Shoulders, the play- at the Las Cruces Community Theater

On Shoulders a play by Jeffrey Kinghorn premiering this week at Las Cruces Community Theater. Running April 24th-May10th.

-She will do the right thing.
-Who is to say what’s right?

                        From Shoulders

I. Jap Camps. -America’s blunders. -Coach Larson teaches poetry.- Ginsberg’s “America” interjects for some reason.

In 1988 Congress attempted to apologize to Japanese Americans that had been sent to internment camps during WWII. It offered 20,000 dollars to those surviving members, grinned a toothy grin and said: “Come on, Forget about it!” 

America. I have given you all and now I’m nothing…

[Similarly, my Texas public schooling thought it best to skip over that entire chapter. The only memory I have of learning about this when I was young was a poem and photograph in an English book. The photograph was of hundreds of Japanese Americans standing behind a gate and one little Japanese looking boy wearing dirty clothes looking despondently into the camera. Despite being the basketball coach primarily, Coach Larson seemed to care a thing or two about literature. He was adamant about Shakespeare and would make us say the lines until they sounded right. The one glimmer of hope in my entire public education.] 

I can’t stand my own mind. Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb. I don't feel good, don't bother me.

America’s actions against citizens of Japanese ancestry went against everything the nation is supposed to stand for in terms of civil liberties, equality, and human rights, not to mention constitutionality. It certainly wasn’t the first or last time America has betrayed its principles (or the Constitution). We’ve certainly seen a lot of that since then, particularly in the War on Terror, but Japanese internment camps is certainly a blatant example. 


[Much of America’s wrongdoings today tend to be a little more covert/ subtle/ hushed/ covered up by a facade of political correctness, tangled in rhetoric and misleading information, swept under suspect alliances, over complicated legislation, or hidden under a complex web of corporate interests and profit seeking masters of war.]

America, when will you be angelic? When will you take off your clothes?

In February of 1942 Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. The order allowed certain areas to be deemed military zone and, in other words,  mandated an evacuation order of all people of Japanese ancestry living in certain areas to leave their homes and report to assigned camps. They were forced to leave their houses, possessions, and jobs behind. The order, of course, was during war time and was a result of heightened paranoia and anti Japanese sentiments, accentuated after the attacks on Pearl Harbor.


I haven’t read the newspapers for months. Everyday somebody goes on trial for murder.


II. Where are we?. - Who is living next door?. -Life during wartime.

And this fascinating moment in America’s history is the historical context of the play Shoulders by Jeffrey Kinghorn, which is being staged at the Las Cruces Community Theater this week, under the direction of David Edwards.
 
Setting: San Francisco, California-Where a majority Japanese re-locations occurred. 
 

Characters: McClintock family and their two neighbors.

Rosemary McClintock: The mother.

Lorraine: young, responsible, hardworking older sister, seems to be the sole provider of the family.

Linda: the youngest. An intelligent and wild hearted teen. 

Harriet: one of their neighbors, a rambunctious bachelor woman who can, we discover, fix anything, from bikes to bad backs to expensive cars. 

Natsuko: the other neighbor, a Japanese woman. Her husband has been taken away and she needs to “report” after the evacuation order is given for the Pacific coast. 

Sal: a failed gangster, romantic, who pleads with Lorraine for her to marry him.

Natsuko is and has been a close friend of the family. She helped raise the girls after their father’s death and treated them like one o f her own children. She took care of them and did their hair and now they cannot get close to her, nor be associated with her. Now, she is an enemy. People try to burn her house down. And while everyone else is concerned about being labeled a “Jap Rat,” Rosemary seems genuinely outraged and concerned about Natusko’s situation.
 

III.Doing the “right thing.”-Sal’s bad back.-A failed gangster.-The dehydration of the soul.

Obligations and duty, permeate the play, both with Lorraine and Natsuko, but also, and perhaps more interestingly with Rosemary.

Lorraine struggles between ‘doing the right thing’ and her own personal happiness and ambitions. One of the main issues is what is the “right”  decision and what is self involved, as defined by some invisible set of laws and principles.

The story opens with Sal eagerly awaiting an answer to his marriage proposal, lovingly admiring Lorraine under the moonlight, showering her with compliments and promises. Sal comes off as an old fashioned romantic in this scene, a bit desperate, sad almost. 

Later, it becomes difficult to tell whether he is being sincere about his love or whether much of his kindness and audacity comes from a different place. Perhaps a kind of vacancy in him. We know, after all, that he is a well-connected, but failed gangster. Linda discloses some rumors about Sal’s failings and embarrassment to his family. He is certainly capable of offering money and security, but is also disoriented and lost. On some level, Sal feels inadequate and holds some shame over whatever incident has caused said rumors, so he overcompensates for these unknown failures, but maybe also for his inability to participate in the war. He explains that the reason he is not out there fighting is from a bad back. [Likely story.] Joseph Lopez, who plays Sal, does a great job of depicting this likable guy that is, at the same time, a little overbearing; he creates a sense that Sal is a little over the top, perhaps rather desperate, looking for a way to validate himself, to make a name for himself.

[I kept trying to look for Sal’s dark side, but it seemed absent. Mostly, it seemed he's just looking for purpose. He is described as a failed gangster, but other than the fact that he tells a story of almost beating a guy,  has a “cousin Tony” with a jet, carries 2,000 dollars in his pocket in 1942, and drives his father’s Packard, there is nothing really gangster about him.]

Sal’s business is dehydrated foods. A concept, he is confident, that will not only take off after the war, but that will help the soldiers out in battle. His way, he explains, of assisting the cause. 

IV. Understanding Lorraine-I want to see fucked up people.- Do not go gently into that good night!-

Lorraine has yet to make up her mind about the marriage proposal. What keeps her back her mother and younger sister, her responsibilities, her job, her duties. Lorraine is a hard worker, proud, caring, and loyal.It is strange to see a character who appears to have no flaws, who is seemingly completely practical, straightforward, and selfless. 

[At first this puts me off. I almost think: Can’t you lash out? Can’t you tell your mother what a bitch she really is? Can’t you raise your voice? Or lie? Or throw something? Lorraine is so restrained that I’m never quite sure whether she really loves Sal or if the marriage proposal was a pretense on both parties to remedy a part of themselves that was lacking.]

It’s hard to process a character like this. Lorraine's all around respectable qualities, confuse the hell out of me. 

Although, when thinking it through, one possible flaw exists. In reference to Natsuko’s situation; her reaction is rather detached, purely practical: a concern for the risk on her family, not so much for Natsuko’s well-being or the injustice she’s facing. Considering that she grew up with Natsuko, she never has a scene with her that indicates any emotional reaction.
When her mother tries to remind Lorraine that Natusko treated her like one of her own children, Lorraine responds, “I’m too busy thinking about the jeopardy you keep putting us in. I’m exhausted. And I’m late.”

Lorraine exhibits a maturity and a compliance to her unjust fate, lives a dull and overworked life, but shows no resentment; instead, she carries on with strength, hope,  and a docile dreaminess. It's rather perplexing. 

Lorraine says things like, “I’ve never had time for friends…” 

She makes reference to her lack of time and this feeling that she accepts her life as simply business, work, responsibilities is perhaps Lorraine’s biggest problem and possibly her most irritating quality. She is incapable of rage and protest.

[I wanted Lorraine to catch fire. To, if even for a moment, say something cynical or out of line. Instead she calmly accepts the circumstances, looks up to the moon, and goes gently into that good night. Rosemary hardly notices. KC Cherkasky, who plays Rosemary, is great as the mother, being both tender and compassionate at moments but also rigid, incapable of showing emotion or gratitude. There is a scene where she tries to thank Sal for the risk he's taking and she has to literally hold back vomit.]

Lorraine has these strongly aligned sense of principles, which keep her from giving into passion. A person whose sense of “what’s right” is unshakable, even in the face of love (if that is in fact the case with Sal). Yet, Lorraine's portrayal in this production is graceful in a way that at the end, I was almost convinced she did do the right thing.

Francesca Perez-Wright, playing Lorraine, is so young and vibrant. She transmits this innocence and purity that while strangely foreign, by the end of the play is almost hopeful, almost refreshing, almost possible.

V. Sacrificial Lambs.- The heaviness of bones. - This is your life.-

“All I’ve ever known is work.” Lorraine says.”I’m trying to use my head not just my heart.”
 Her sacrifice, while respectable, is also equally as frustrating.


[At which point do you draw the line between the life you envision and the responsibilities you take upon yourself? What if you lie in your death bed thinking: Well, I regret everything, but at least I was responsible. 

A chilling thought. 

And yet Americans value this hard working, back breaking, work ethic. This is a deeply ingrained American value. Work everyday of your damn life so that you can enjoy retirement.  In this country, it seems to me, the majority of people that can afford vacations are over sixty five.  In America, hard work, even if it kills you, is respectable and honorable. In the end Lorraine's actions will lead  to no great victory, to no great outcome. Her sacrifice is meaningless, as was the folkloric death of John Henry, who dies of a heart attack after trying to prove his worthiness against a machine.]

VI. War ghosts.-Revolution.-


Natuko, the Japanese neighbor’s, first scenes are awkward and uncomfortable; people are unsure how to act in her presence. Circumstances have suddenly turned her into a criminal, the other, the enemy, a risk factor. 

When she appears, she’s like a ghost: subdued, passive, quiet and complacent. She is soft spoken and reticent. She makes no complaints. She has been turned into a ghost over night.  Why is it that Natsuko accepted this betrayal so readily, calling it her “duty” to report. 
Actress Naomi Rupp, playing Natsuko, does a great job of restricting movements, remaining rigid and quiet. Her steps are cautious, apologetic and this, like Lorraine’s seemingly unflawed character, is rather unnerving. 

[There is nothing subversive about Natsuko. She accepts and she is willing. Part of me wanted her to revolt, to comment on the injustice. To throw up her hands and say, "This is bullshit!" Her passiveness however,  is part of the point. The idea that over night these people were all deemed enemies and what’s worse is that some accepted it. That their loyalty to the nation was such that they felt it was their duty to do what they were told.] 

VII. A character of contradictions. - The threshold. -“I’ll call the FBI!” -


Rosemary seems to be the most vocal on voicing her disagreement and disdain with Natsuko’s situation. 

"Have you considered not reporting?" Rosemary asks.

"We show our loyalty by not complaining." Natsuko responds.

"I'd like to see you fight this thing. What's the worse they could do, lock you up? Seems to me their going to do that anyway?"

But Natsuko does not fight it. She is not defiant. And Rosemary shows a side of regret, of deep reflection, and a very visceral sense of of injustice to what is happening to her neighbor.
The mother Rosemary is a character of fascinating contradictions. She wants to redeem herself for what she seems to recognize as weakness in her past. She wants to do something, “For once that is not selfish.” So she sees helping Natsuko as an opportunity to redeem herself. And yet, she seems to selfishly hold on to her daughters. 

“What about me?” she asks when faced with Lorraine’s possible departure.

There is a nice moment with the teenage daughter, Linda, who tells Natsuko: “I don’t see you as a Jap.” And Linda, played by Bridget Andersen, plays the part very convincingly. She has that open vulnerability and sincerity, but also those slightly conniving and dynamic tendencies of young people who think that the world is against them and that they are smart enough to take it on. Linda’s character rests in an interesting middle ground; the threshold between childhood and adulthood. And Linda, unlike her sister or Natsuko has more defiant qualities.

This performance, even in its early stages, was very engaging. Linda changes throughout the play from a likable young person, to a self-centered girl, to a resentful sister, to the only one, possibly intelligent and brave and selfish enough, to save herself.
 

