Courtroom Meets Classroom in the Coterie’s Honorable “Justice at War”

Eunice Png, Casey Jane, and Scott Cordes in “Justice at War.” (Paul Andrews/The Coterie Theatre)

One of our greatest national shames has a number—9066, the executive order that President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed in February 1942, leading to the forced removal and incarceration of more than 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry during World War II. The Coterie strives to ensure that this dishonorable history of sanctioned oppression isn’t forgotten with its emotional and educational new production, “Justice at War.” Presented in partnership with Tradewind Arts, it’s an interactive recreation of the Supreme Court case that helped to end it.

After a brief, pulsing prologue recounting the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the entire theatre becomes a court room, the house becomes the judges’ bench, and everyone in attendance is sworn in as a justice. Chief Justice Stone (Alton Takiyama-Chung) welcomes us to a special session of the Supreme Court, in which both lawyers and witnesses will present the case of Mitsuye Endo.

Endo (Eunice Png) was a 24-year-old native of Sacramento, California, who had never been to Japan, did not speak Japanese, attended California public schools, worked for the California state government, and had a brother serving in the U.S. Army. Yet with the implementation of Order 9066, she had been fired from her job and transported to a relocation camp in northern California and, later, another in Utah. All of this we learn as her attorney, James C. Purcell (Tanner Rose) trades lines of questioning, and the occasional barb, with the government’s representative, Solicitor General Fahy (Casey Jane) and her client, General DeWitt (Scott Cordes), of the U.S. Army’s Western Defense Command.

Alton Takiyama-Chung in “Justice at War.” (Paul Andrews/The Coterie Theatre)

Under Andi Meyer’s direction, what unfolds is a quick-paced, straightforward presentation of facts and talking points—“national security!”—almost like a highly-elevated classroom exercise, but with some fine theatrical flourishes. As Endo describes the conditions of living with her family in a (barely) converted horse barn, a squalid stall slowly materializes upstage in three dimensions behind a translucent scrim. (Scenic design by Rafael Toribio, with lighting by Danny Lawrence.)

But once each side has rested, the fourth wall falls away completely, as the students (er, justices) in the audience are encouraged to rise and ask questions—at this performance/session, nearly every query was leveled at the government, asking how they could defend an obviously racist and hypocritical policy (for example, German-Americans were never collectively targeted, despite multiple high-profile cases of pro-Nazi espionage; no Japanese-American was ever convicted of colluding with Imperial Japan).

The performers handled each question in character—and the (presumably) improvised confrontations between the counsel and witnesses made for some enjoyable courtroom drama. Eventually, the stage cleared so that our roomful of justices could deliberate, with the Chief Justice and Bailiff (Diane Bulan) soliciting and recording (by hand, on an easel) the arguments put forth by each side before calling for a final decision.

Just as with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in December 1944, this one was unanimous: 105-0 that the order to intern Japanese-American citizens was unconstitutional. (The actual decision, one of multiple rulings on Japanese-American internment, was a little murkier—but lead the Roosevelt administration to rescind Order 9066.) Despite the lack of a dramatic climax, the result nonetheless prompted spontaneous applause—for a production well-staged, and a lesson, hopefully, well-learned.

“Justice at War” runs through October 15 at the Coterie Theatre, 2450 Grand Blvd. For more information, call 816-474-6552 or visit www.thecoterie.org.

Victor Wishna

Victor Wishna is a Kansas City-based playwright, writer, author, editor, and commentator, among other things.

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