On Saturday, May 5th, I had the honor of performing an excerpt of What We Could Carry at JANM’s annual Gala in downtown LA. This fancy event draws over 1,000 people every year – it feels like a “who’s who” event in the Japanese American community. This year the museum honored Norman Y. Mineta (Congressman, JA leader, Presidential Cabinet member) for his life’s work, especially for advocating for Japanese Americans and publicly opposing racial profiling post-9/11 (he was the Secretary of Transportation at the time). The new CEO and President of JANM, Greg Kimura, also made his debut that evening. The event was a kind of homecoming for me because I conducted most of my research at JANM. I was nervous to be speaking at this event, to say the least.
When I arrived with my family (the Sugimotos who were my gracious hosts), the buzz was fierce. The downstairs silent auction was churning, people were running into old friends, new friends, colleagues and family. I had to pace myself to save energy for later: I performed after dinner and right before Norman Y. Mineta was introduced. I could not have hoped for more fitting placement in the program.
Congressman Mineta was one of the key politicians who championed the Redress campaign and the passing of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. My performance based from the Redress hearings fit wonderfully with the evening’s theme “Transforming a Forgotten Story.”
Soon enough, it was my turn. Backstage, George Takei was amongst the many speakers waiting in the wings. While the speaker before me wrapped up, I took deep breaths and tried to remember why I started the research for What We Could Carry. I wanted to learn to remember, to listen to the stories of Japanese Americans and my community, to be a channel, a conduit, a voice for remembering, to create a performance as a call to justice. All of my insecurities — Would I be good enough? Would I mess up? Was I speaking too long? — seemed small compared to my reasons for doing this work. So I let that soul power, that deep way of being, that sucking the marrow from life, I let that guide me instead.
And when I stepped on stage, I took another deep breath, scanned the audience, and said to myself: yes, be here. Yes, go for it.
And I did!
It was one of those performances when the room seems to open up, time seems to slow, where you think you could hear a single whisper, where everyone seems to share a single heart beat, the magic of live performance.
After sharing excerpts from the testimony of Mas Fukai, Gilbert Sanchez, Sally Kirita Tsuneishi, and Bill Shinkai, I closed with my perspective:
My name is Nikiko Masumoto. I’m a yonsei. And there is no theatrical ending to this performance. No clear finish. Every time that I perform these voices, that I listen deeply, let them echo through the caves of my body, I am healing. I was not physically in camp, I was not there, I cannot know the way that some of you in this room know, the way my jiichan and baachan know and carry their stories. But I can remember. We can remember. And when we remember, we give another life to our history. Re-telling our stories is a practice of memory work – I believe we heal as a community, as a nation, and as a world when we remember.
So, thank you for being here tonight, thank you for honoring our community, thank you for being advocates and storytellers yourselves. It’s 2012, and I know that tonight, I am, we are, another step out of camp.
I am so thankful for the opportunity to share, to be in that space, to perform. Witnessing and being present in an audience like that is not a passive process — I was truly humbled by the shared heartbeat. After I spoke, I was shocked and stunned, when Norman Y. Mineta thanked me in his acceptance speech. He said he wanted to acknowledge how important the performance was, that it brought up painful memories, but those memories are important. I was completely overwhelmed. It is a that moment I will carry with me.
Performing memory, remembering injustice, sharing a heartbeat, healing. This is what I want to do forever.