For all their impact on our history and culture over the past century, jazz and blues have rarely figured prominently on the American stage. “Side Man” and the collected works of August Wilson leap to mind, but few other major productions.
That fact gives Bay Area jazz/blues fans yet another reason to catch “After the War Blues” by Northern California playwright with Philip Kan Gotanda. Presented by the UC Berkeley Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies, it runs tonight through March 16 at the Zellerbach Playhouse.
War does many things to us – it can make us question our government, question what it means to be an American, and question where we belong. “After the War Blues” takes place in the aftermath of World War II, when several communities intersected in San Francisco’s Western Addition District: Japanese-Americans returning from internment camps, African-Americans who had come to San Francisco looking for work, White southern migrants looking for economic opportunity and Russian Jews arriving in this country in the wake of the war. During a time when resources were limited, the characters struggle to get along and find their place in this new cultural mix. Says Gotanda, “The play asks – how do you begin to bridge all these different communities, and ultimately, can you?”
Live music, specifically the blues, will take a more prominent place alongside the original jazz in this revised production. Gotanda has taken haiku poetry written by Japanese internment camp prisoners, setting those lyrics to blues melodies, sung both in English and Japanese. Music acts both as a metaphor for the internal voices of characters, in addition to symbolizing the intersection between the two main neighborhood groups.
Although at its core the play is a period piece, both Gotanda and Jones hope audiences will find clear parallels to contemporary life. “Especially now, we still see economic disparity surfacing through racial and class tensions,” says Gotanda. “Everyone in the play is searching for their place in life and looking for ways to be happy,” says Jones. “And that is what we all want.”
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