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No-No Boy

Japanese-Americans deal with the aftermath of having been interned during W.W. II in this moving, well-staged and finely performed historical drama.

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Chris Doi, Hansel Tan and Tony Vo in a scene from “No-No Boy” (Photo credit: John Quincy Lee)

Chris Doi, Hansel Tan and Tony Vo in a scene from “No-No Boy” (Photo credit: John Quincy Lee)

[avatar user=”Darryl Reilly” size=”96″ align=”left” ] Darryl Reilly, Critic[/avatar]No-No Boy is about Ichiro Yamada, a young Japanese-American who has just been released from prison after two-years for refusing to serve in the U.S. military during W.W. II.  It is 1946, and he has returned to his family in Seattle, Washington, all of whom, including himself had been interned during the war.  His father is a kindly shopkeeper, his mother is delusional and hostile, and his brother Taro who served in the army is fiery.  He is also reunited with several of his friends with often confrontational results.

Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty wherever ordered? 

Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the Unites States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, to any other foreign government, power or organization?

These were two questions from a lengthy loyalty questionnaire administered to Japan-American internees.  About 300 answered negatively and went to prison rather then fight for the United States.  There were known as “No-No Boys.”

Ken Narasaki’s 90-minute play is an adaptation of a novel of the title by John Okada.  The dialogue is a potent mixture of realism and the poetic.  The structure is a series of realistic scenes linked by mythical storytelling asides that comment on the action.  There are over ten well-rendered characters whose situations and emotions are vividly dramatized.  All of these narrative features effectively detail the controversial interment of the 100,000 Japanese-Americans on the west coast of the United States during W.W. II.

Karen Tsen Lee in a scene from “No-No Boy” (Photo credit: John Quincy Lee)

Karen Tsen Lee in a scene from “No-No Boy” (Photo credit: John Quincy Lee)

Presenting this epic story with a large cast in such a very small space as it is being done at Theatre Row’s Studio Theatre is problematic visually.  In addition to a medium-sized table, Sheryl Liu’s minimal scenic design consists of a semi-oval arrangement of wooden folding chairs against the wall and around the sides of the stage.

Douglas Macur’s stark projections surround the walls of the theater near the stage and are on the back wall of the stage.  These are printed extracts from the loyalty oath and are displayed throughout the show.  Mr. Macur’s lighting design expressively conveys the shifting tones of fantasy and reality of the drama.  The proficient sound design by Ian Wehrle further adds vibrancy.  Hanji Jang’s simple costume design authentically suggests the 1940’s with its basic men’s outfits and colorful women’s dresses.

Director Ron Nakahara’s staging is resourceful and clever. The actors are stationed in chairs when they’re not appearing in a scene and Mr. Nakahara strategically sets much of the action downstage where he creates striking imagery and tableaus.  Considering the tight playing area, Michael G. Chin’s arresting stage combat sequences are even more remarkable.  The performances of the ensemble of diverse ages are uniformly passionate.

Chris Doi winningly conveys Ichiro’s anguish and holds attention as this leading character with his emotional performance.  The personable Glenn Kubota is deeply gentle as Pa, and Mr. Kubota performs a beautiful movement piece with his hands fluttering as birds during a storytelling segment.  As Ma, Karen Tsen Lee poignantly descends deeper into her delusions with histrionic expertise that Japan won the war and is marvelously engaging during her fable-like recitations.

Glenn Kubota and Chris Dui in a scene from “No-No Boy” (Photo credit: John Quincy Lee)

Glenn Kubota and Chris Dui in a scene from “No-No Boy” (Photo credit: John Quincy Lee)

As the war veteran Ken J. Kanno who is coping with having lost a leg, the powerful Don Castro is simultaneously garrulous and heartbreaking.  The appealing Hansel Tan’s delightfully animated presence make the most of the wisecracking Freddie Akimoto.  Tony Vo is charmingly forceful as the hot-headed brother Taro.

Scott Kitajima skillfully makes an excellent impression with his precise characterizations during his multiple roles that include a crooked policeman and an imperious judge.  Shigeko Sara Suga wonderfully appears in two parts and is shattering as the mother of a dead soldier.  Claro de los Reyes’s two lively performed roles include a bitter and troublesome veteran.  One of the vivacious Leanne Cabrera’s two parts is that of the estranged wife of a soldier and she is quite compelling.

The novel came out to little attention 1957, and was Mr. Okada’s only published work.  Okada was an internee but served in the U.S. military as a translator during the war.  He later worked for an engineering firm as a technical writer and died at the age of 47, in 1971.  Two Asian-American fans of the novel obtained his widow’s cooperation and the book was republished in 1977 to acclaim.  This stage adaptation was first performed at the Miles Memorial Playhouse in Santa Monica, California, in 2010.  Devotees of the novel have taken issue with this version’s softening of the book’s bleak conclusion.

This production is presented by the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre and premiered in New York City in 2014, and later toured the United States.  This return New York City engagement is an engrossing experience that theatrically depicts a fascinating chapter of U.S. history.

No-No Boy (June 21- 26, 2016)

Pan Asian Repertory Theatre

Theatre Row’s Studio Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan

Flushing Town Hall on June 26, 2016 at 2:30 PM

137-35 Northern Boulevard, Flushing, NY

For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit

Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission

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