Portland Story Theater's opened the second show of its 2008 series with Alton Chung's solo storytelling concert. Unfortunately, I was out of town opening weekend (I like opening nights), and tied up Friday of the following week, but I slipped in under the wire and caught the closing night. Okage Sama De (I am what I am because of you) recounts the stories of five men -- four of Japanese descent and one Jewish -- and their experiences during World War II.
The tales are fascinating in their exploration of assumptions, preconceptions, and resentments, not only those of white and Japanese Americans, but of mainland and Hawaiian Americans of Japanese descent, and encounters between Japanese Americans and Germans. But they are also deeply moving tales of heroes that bring to mind the Greek myths of heroes and gods.
I had never heard of the 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team (RCT), which was composed entirely of Japanese American. Chung describes it reverently, saying that for its size and duration of service, it is the most highly decorated unit in all of US Military history. I am trying to remember if I have ever gotten through one of Alton's concerts completely dry-eyed. If I have, it wasn't this one. Fortunately, I'd planned ahead and had plenty of tissue. To think that those young men, many barely out of high school, volunteered for military service while their families were in internment camps... wow.
Chung augments the first-person stories with photos of the men represented. Five folding chairs sit on the stage, and as a preamble to each story, Chung unrolls a photo of the man portrayed in the tale. He assumes the character of each narrator with unique tonality, tempo, vocabulary, gestures, and posture, personifying each man as he remembers his experiences of the war.
Chung gave a remarkable performance, and he's performing portions of the show around the USA. Check his Web site at www.altonchung.com and don't forget to check out Rick Huddle's upcoming solo show with Portland Story Theater. If I know Rick, his performance will be as unforgettable as the other solo shows have been.