Yukiko and Chiune Sugihara (photo from Firehall Arts Centre)
It is written in the Mishnah that, “If you save the life of one person, it is as if you save the entire world.” Chiune Sugihara saved 6,000 Jewish lives – 6,000 worlds – in the summer of 1940, despite the dangers of doing so to himself and his family.
A new play about Sugihara sees its world première at the Firehall Arts Centre this month. Written by Japanese-Canadian actor and playwright Manami Hara, Courage Now opens Nov. 19.
Contrary to his government’s strict instructions to not issue visas to Jewish refugees, Sugihara, the Japanese consul in Kaunas (Kovno), Lithuania, handwrote in a 30-day period more than 2,300 visas for Jews trying to escape from Europe via the Soviet Union to Japan. Sugihara was a husband, a father, a career diplomat, a linguist, but, above all, with his strict Samurai upbringing, he believed in respect for, and sanctity of, human life. As he said, “They were human beings and they needed help.”
Sugihara’s actions are responsible for more than 40,000 Jews being alive today. Yet, after the war, the Japanese government dismissed him from diplomatic service and treated him as a persona non grata. However, Israel has honoured his courage and his memory on three occasions – in 1985, by recognizing him as one of the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem; in 2016, by naming a street in Netanya after him; and, in October 2021, by dedicating Sugihara Square in Jerusalem.
In an interview with the Independent, playwright and actor Hara talked about the journey that led her to write Courage Now.
“About 12 years ago, my mentor from Studio 58, Jane Heyman, approached me and asked if I knew about Sugihara and I said that I did not. She told me his story, that her parents and uncle had been saved by him and that she would not be here if not for his actions. We talked about collaborating on a play. Her story and my being Japanese made it very personal for me, as I was very embarrassed by how the Japanese government treated him after 1945.”
Getting a play from conception to the stage is a long process.
“I heard that a Japanese playwright, Hiraishi Koichi, had written about Sugihara. I got a hold of his play, translated it into English and worked with Jane on it but it just did not seem dramatic enough,” said Hara. “I talked to Koichi and asked if I could adapt the play and he gave me permission. So, I researched the Jewish families who were Sugihara survivors and created more scenes. But it still did not seem to have the theatrical weight it needed to be a success so I put it away for a couple years, as I felt I had lost my vision.
“About five years ago, I traveled to Japan and had a chance to speak to Sugihara’s daughter-in-law and two of his grandchildren, which gave me a firsthand intimate look into his life and that of Yukiko, his wife. Then it dawned on me that the way to tell the story was from two female points of view, that of Yukiko and of a child survivor, Margaret. So, I went back to the story and after many years of writing drafts and workshopping, here we are.”
There are five characters in the play: Sugihara, Yukiko, a young Margaret, an adult Margaret (Jewish community member Advah Soudak) and young Margaret’s father (community member Amitai Marmorstein). Margaret is a fictional character, created from the stories of many survivors. Scenes are set up to move between the Lithuanian summer of 1940 and mid-1980s Vancouver, where an adult Margaret now lives.
Hara does double duty in this production, as the playwright and performing as Yukiko. “It is difficult to switch, wearing both hats, you feel like you have a split personality,” she acknowledged. “However, I take off my playwright hat and then I concentrate on my character in terms of what are her needs, where should I be focused and what is happening with the other characters. So, when I am on stage, I am the actor and I let the director take over from there. If he or the other actors see anything that needs tweaking or fixing, they will let me know. It is a very collaborative process. We are three weeks from opening and still finalizing many of the details.”
Hara sees her character as a spirited, stubborn, strong woman, not as stereotypically subservient, but rather as someone who also was idealistic and who was supportive of her husband in all that he did. “She knew the risk to her family and the sacrifice that would have to be made in carrying out her husband’s plan to save the Jewish refugees,” said Hara. “It is an amazing role and I am so honoured to be able to bring this story to Vancouver audiences. I hope the audience takes away that there is always hope, that there is always a way to find courage to walk towards that hope and one should never give up.”
Director Amiel Gladstone got involved in the project, having worked with Hara before.
“She was looking for the right kind of collaborative director for the show and she reached out to me because I work so much with new plays,” said Gladstone in a telephone interview with the Independent. “She told me that she had been hoping for a Jewish director…. I told her that my father was Jewish.”
As to the play, he said, “It is a memory play dealing with two women trying to piece together what happened to them years ago during those dark times. We had to create a space that includes both 1940 and present-day locations: a Japanese home and garden, a Jewish refugee apartment, the Kaunas consul office, a park, the train station, with all the locations in view at the same time. It becomes a dream world, where the actors move from set to set as they go back and forth in time. Itai Erdal’s lighting design will inform the audience as to the change in time and place.” (Erdal is also a member of the Jewish community.)
Soudack’s character, in her 50s, is going through a difficult separation and divorce. In an interview with the Independent, Soudack explained, “She realizes that she has a big hole in life, as she does not know what happened to her parents. She travels to Japan to seek out Sugihara and to ask about her father but learns that Sugihara is dead (he died in 1986) so she looks to Yukiko for answers. At the same time, Yukiko is also going back and remembering that time through her interaction with Margaret.”
Soudack had to grapple with capturing the essence of Margaret’s psychological issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder.
“She has broken pieces of memory that she wants to fit together. She has had a difficult life,” said Soudack. “It must have been terrifying to be leaving your family, everything you know and being put on a train and sent off on your own. She has a lot of anger, sadness and abandonment and betrayal issues. She does not form close loving relationships very easily, as she learned that people closest to her disappear. She has to work through all this as she seeks the truth.”
Working with Hara has been a treat, said Soudack. “It is fabulous with the playwright right there so, when a question comes up, she can give us the explanation. It is a beautiful sense of collaboration, respect, joy and appreciation of what she wrote and it is a gift to be right there with her working through this project.”
As to being a Jewish actor in this role, she said, “As a Jewish person, you grow up with the Holocaust and the plight of the Jews – it is so part of our DNA that, when you come across a story and people that you never heard of, it makes you have such gratitude and respect for these non-Jewish heroes who, in the face of so much antisemitism, still found the courage to do the right thing. If I could meet Mr. Sugihara, I would hug him, look him in his eyes and thank him for his bravery and courage.”
Courage Now runs to Dec. 4. For tickets, visit firehallartscentre.ca or call the box office, 604-689-0926.
Tova Kornfeld is a Vancouver freelance writer and lawyer.