Saturday, November 25, 2017

From the Archives - "The Gate of Heaven": Two Lives Examined

This review appeared in The Metro Herald in November 1996:

"The Gate of Heaven": Two Lives Examined
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

Usually, when artists portray the meeting of cultures, they express it as a confrontation, a "culture clash." Seldom do they show the other side -- the meshing of cultures, their ability to complement each other, the capacity of people from different backgrounds to learn from each other and to grow more completely as human beings.

Ford's Theatre Washington DC This "other side" is shown with accomplishment by the creators of The Gate of Heaven, which opened at Ford's Theatre in Washington on October 23. Ford's outgoing artistic director (and main engine of growth) Frankie Hewett introduced the play to the audience by saying there is "no better theatre, and no better city in America, to present this play." The Washington premiere was made possible through a financial partnership with General Dynamics, which underwrote much of the costs for transferring the production from San Diego, where it was first produced.

The Gate of Heaven is a collaborative effort in which the two actors -- Lane Nishikawa and Victor Talmadge -- are also the playwrights. They benefited from the dramaturgical contribution of Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly) and director Benny Sato Ambush. It tells the story of two men, Japanese-American soldier Kiyoshi "Sam" Yamamoto (Nishikawa) and Leon Ehrlich (Talmadge), an East European Jew rescued by Yamamoto from the Dachau concentration camp at the end of the Second World War.

Ten years later, after searching far and wide, Ehrlich locates Yamamoto in San Francisco, eager to thank the American for saving his life. In the decade since the end of the war, Yamamoto had become an accountant while Ehrlich had, in turn, moved to Israel, fought in the war for independence there, come to America (where he became a citizen and a psychiatrist working for the Army).

From that point forward, Yamamoto and Ehrlich -- Sam and Leon -- become fast friends. Each teaches the other about his life and culture. Leon, who never marries, is adopted into Sam's family. Despite arguments and personal tragedies, their friendship persists throughout the next 40 years of their lives.

The Gate of Heaven deals with issues that many Americans would like to sweep under the carpet, including racism and the forced relocation of Japanese-American citizens into concentration camps during World War II. Sam's family had been relocated while he volunteered to serve in the 442nd Regiment, the most highly decorated unit in American history -- consisting almost entirely of Japanese-Americans whose families were living in horrid conditions in prison camps in Utah and Arizona. Worse, even while wearing his country's uniform and medals awarded for valor and several Purple Hearts, Sam and his fellows from the 442nd are derided and spat upon when they return home from the war. Restaurants refuse to serve them because they are "Japs."

The issue of racism comes to the surface -- and works dramatically as a means to cause a temporary estrangement between Sam and Leon -- on the occasion of the U.S. Bicentennial, the 4th of July in 1976. A seemingly simple conversation about what restaurant they should patronize -- Sam wants "American food," like steak while Leon wants something exotic, like sushi -- turns into a vivid exposition of racist undercurrents in American society. One example stands out: Earlier in the day, tourists had approached Sam and Leon asking for directions. They spoke only to Leon -- the immigrant with a foreign accent, who happens to have white skin -- while ignoring Sam -- the native-born American with no accent but with a different complexion. The tourists simply assumed that Leon was American and Sam was foreign, even though the opposite was true. This, Sam says, is one of the subtle but constant reminders of America's residual racism.

To Leon, this seems trivial. He had, after all, lived through the Holocaust, when his entire family and 6 million other Jews had been exterminated by "real" racists. He had seen the ethnic conflicts in Palestine after the war, and in contrast America is a paradise.

Voices are raised, leading to a separation of the friends lasting for several years.

The Gate of Heaven is an episodic drama. Many of the plot lines are revealed not linearly, but through flashbacks and asides and allusions. There are twists that do not become clear until late in the play. Nonetheless, the various facets come together seamlessly, creating a luminous gem of the theatre.

Much credit goes to the actors, Nishikawa and Talmadge, who have chosen difficult parts to portray. Not many actors can carry off the aging process of two men over a 50-year period with the same level of excellence as these two do.

Both actors are approximately the same age as their characters are at the beginning of the play. Nishikawa does a marginally better job at aging his character, Sam, in large part because his aging process is more subtle. He does this mostly through changing his voice, making it, over the years, huskier and more gravelly. For his part, Talmadge ages his character more physically -- letting his hairline recede, growing a mustache, slouching at the shoulders -- but he also uses his voice to show the passage of time. As Leon, Talmadge begins the play with a heavy East European accent, but slowly discards it so that by the end of the evening, one can hardly tell Leon's foreign origins. This is a realistic way to portray an immigrant, most of whom lose their accents over time. He easily could have kept the dialect throughout the play, but by choosing this method, he underscored the "Americanness" of Leon, his equal status to Sam.

The first performance of The Gate of Heaven actually took place at the U.S. Holocaust Museum, a quite appropriate venue. The play provides a starting point for discussing the Holocaust and also the culpability of the U.S. government in oppressing its citizens of foreign origin (primarily Japanese-Americans). As a matter of fact, Ford's Theatre has provided a study guide for the play that can be used with high school (or college) history classes ("Backstage View: A Teacher's Guide to The Gate of Heaven," by Davi Walders, available from the Audience Development Director at Ford's Theatre, 202-638-2367 or http://www,

The Gate of Heaven is simultaneously entertaining and instructive. It is poignant as well as hard-hitting. It successfully demonstrates how individuals can adapt to changing circumstances, how we can learn from each other and adopt other people's customs as our own, and how we are all better people when we do so. It accomplishes this without being preachy or didactic, keeping entirely within the dramatic context set by the playwrights, director, dramaturg, and scenic and costume designers.

Because it is a two-character play, The Gate of Heaven will probably gain a great following among community-theatre groups around the country. Props and setting are simple, so even the smallest low-budget company might be able to mount an adequate production. Whether amateur groups can find actors as excellent as Nishikawa and Talmadge remains to be seen, however.

Ford's Theatre deserves commendation for bringing The Gate of Heaven back to Washington for an extended run. Performances are Tuesday through Sunday evenings at 7:30 p.m., Thursday matinees at 1:00 p.m. (perfect for class trips) and Sunday matinees at 3:00 p.m. Signed performances will take place on Wednesday, November 13, at 7:30 p.m. and on Sunday, November 17 at 3:00 p.m. For ticket information, call the Ford's Theatre box office at 202-638-2367 or ProTix at 703-218-6500.

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