Gate of Heaven is a Gift for All

I defy anyone to leave Gate of Heaven unaffected. Although this tremendously moving drama, a co-production between Nova Arts Project and The Asian/Pacific American Heritage Association, has nothing whatsoever to do with Christmas, its universal message of brotherhood, compassion and redemption could fill dozens of stockings. It's a drama for any season, and this production is a gift for all.

Written by Lane Nishikawa and Victor Talmadge, Gate has an ironic, true backstory. Two months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, in fear of a Pacific invasion, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which forcibly removed all Japanese Americans from the West Coast and placed them in internment camps. All were U.S. citizens. To prove their loyalty and speak out against the gross injustice of their own government, some 25,000 Japanese-American citizens from Hawaii and the camps volunteered in the armed forces to fight against the Axis. The 442nd Nisei Regimental Combat Team was so respected for its unstoppable heroism amid its own casualties on the battlefields of North Africa, Italy and France that it earned the moniker "The Purple Heart Battalion" before marching into Germany. In Germany, it was among the first units to liberate Dachau, the notorious Nazi concentration camp infamous for its sadistic medical experimentation on the inmates.

Liberating the camp, "Sam" Yamamoto (Jerome Vielman) is a proud U.S. soldier who discovers half-dead, Jewish Leon (Bobby Haworth) amid the bodies in the snow at Dachau. Afraid the man might mistake him for the enemy, Sam quickly explains, "See, U.S. Army. I'm not Japanese. I'm an American."

Ten years later, Sam and Leon are reunited after Leon's exhaustive efforts to find him and thank him for saving his life. So different in culture, temperament and philosophy, the men bond and form a lasting friendship; the play documents their love, their fights and their unspoken similarities as they bear witness to their individual suffering. The friends bicker with each other because they're powerless to fight against anyone else. Although they come from different backgrounds, they're on the same side. Sam is a decorated American military hero but feels distrustful of, and estranged from, the country that would imprison his countrymen and then turn around and court-­martial him. (Later in the play, we will learn the facts of the brawl that led to the military's severe reaction.) Leon, the last of his family, has no country. When he discovers a surviving cousin, he's ecstatic, only to be branded "too Jewish." When he meets a prospective bride whose parents live in Argentina, he's "too American." He's caught between worlds, and only Sam is his lifeline.

Racism and prejudice swirl through the play like dream images, and the drama's structure itself is like a dream as it focuses solely upon Sam and Leon. As in Kabuki theater, peripheral characters are enacted by silent "kurogo," black-clad actors who double as stagehands. At times the play folds in upon itself with flashbacks within flashbacks, or when a single thought focuses laser-like upon Sam or Leon and forces a memory out of them. Instead of becoming claustrophobic and inbred as it travels the decades from 1945 into the present, this two-character study, subtly paced by director Rob Kimbro, grows more heart-wrenching and all-encompassing as the world shrinks to a hospital room for the final scene. Minimalist and impressionistic, it's played out on designer Brian White's wood-planked platform, with only rudimentary props against background panels of a faded American flag.

Vielman and Haworth bring piercing intensity to Sam and Leon, though both approach their roles from different directions. As Sam, Vielman is manly bluster and physicality (even having his arm in a sling from a recent car accident doesn't slow him down). At the end of Act I, it's revealed that Sam, ever patriotic, convinced his son to enlist in the army. His grief and guilt during the funeral of his son, who's been killed in Vietnam, choke us with the raw outpouring of emotion. No less gripping, Haworth plays it quieter, as if wary of the world. His inward survivor's strength splendidly counters Vielman's bravado. In the same scene, Leon recites Kaddish for Sam's son. His calm and deliberate reading of the Jewish prayer for the dead melts hearts, too.

After a harrowing war-induced nightmare, Sam is comforted by Leon, who explains that they are survivors, remembering the ghosts who haunt them. "We're alive to make sure the ghosts don't die a silent death. They need our voice." Gate of Heaven is fitting testament to our shared pain and humanity. The voice is loud, clear and strong — like a prayer.

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover