With ‘Between Us’ TheatreFirst offers stories of activism

Heidi Kobara in Turning the Page, The Story of Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga. Photo: Cheshire Isaacs

TheatreFirst is presenting seven short solo plays, split into two separate productions in repertory, designated as Programs A and B. All the plays share the purpose of celebrating a personal story of activism. It’s all part of TheatreFirst’s push toward moving citizens to greater political action. And, although that goal is admirable, the sheer entertainment value of theatre could have been emphasized a bit more than it was in the version of Program B that I saw.

Program B, a 95-minute, no intermission presentation, consisted of three short pieces. The best of the three was La Profesora, The Story of Nibia Sabalsagaray, written and directed by Noelle Viñas and starring Virginia Blanco. It was actually about three different activists. Nibia Sabalsagaray, a brilliant young Uruguayan literature student, was brutally tortured and murdered by the military government that ruled Uruguay in the 1970s. Nearly 36 years later, Nibia’s sister sued the government, which then finally acknowledged Nibia’s murder. The third protester is the (fictional?) teacher who is fired for telling her students Nibia’s sad story. Virginia Blanco’s earnest and excellent acting made this piece come alive.

Turning the Page, The Story of Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga by Jeanne Sakata, directed by Jeffrey Lo, and starring Heidi Kobara was next. Heidi Kobara acted the role of Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, who played a vital role in the redress movement for the over 100,000 Japanese Americans incarcerated during World War II. Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga spent years discovering and compiling research that exposed the camps as premeditated governmental misconduct, ultimately making reparations possible. This is a straightforward piece told in a plainspoken manner.

The Racket, The Story of Smedley Butler by James Tracy and Jon Tracy, directed by Robert Parsons and starring Aaron Murphy, is the account of Smedley Butler, one of the most highly decorated U.S. Marines in history. In 1933, he revealed to a congressional committee that certain wealthy industrialists had recruited him to lead a military coup with the intent of overthrowing President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. This is quite a remarkable incident, but the power of it was diluted amid a myriad of sound effects and verbiage that distracted from the thrust of the narrative.

Program A, which I have not seen, includes Just One day, A Story of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Legacy by Cleavon Smith and directed by Elizabeth Carte; Pussy Hat, The Story of One Woman’s March by Katie May and directed by Phoebe Moyer, 7 Fingers, The Story of Larry Itliong written and directed by Jeffrey Lo, (about the Filipino American labor organizer); and Laveau, A Conjuring of Marie Laveau, (the “Voodoo Queen of New Orleans”) by Brit Frazier and directed by Margo Hall.

The concept behind Between Us is courageous, and much of the evening was thought-provoking and unusual. Yet, Between Us seems to have crossed that invisible line between entertainment and education, such that one leaves the theatre feeling vaguely under- entertained and over-instructed.

Between Us can be seen at the Live Oak Theater in Live Oak Park, North Berkeley and runs through March 10. Tickets are $20-$25. For information, extended performance dates and tickets, visit TheatreFirst online.