Opinion: Calling out an offensive word in a play title leads to changes

I am grateful that after hearing complaints, a playwright with a show at the Marsh Berkeley took out a racial epithet — that has been used derogatorily to refer to Japanese Americans — from the name of his play.

One of the reasons I love living in, and raising my children in Berkeley is that my mixed Japanese heritage almost never requires explaining or translating. In other words, unlike in the small, red California town where I grew up, I almost never find myself cringing at a remark or word used by a well-meaning friend. I almost never have to step back and see an abyss between myself and people who I fear don’t see who I really am.

I say “almost,” because this week, a close friend forwarded me an announcement for a play that’s currently running at the Marsh Theater on Allston Way. The friend is someone with whom I’ve shared my deepest anxieties, who held my hand through the crumbling of my marriage, with whom we have raised our respective children, side by side, for 20 years. He is like a brother. So I was shaken when I saw the title of the play:

The J*p Box. 

(A word short for Japanese).

This play, written and performed by David Hirata, is essentially a magic show intertwined with the author’s telling of the story of three characters: himself;  the first Japanese magician to come to the U.S. and a white magician who co-opted the Japanese performer’s show and as a faux Japanese, in yellow face, to great acclaim.  Hirata, a third/fourth-generation Japanese American, said that he was “very nervous” about using the word “J*p” in his title, but that he conferred with his parents and some family members, all of whom said it was “ok.”  This explanation was bewildering, as I couldn’t fathom any Japanese American who lived through the post-Pearl Harbor incarceration finding the word “J*p” to be “ok.”  I fired off an email to the Marsh Theater. It was ignored.

Interestingly, I recently joined the board of the Berkeley chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League or JACL. The JACL is the largest and oldest Asian American civil rights organization in the US. Still, it didn’t occur to me to bring up the issue with the board. Instead, I held my discomfort inside and felt that same combination of cringe, isolation and – incredibly – shame – that I’d felt very often growing up in my small red town. After all, it’s art. Art should make us uncomfortable. This is Berkeley, where the Marketplace of Ideas runs free.

Thankfully, others on the JACL board also heard of the play. They were not so conflicted. The issue was placed on the agenda and we, including members who themselves were incarcerated, talked openly about what it feels like to hear that word, and what we wanted to do. We decided to write a letter and realized, too, that we would have no standing if at least one of us didn’t go see the play.

I was one of three JACL board members who attended the play. Turns out, Hirata knows quite a bit about Japanese American history. He agreed to meet with us after the show. It became clear that Hirata, like many Japanese Americans, did not hear much from his second-generation family about the impact of the incarceration. This is typical because it was too painful and shameful to discuss. Hirata also shared that he spent most of his childhood without a larger Japanese American community, on the East Coast and in Colorado. He heard our concerns with respect and an open mind. He told us he said intends to adjust the name of the show.

Most strikingly, he had decided to change the name before we even met.

This was important to me because inasmuch as the word “J*p” for me is like the N-word for African Americans or the C-word for women, I am not interested in telling an artist how to do their art. That for me is the beauty of the Marketplace of Ideas. Hirata can say what he wants.  And so can I. Thank you, Berkeley, for being a place where this can happen.

He has renamed the play, A Box Without a Bottom. _

Today, Hirata also issued an apology for the original title on the Marsh’s website.

“Discussions with the Japanese-American community have led me to realize that I have simply underestimated the raw pain of the “J” word,” he wrote. “The title itself provides insufficient context to justify its use… 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.”

Karen Kiyo Lowhurst is a fourth-generation Japanese American, Berkeley resident and deputy attorney general with the California Department of Justice.