VIII. In rehearsals.- Sculpting character.- The making of imaginary friends.- Real moments- The process is the thing. -Ginsberg’s America returns.-

Watching the actors early on in the process, gave me an inside look at their formation of the characters. Even in rehearsal the spark of a “real moment” created on stage is detectable. This, after all, is much of the struggle of any production: moments where the actors transcend the script and create reality. Part of the fun of watching rehearsals, to see the trajectory of these moments, the rise and fall of energetic flow and the nuance the actors create as the piece slowly settles into their souls.

I have mystical visions and cosmic vibrations


During rehearsals, the actors experimented with tone, accentuation, and silence and the director, conducting in some sense, this musicality and rhythm. During the rehearsals I sat through, I listened to David Edwards, the director speak phrases like, “That line has to land a little more…” or “Take a little air out of it...” 

This production maintains energy throughout, moving from moments of romance, to physical comedy, to sincere exchanges, to awkward engagements with Natsuko. The character of Harriett, played by Gail Wheeler, adds a very unique touch, as she's drinking from her flask talking about how she met her man, or when she lifts up her hammer and says things like, "You want me to take care of them?"

America...Are you going to let your emotional life be run by Time magazine? It’s always telling me about responsibility, business men are serious, movie producers are serious. Everybody is serious but me.

[As a non-actor person, I’ve always imagined acting is like the making of imaginary friends. Similar to creating a character in prose, except you embody this imaginary friend. And the friend comes alive in you and I wonder then if acting is a momentary lapse into madness. It must be completely sincere, the way one really believes in their imaginary friends as a child. And just like writing a character can be madness, acting has the physical element and demands that your entire body give in to this imaginary friend and their world. One day, I will ask an actor about this.]

It occurs to me that I am America. ...America, you don't really want to go to war. Them Russians, them Russians, and them Chinamen, and them Russians....

IX. Shoulders under a white moon.-A desire for darkness.-


The production creates tonal shifts: from comedic lighthearted moments to O’Neill-esque moments of heightened emotions. A fun dance sequence, intimate conversations, a hilarious “back fixing,” and my all time favorite moment: Rosemary yelling to her daughter in protest, after she spent the first half talking about the great injustice to Natsuko ,  “What you’re doing is a federal crime, trying to help this stinking Jap escape!” 

Justin Townes Earle performs "They Killed John Henry" live in the KEXP studio on the Midday Show with Cheryl Waters. Recorded 4/6/09. www.kexp.org

Ultimately, it will be up to the viewer to decide how they see the ending. Perhaps my view of Lorraine is skewed, affected by a love of tragic characters and a yearning for revolution and subversion. In the end it seems Lorraine simply took care of another problem, the way she took care of the bills, and then returns to her life. Someone else might see Lorraine's actions as heroic and noble and perhaps in their own way, they are. She had  one moment of weakness, where she almost walks away, but I can't quite figure out, why it's not convincing enough. 


America, I have given you all and now I'm nothing.

Natsuko’s final end is also not fully satisfying. In some ways, she is saved and Lorraine is not.  In some ways, the great escape is too easy, there is no struggle, no uprising. In some ways her story doesn't have a whole lot to do with Lorraine. 

At its core, Shoulders engages with the questions of duty and responsibility. And this is a really tough question because we all have decisions that involve choosing between ourselves and others. Lorraine’s situation is not all that different from the reality of many working families. People have always sacrificed themselves and their happiness to do what is responsible.  People have always lived a life of labor for the betterment of their children or younger siblings. It is an American tradition.The question then is, is it always the right thing?

 Shoulders opens April 24th -May 10th  at the Last Cruces Community Theater in Las Cruces.
Fri & Sat at 8:00 p.m. (April 24th and 25th, showings start at 7:00 because of Music Festival.)
For Tickets visit
This Page. 

Mari GomezComment