Written & Performed by David Hirata Wednesday, February 20, 2019 at 7:30pm 60 minutes | No intermission | Ages 13+
In 1866, magician Namigoro Sumidagawa became the first Japanese citizen in over 200 years to receive a passport to leave the country. As part of the “Imperial Japanese Troupe,” he dazzled audiences across Victorian America with his exotic stage magic and became a media celebrity. By the time he returned home, his prize trick had been appropriated by American magicians in yellowface and rechristened as “The Jap Box.” A century later, Japanese American magician David Hirata excavates the mysteries and stories of “The Jap Box.” Through monologue and magic, The Jap Box unveils illusions and surprises from the Japanese American story.
David Hirata is a Bay Area magician and solo performer. He is the creator and performer of Kanji By Starlight & Magical Holiday, which both ran at The Marsh. The Jap Box premiered at the San Diego International Fringe Festival in 2018, where it won the award for “Outstanding World Premiere Production.”
From The J*p Box to A Box Without A Bottom: Soko-nashi Bako
When I began work on my show, I was immediately struck by the symbolism of this Japanese magic prop, the Soko-nashi Bako (“bottomless box”). The prop was appropriated by American magicians in the late 1800s and was marketed as the “J*p Box” by American magic manufacturers for nearly a century. It was something of a standard for many years, and I encountered it as a kid magician in the 1970s. The relationship of the prop to the three real-life magicians portrayed in the piece—myself, Japanese magician Namigoro Sumidagawa, and American magician Wellington Tobias—suggested a through-line worth exploring with the show.
In 2018, as I was working on early drafts, I asked my parents if they thought that the title “The J*p Box” might be artistically justified. I liked the idea of the implied box-like nature of the word itself, and of the way that boxes can symbolize confinement, exclusion, and containment, which were becoming themes of the piece. They agreed that the title was provocative, but that the use of the “J” word in reference to a specific object gave it context. As they had been members of Nisei and Sansei communities during World War II (Mom’s family was incarcerated at the Tule Lake Segregation Center), I valued their input.
The decision to use the title was mine alone, however. I ran an early version of the show at the San Diego International Fringe Festival in 2018, and I was pleased by the audience reception of the show. I had many positive conversations with Japanese-American audience members after several performances and began to feel that the show had something to say.
The higher-profile run of the show here in the Bay Area exposed the show to a broader audience. Subsequent discussions with the Japanese-American community have led me to realize that I have simply underestimated the raw pain of the “J” word. The title itself provides insufficient context to justify its use.
I deeply regret the pain that my choice has caused. While I do believe in the power of confronting ugly history and language through art, the story told by the show is a kind of personal meditation on cultural identity. And, though I have a real connection with the account of the Soko-nashi Bako, the raw pain of the “J word” is not my story to tell. The pain caused in the Japanese-American community by the title was real and something I regret. I felt that making a title change with my apologies was the appropriate action.
Audience response to the show has been very gratifying, and I’m happy that this unique take on Japanese-American history has been able to reach an audience. As with all artistic decisions, the conversation about this change has been interesting (and remarkably civil). I am grateful to those who reached out to me directly in this discussion. As with all works of theater, we hope that this living dialogue can continue.
History can seem like such a fragile thing. Documents, drawings, and entire buildings can literally crumble into dust. Museums protect fragile mementos behind velvet ropes, beneath bell jars, and in argon gas atmospheres behind thick sealed glass.
But in this digital age, historical artifacts can pop onto our desktops at 600 dpi resolution. Like a letter that was written by my grandfather during World War II, which I found in an online archive, as fresh as the day it was written. In the letter, my grandfather pleads the case for his release from US military custody in the stockade at the Tule Lake Segregation Center in 1944.
But in this digital age, historical artifacts can pop onto our desktops at 600 dpi resolution. Like a letter that was written by my grandfather during World War II, which I found in an online archive, as fresh as the day it was written.
In 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066. This authorized the eviction of 112,000 Japanese-Americans and resident Japanese aliens from their homes and their imprisonment in camps run by the US War Department. This included my maternal grandparents and their children.
The posters announcing the forced relocation are an image as familiar to me as the Declaration of Independence or “Uncle Sam Wants You!” They are, after all, a part of my family history. That familiarity has made these posters seem more historical rather than personal over the years, but the image of a letter in Grandpa’s own hand is another thing entirely. His respectful, dignified manner paints a vivid picture of this dismal story as he relates the physical and emotional pain of the incarceration of him and his family that is part of my family history, and my history as an American.
A few years ago, I took my family to the site of the Tule Lake Segregation Center in Northern California, in the hopes that we could touch this personal history. I was grateful to the efforts of the National Park Service to preserve and teach this history. The stockade building is crumbling and fragile, with a protective roof placed over it by the park service. I was glad to be able to show it to my wife and daughter, and I think I was a little comforted by how small and fragile it appeared. This story is in the past, fading with the years, the stockade seemed to say. Or perhaps that was just me, listening through a filter of complacency.
The events of the past few years, as we subject those our government has deemed “outsiders” to brutal cruelty, have brought the spirit of this history to life again. All the more fitting that Grandpa’s voice has found another way to reach out from the past, to give me another way to consider the story.
David Hirata is the Director of Artists & Staff Relations at the Marsh as well as the Program Manager of our Marsh Risings series. His show, A Box Without A Bottom plays at The Marsh Berkeley October 26 – December 1. Tickets and more info can be found HERE!
Are you a Marsh performer or patron with a story to tell? Drop us a note at Marketing@TheMarsh.org to get the ball rolling!
Written & Performed by David Hirata Directed by Mark Kenward
January 4th – 26th | Berkeley Saturdays & Sundays at 5pm
Buy Tickets Down Below
In 1866, magician Namigoro Sumidagawa became the first Japanese citizen in over 200 years to receive a passport to leave the country. As part of the “Imperial Japanese Troupe,” he dazzled audiences across Victorian America wth his exotic stage magic and became a media celebrity. By the time he returned home, his prize trick, Soko-nashi Bako, had been appropriated by American magicians in yellowface and rechristened as the “J*p Box.” A century later, Japanese-American magician David Hirata excavates the mysteries and stories of the Soko-nashi Bako. Through monologue and magic, he unveils illusions and surprises from the Japanese American story.
Hailed as “a master of deceit” (KRON 4 TV) David Hirata has amazed audiences throughout the Bay Area with theatrical magic creations at the Exploratorium, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the Oakland Museum, and at many private events. Previous shows include Kanji by Starlight at the Marsh, and American Wizards at the California Magic Dinner Theater. A Box Without A Bottom premiered at the 2018 San Diego International Fringe Festival where it won the award for “Outstanding World Premiere Production.”
Tickets: $20 – $35 sliding scale | $55 and $100 Reserved Seating January 4th – 26th | Berkeley Saturdays & Sundays at 5pm 60 minutes | No Intermission | Ages 13+ | Please do not bring infants to the show
For more information on the sliding scale ticketing policy, late seating and reserved seating please click here.