June 14th, 2024

‘Sansei’ tells story of dark chapter in Canadian history

By Lethbridge Herald on April 16, 2022.

Sansei: The Storyteller, an original, solo interdisciplinary work created and performed by the Calgary-based dance theatre artist Kunji Ikeda is running this weekend at the Sterndale Bennett Theatre. Herald photo by Dale Woodard

Dale Woodard for the LETHBRIDGE HERALD

What started as a history lesson in high school has now turned into a one-man production for Kunji Ikeda.

That production takes the stage tonight as Sansei: The Storyteller, an original, solo interdisciplinary work created and performed by the Calgary-based dance theatre artist, comes to The Sterndale Bennett Theatre.

It was studying a dark moment in Canadian history that ultimately paved the way for the production.

“When I was in Grade 10 or 11 my social studies textbook had this little paragraph about the Japanese/Canadian internment during World War II and there were kids in my class (saying) ‘You’re Japanese, right? What was it?’ And I had no idea,” said Ikeda. “So I asked my dad and the only thing he really told me – my dad doesn’t really speak a lot – he said ‘If that didn’t happen, I wouldn’t be born and neither would you’.”

His father’s explanation stuck with Ikeda for years until he became an artist looking at stories.

“This idea of silver linings came to me,” he said. “I was writing about trying to stay positive. I was young and ambitious. So with that vigour I took on this idea of the story of my family’s history. So through this dark period of the Japanese Canadian internment, if that hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t be alive.”

Sansei: The Storyteller examines one of Canada’s darkest moments, when on December 7, 1941, an attack on Pearl Harbor eventually triggered the internment and dispossession of tens of thousands of Japanese Canadians living along Canada’s west coast.

Through a blend of dance, spoken word, historical audio, family interviews and unexpected humour, Ikeda tells a tale that is profoundly personal.

Sansei: The Storyteller offers his observations about the internment, his discovery of where he came from, and how his family navigated their histories.

Sansei: The Storyteller has been nominated for two 2019 Betty Mitchell Awards.

Studying dance, theatre and poetry, Ikeda made the attempt to combine the three.

“I made a little 20-minute excerpt and I combined spoken word poetry and contemporary dance and merged them together and the product really resonated in a way I never expected,” he said. “I thought it was going to be just a personal parlour piece. The way it connected, not only with Japanese Canadian experiences, but really reached a gamut, gave me this idea that the personal is universal. I’ve heard other artists speak about that and that really resonated with me. Then when one of us can explore and explain how we’ve been the outsider, the downcast, that sheds light on all of our experiences and we all have experiences with feeling that way, feeling like we don’t belong, like we’re the outsiders and feeling like someone else is kind of keeping us at arm’s length.”

The exploration has allowed not just the Japanese Canadian community, but a lot of different folks to connect with that idea and that story in a fun way, said Ikeda.

“It’s a comedy above all else because I don’t want to be too bogged down by the story and by life. It’s a fun way in, it’s a safer way in, so I love doing it.”

Ikeda’s father’s family was interned until the end of the war. In the late ‘40s they moved out east. “They still weren’t allowed to go back to the west coast, but they moved out to Picture Butte,” said Ikeda. 

“My father’s family worked on a sugar beet plantation and farmed and that’s where my dad was conceived. He was born here in Lethbridge. So I always knew I would love to do the show here and how much resonance that would have. I’m really honoured to be able to perform this and feel like my family’s history is here with me.”

Bringing Sansei: The Storyteller to his father’s place of birth is an honour, said Ikeda.

“It’s really lovely to be here and to know what the history has been,” he said. “I’m going to take a trip down to Nakamura’s later today. I have a connection with the Japanese Garden and that community. I get chills a little bit thinking about it. I was able to perform this in New Denver (B.C.) on the same land my family was interned in their community gardens in the summer. In the same way, we talk about the history that’s in our blood and the history that’s in this story, so it really feels like a full circle, to be able to come here.”

Bringing a flexible approach every time he tells the story and performs Sansei: The Storyteller will allow Ikeda the chance to bring in the Lethbridge connection.

“Luckily, there are no other performers I need to give lines with, so I am able to make every performance a little bit unique,” he said. “I don’t want to scare people, (but) there is no audience participation. But I do welcome in the audience and give opportunities for them to join in the storytelling in certain ways. So that will definitely be something that can resonate in these tellings.”

Since its beginning Sansei: The Storyteller has performed in such locales as Ottawa, Winnipeg and Paris as well as Calgary, where Ikeda resides.

“I feel lucky that this show has been able to reach the communities that it has and it has taught me a lot on the way performances are marketed. We’re sharing experiences and sharing stories,” said Ikeda. “I love to deconstruct ‘respect’ and ‘re’ is to do again. To re-think, re-do or recycle and ‘spect’ comes from spectator, spectate or spectacle. It’s all about seeing and vision. So when we respect something we allow a different perspective. That’s what I feel the story has achieved in doing, being able to offer folks a safe way to see – whether it’s their community or members of their community or stories they thought they know – to be able to perceive it in a different way. It just allows a more full version of not only history, but of our communities. So as we start to see more diverse stories it’s really exciting, to me, to be a story like that, that this hasn’t been told in this way before. I think that’s such an important thing not only for his story but for anyone out there who has something to share and has felt along these lines.”

Tonight’s show is at 7:30 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at www.newwesttheatre.com or by calling (403) 329-7328.

Tickets are $33.25 for adults (18-and-over), $29.25 for seniors (65-and-over) and $29.25 for students (13-17) or valid student ID.

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