The Journal of Ben Uchida: Citizen 13559 remembers the past while connecting to the present.
Oregon Children’s Theatre’s latest production is an emotional powerhouse that is, unfortunately, extremely relevant today. With the detentions at our southern border and xenophobia triggered by fear around a new illness, The Journal of Ben Uchida: Citizen 13559 is a chilling reminder that none of this is new. And that’s terrifying.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor and a presidential Executive Order, 12-year-old Ben Uchida and his family—and all citizens of Japanese descent—are rounded up, stripped of their rights, and relocated to a concentration camp in the desert. The story begins with Ben as an adult looking back on those years and then shifts to 12-year-old Ben’s story and perspective during that time. Throughout the show, his point of view shifts when a baseball cap moves from his hand to his head, and vice versa. The actors drum up a deep well of emotions—confusion, fear, faith, anger, sadness, despair—that awakens our empathy, and the simple sets keep the focus on the people and their heartbreaking story.
The show packs a lot into the short one-hour running time (with no intermission). It’s recommended for ages 10 and up, but some intense moments—specifically the portrayal of hate speech and bias- and fear-based attacks, plus talk about suicide, and (spoiler alert) the death of a parent—might push it into the 12-and-up category. There is also historically accurate language that includes racial slurs. The play holds important messages for all ages, but parents should consider what their kids can handle and how they’ll handle it. For instance, racism and this dark time in American history struck a chord with my 12-year-old, but his big takeaway was how it would feel to lose a parent at a young age. And from my perspective as an American-born Chinese, just thinking about what these Asian Americans went through drums up pangs of anxiety and fear.
At different points in the play, adult Ben notes that his family doesn’t talk about certain things that happened. Naturally, people want to leave the pain of the past behind and move forward, but burying it puts us all at great risk of inevitably reliving past horrors. The Journal of Ben Uchida: Citizen 13559, along with the information boards and a community art project in the lobby, helps keep the dialogue alive.
See it, share it, talk about it.
The Journal of Ben Uchida: Citizen 13559 runs through March 22 at the Winningstad Theater. Showtimes are Saturdays (2 pm and 5 pm) and Sundays at (11 am and 2 pm). Sign-interpreted performance is Saturday, March 7, at 2 pm. Two Friday shows—March 6 and 13—at 7 pm will feature a panel discussion on the impact of concentration camps on families then and now.
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