Smith and Sawoski take us back to "Heart Mountain"

In 1942, society was rife with paranoia as a result of the war. President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared all people of Japanese ancestry were to be excluded from the entire Pacific coast, and authorized “War Relocation Camps,” where the Japanese were sent to internment camps.This shameful period of American history is expressed beautifully through text, music, dance, and powerful imagery in Santa Monica College’s original production, “Heart Mountain.” Written by SMC Public Information Officer G. Bruce Smith, and the concept developed by Theatre Arts Department Chair Perviz Sawoski, the story follows a fictional Japanese-American family from Venice, Calif. through four years of their experience in an internment camp in Heart Mountain, Wyo.

The Corsair attended a private viewing of the production on Oct. 19, two weeks before the premiere. At the run through, the incorporation of dance set the mood and pushed the story forward. A constructed screen is intended to project archival images of the real camps, adding another dimension.

“This space is set up for experimental theatre, so I thought, what new thing can we do with the space,” Sawoski said. “I wanted to do something different, that incorporated dance movement.”

Although fictional, the script is well researched, incorporating real stories from internees and their descendants. Smith was even able to contact two internees who had spent time at Heart Mountain.

“Some of the things that happen in the script happened to them or others,” Smith said. “The story is very moving,” Sawoski added.

Sawoski said that when she got the idea for the play, she brought it immediately to Smith, saying, “You have to write an amazing play on this topic!” Smith wrote “Heart Mountain” in two months; soon after, cast auditions were held.

Despite the realistic depth of the play, both collaborators had little to no connection with the topic. The closest either had come was Smith, who recalled his mother mentioning some of her high school friends being sent to the camps.

“On the issue of ‘write what you know,’ I don’t necessarily buy into that theory,” Smith said, referencing Shakespeare’s tragedy “King Lear” as an example. “Imagination can take us there.”

Sawoski said, without hesitation, that the student cast was fabulous. According to Sawoski, she and Smith could not have produced the play without their contribution. “It’s stunning the amount of talent among the students,” she said.

Sawoski encourages attendance, saying that there are so many more reasons to come than to just be entertained. “It’s not exactly a fantasy, but it’s kind of fun in that dark way,” she said. “It’s going to be beautiful.”

“Heart Mountain” will open at the SMC Studio Stage, Nov. 2. Tickets may be purchased in advance for $10. On the night of Nov. 4 there will be a panel discussion including internees — some of which from Heart Mountain — and a representative from the Japanese American Citizens League. There will also be a Q&A with the cast, and a reception afterwards funded by the Global Citizen Council.