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New World Disorder: Oliver Mayer's 'Conjunto' shows how the West was one.

National Insecurity

Two new plays--'Conjunto' and 'Legacy Codes'--examine the plight of American citizens in compelling ways

By Todd Inoue

IN THESE tense days of multihued alerts, duct tape hoarding and an elected official (Rep. Howard Coble, R-N.C.) suggesting that the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II was a necessary national security tool, two new plays touch upon the power of cultural awareness and the ill effects of scapegoating. Conjunto and Legacy Codes place their characters in different eras and circumstances, but both are prophetic and relevant in our post-9/11, prewar times.

In the Teatro Visión and Contemporary Asian Theater Scene's co-production of Conjunto, L.A. playwright Oliver Mayer examines Mexican, Japanese and Filipino field workers living, working and falling in love amid pos-World War II paranoia.

The Japanese-Americans return to the fields after languishing in internment camps to find Mexican and Filipino-Americans toiling on the soil they left behind. Together, they search for (and till) the common ground and discover love. Mayer, a veteran of 15 plays and professor of playwriting at USC, expresses amazement that the drama portrayed in Conjunto is suddenly timely in the light of Coble's proclamation.

"It's getting scarily topical," Mayer confesses. "I didn't mean to make it that way. When the representative from North Carolina made his comments, that was the cherry on top of the actual problem.

"It's hopefully awakening everyone to the mistakes we've made in our lifetime," Mayer continues. "'Conjunto' is another way of saying 'united.' If we believe that on the farm that it took everyone together to get the strawberries juicy and ready to eat, it also took everyone together to create the California economy--sputtering as it might be. And it takes everyone together to keep from going fascist and keep a sense of equality and a generous heart. We can lose it if we don't pay attention. If we are then we can make better public decisions and get into more romances."

Mayer consulted with local Japanese-American historian Jimi Yamaichi for information about internment camps. Conjunto director Karen Amano, a freelance dramaturge who most famously worked with the Asian American Theater Company and Thick Description, helped sharpen Mayer's vision. With Amano, Yamaichi and Mayer collaborating, and Contemporary Asian Theater Scene and Teatro Visión hooking up, Conjunto provides a model of cultural networking within the local theater scene.

"It's only natural for the story of the play," Mayer says. "There's not many of us. It's cool to meet Grace-Sonia Lee [of CATS] and the people at Teatro Visión. It's great to take a microcosm and use it, like Mexicans and Japanese-Americans sitting next to each other on the crosstown bus."

Code Warriors

Just as Conjunto addresses relevant issues pertaining to identity and double meanings, so does Legacy Codes, a world premiere by TheatreWorks of Palo Alto.

Cherylene Lee's play is loosely based on Wen Ho Lee and the Los Alamos lab security breach that launched so many headlines in 2000. In the play, a Taiwanese-born scientist is accused of compromising America's national security by passing on nuclear secrets, or legacy codes, to China. As the accusations fly, the scientist isn't too overwhelmed to notice that his hip-hop-loving son wants to quit school to study oral traditions, or that his wife may not be the woman he thought she was. And the FBI isn't too far behind.

Lee was inspired to write the play after reading an article about Wen Ho Lee in The New York Times. "The words 'legacy codes' just leapt out," she says. "I knew I had a play there, because a lot of my work deals with what is passed from generation to the next. Although legacy codes in the context of the Wen Ho Lee case had to do with computer codes, it had a different resonance to me. I explore the variations of what legacy codes can be: computer codes, DNA codes, family, culture, music and dance. They each have their own codes that we keep and pass on."

Lee wrote Legacy Codes back when national security was still an abstract idea and homeland security jobs weren't advertised on late-night TV.

"We weren't thinking about national security every day," she says. "We had weapons of mass destruction, but I don't think it was in the foreground of our thinking. For a lot of young people--they didn't hear about drop drills. The code alerts hadn't been developed. They didn't have a concrete feeling about national security. It makes the stakes of the play that much more real."

Among the highlights of both plays is the use of music as modifier. When Legacy Codes director Amy Gonzalez discovered that Wen Ho Lee's favorite composer was Bach, she hired Bay Area jazz drummer Anthony Brown to record the original score using traditional Asian instruments in a Bach-like fugue structure. There are also a few Western songs, even a rap.

For Conjunto, Mayer incorporates music of the '40s, like songs by the Ink Spots and Gene Autry, and mixes it with Mexican instruments like the guitarron, the bajo sexto and the accordion. The play opens with a Japanese work song by protest singer Hisao Shinagawa.

"He's like Dylan with a thick Japanese accent," raves Mayer. "It's called 'Daiichi,' which means 'the Earth.' You can see Clint Eastwood and Toshiro Mifune riding off together in the sunset." That's a beautiful image, one that's felt in the play and captured in the spirit of Conjunto.

Conjunto plays March 6-23 at the Mexican Heritage Plaza Theater, 1700 Alum Rock Ave., San Jose. Tickets are $12-$17; 408.272.9926. The Legacy Codes plays March 5-April 6 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $25-$43.

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From the February 27-March 5, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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