At times, it becomes easy for people to look back on United States history as a series of bulleted information. Dates and names typed out for memorization, or a timeline of headlined events and significant quotes. It's easy to forget that beyond what is ingrained within our curriculum's vocabulary, there are still thousands of stories woven together to create the diverse country we know today. However, on June 6, as part of the immersive program for the compelling exhibition I Want the Wide American Earth: An Asian Pacific American Story, the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center will bring back to life a performance that celebrates this rich history through stories of seven extraordinary citizens.
In the fall of 2011, the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) brought its touring exhibition Fighting for Democracy: Who is the "We" in "We, the People?" to the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. Developed by the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy, described as an educational program of JANM, the exhibition highlighted the stories of seven ordinary American citizens who rose to set heroic precedents, in the wake of World War II. Stories like that of Carl Gorman who used his Navajo language to develop military code, despite the harsh punishments he received as a child for using his native tongue in school.
"They're stories of everyday people but they're also stories of iconic people," said Nora Quinn, the director of theatre programs at the National Constitution Center. "They volunteered to serve our country in a time when their country wasn't fully serving them."
The motivation for creating the performance for Fighting for Democracy was about illuminating the inspirational stories of the seven, adding a moving, breathing visual dynamic, and strengthening audience connection. "That exhibition was dynamic and interesting but it wasn't alive. Their voices couldn't be heard in a room in the same way, and our ability to learn their personal story in a more visceral way wasn't present," said Quinn. The question was not simply how they can teach these stories, she said, but how can they place the characters in the room with the audience.
Alongside a team of premier theater artists, designers, playwrights, and performers, creating the Fighting for Democracy performance was a two-year journey of peeling back the layers of each of the seven. While the primary goal was to find a way to reach out to the audience, Quinn said that in the process, many of the members of the team found themselves fully invested in the material. "These people became family to us," said Quinn. When they received a visit from Domingo Los Baños, the last surviving member of the seven, after their last performance on January 16, 2012, she said some of the performers were emotionally struck. "It was like celebrity time to see Domingo. And some of the actors wept because we had felt like we knew them so well…"
Therefore, it was no surprise that when Nora Quinn reconnected with members of the team to ask if they wanted to do the show in Washington D.C., they responded with a resounding yes. "For this exhibit here at the Smithsonian, it's a beautiful connection for us," said Quinn. "This is a way to bring it back to life…"
The Asian Pacific American Center opened their exhibition on the third floor of the National Museum of American History, in celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. Inspired by a poem by Carlos Bulosan, I Want the Wide American Earth: An Asian Pacific American Story contains 30 banners that combine text and photography detailing a history of immigration, activism, oppression, dedication and more. Altogether it reminds us how the people of the Asian Pacific American community, which in itself engulfs a wide scope of cultures, languages, traditions, and ideals, have been crucial in shaping the American Dream, and contributing to an ever-evolving country.
Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis, the curator of the exhibit explained how this was a significant goal in reaching audiences, both those who were and were not of Asian Pacific decent. He said that part of the hope is for Asian Pacific Americans to have a sense of family and local community history, and to see that history as not only part of a larger network of communities and cultural experiences, but within a larger historical framework. "I think that's the same for a larger audience… To see that it's not just presence but fundamental shaping and contribution to changing how we understand citizenship," said Davis.
Like the performance for Fighting for Democracy, placing these stories with striking images allows the viewer to form a more visceral bond with the material, capturing the tone of a movement beside the timeline of events, and putting faces to statistics. "It's easy to read "Page Act," "Chinese Exclusion Act," and "internment." It doesn't have this powerful, emotional connection to you, necessarily," said Davis. He said that while it's one thing to read how 120,000 Japanese American citizens were placed in internment camps, it's another to see the photo of brothers separated by barbed wire. While one remains imprisoned within the internment camp, the other is geared up to serve the U.S. in WWII. "It's absurd and it makes no sense but then you see the reality that we incarcerated people in our country that were our citizens," said Davis. "That image is haunting in a way that reading in a textbook about people locked up… it can be just another thing in a long series. It doesn't evoke the kind of response that visual histories do."
As George Saito, Hazel Ying Lee, and Domingo Los Baños are each part of the Asian Pacific American community, the Fighting for Democracy performance will prove to be a living extension of this visual history. The fact that the seven also represents citizens of African American, Native American, Hispanic and Polish decent, also adds to the theme this building theme that this country is built on a collaboration of varied communities. For Dan Matthews, the Chairman of the National Japanese American Memorial Foundation, which is co-sponsoring this performance, this is a message he hopes will come across. "I certainly hope that they get individual stories that they can appreciate and own in their hearts and their minds and perhaps pass to their children," he said. "But I also hope that the people get a better appreciation for really the broad fabric that we call America. It really is about people, it's about freedom, and it's about opportunity."