The 5th Avenue for months, but came away with mixed feelings. This production, which runs July 9-Aug. 2, 2015, got off to a great start. The Dusty 45s, a 1950s-style Seattle band, opened the show, supposedly playing for a reunion of a Class of ’59 from a fictitious high school. Led by the energetic guitar and trumpet player Billy Joe Huels (Johnny Casino, here) every member contributed rocket fuel for a blast of a performance leading into the musical, and other fine musicians joined them later. That music set the mood and was probably the main reason most of the audience went wild for this production, directed by Eric Ankrim. That audience included people ranging in age from those young enough to think of the ‘50s as their grandparents’ era to those who probably did graduate in 1959. 

The Company of Grease at The 5th Avenue Theatre.
Photo credit Tracy Martin

The problem with this show was that it is neither raw enough to feel painfully realistic nor sweet enough to come across as pure hokey nostalgia. Some of the things said, done, and talked about, especially in mixed company, were just too far-fetchef, if you wanted nostalgia. On the rougher side, the raunchy trash talk seemed gratuitous, like a added dose of token "bad ass" but not convincingly scary, just crass. 

In spite of that, everyone in the cast performed well within the confines of their roles. The 5th Avenue’s version of Grease does have plenty to offer if you want to spend a fun evening immersed in a clichéd view of the ‘50s with a Mickey-Mouse-Club-turned-naughty feel. The male lead, Bryan Gula, as Danny Zuko of the “greaser” crowd, and Solea Pfeiffer as the proper good girl, Sandy Dumbrowski, did not entirely convince me of their teenage angst and frustration, but they gave it a good try. Petite fireball Kirsten deLohr Helland will be remembered for her edgier role as bad girl Betty Rizzo (who actually had more depth and integrity than some of her peers), but she had a bit too much of an attitude at times. Fortunately, Helland did a fine job of bringing out Rizzo's humanity when it counted, giving this musical a badly needed touch of real drama. Kudos to her.

Rizzo (Kirsten deLohr Helland, center) and the Company of Grease at The 5th Avenue Theatre.
Photo credit Tracy Martin

The plot suffers from disjointedness and confusion. One minute a rumble is about to happen among the boys (although the threat never seemed real), and the next minute we’re on to a new scene with no idea whether or not the rumble happened. The lead couple is on the outs and then suddenly on the hood of the car, ready to kiss, but when did they reconcile? Ironically, one of the best scenes I saw seemed inserted into the story without any logical reason. It centered around Frenchie (Sarah Rose Davis), the beauty school dropout, and Teen Angel (Kyle Robert Carter) and provided not only creative and fun examples of set and costume design, but also a chance to hear Carter's wonderful solo, the best voice I heard all evening.
Frenchie (Sarah Rose Davis) and Teen Angel (Kyle Robert Carter), center, and the Company of Grease at The 5th Avenue Theatre.              Photo credit Tracy Martin
There were other good voices, but I did not like the way the microphones affected them and sometimes thought they were too loud in comparison with the live music. I loved the choreography throughout. There was a lot of talent on that stage, a lot of it very young talent, but the cast also included veteran actress Marianne Owen, who played the one adult in the musical, Miss Lynch. Owen always gives a great performance. I enjoyed and appreciated Harmony Arnold’s costume designs, Christopher Mumaw’s stage sets, and Tom Sturge’s typically perfect lighting.

Danny Zuko (Bryan Gula) and Sandy Dumbrowski (Solea Pfeiffer) in Grease at The 5th Avenue Theatre.
Photo credit Tracy Martin
People in the audience seemed to love this show. The woman sitting next to me could possibly have been in high school in the late ‘50s, and she and her friends were having a great time. She whooped and whistled, moved to the music, and applauded wildly. Meanwhile, I sat there next to my equally quiet husband, thinking, Man, what’s wrong with me? I must be way, way too serious. I did enjoy it, did applaud, but in spite of great performances and fun music, I just didn’t feel truly engaged, much less on the verge of swooning, and some of it irritated me.

Sandy Dumbrowsk (Solea Pfeiffer, center) and the Company of Grease at The 5th Avenue Theatre.
Photo credit Mark Kitaoka
As we watched what was supposed to be these characters' mapless journeys from the struggles and insecurities of youth to adulthood, I suspected that most of them would miss the turnoff and never reach their destination. This had to be the most immature bunch of high school seniors ever, posing as tough gang members and their girlfriends. I questioned why this musical celebrates Sandy's rise in social status gained by completely succumbing to peer pressure, giving up her good girl looks and ways for sleaze appeal, as victorious. According to the program, this was a transition from “uptight teenager to a joyful young woman,” as if cigarettes, tight pants, a boy friend who treats you badly, and conformity necessarily lead to a joyful life. (I wonder how Sandy looked at the 30-year reunion.)

Maybe the problem was that my memories of 1959 are those of a very young child from what people would have called a "respectable family" in a small town. My older sister and her boyfriend were high school seniors about that time. My sister could have stepped right out of a 1950s movie role. Pretty and popular, she lived, it seemed to my four-year-old self, in a magical swirl of high school clubs, dances, football games, wool skirts and sweaters, saddle shoes, record players, 45s, and all. From my adult viewpoint, there’s little doubt that beer, cigarettes, and sex entered into the picture during their teen years too, but those things never entered my innocent mind at the time I was making my own memories of the late '50s. The closest thing to Grease in my young life was whatever my sister’s boyfriend used to slick his hair back into a D.A., and I adored him. After all, he let me sit on his lap and steer his car.

Kenickie (Saxton Jay, center) and (l-r) Sonny (Jorden Bolden), Doody (Kody Bringman), and Roger (Patrick Shelton) in Grease at The 5th Avenue Theatre.
Photo credit Mark Kitaoka
This fascination with the ‘50s puzzles me sometimes. I asked my husband why he thought that decade became symbolic of carefree youth, fun, and happiness, when in reality, it included the Korean War, McCarthyism, segregation, bomb shelters, and a post World War II society that pressured women back into the Betty Crocker cookbook role of subservient housewives, after they had held vital jobs in the defense industry. Why are so many people so in love with a fantasy?

“It was the music,” he said. “It had all that energy.” 

He’s right, I’m sure. An evening spent watching Grease at The 5th Avenue will definitely energize you. Go. Have fun. Just don’t believe everything you see and hear.

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