By Justin Hayford
Every struggling young playwright should pen a courtroom drama: it's got to be the most efficient way to learn the dramatic potential of dialogue. Think of the truly hot interrogation scenes you've seen in film, television, and stage legal thrillers. The characters don't do much usually, just talk. Yet their words are tools--to pry open the truth or to slam the lid back down again. Neither attorney nor client has to reminisce about his traumatic childhood or deliver a tortured poetic monologue to give the scene stakes. Both are after something and must use words to get it. The words don't just drive the action, they are the action. And in drama, the action is all.
In skilled hands, such words can leave an audience breathless, as playwright W. Colin McKay demonstrates again and again in Nagasaki Dust. His military-courtroom drama, set in Nagasaki during the months after the end of World War II, shows just how compelling a traditional and even predictable form can be when crafted with intelligence and sophistication. John Okui, a 19-year-old Japanese-American kid born and reared in California, ventures to Japan in the summer of 1941, ostensibly to return his mother's ashes to her homeland but more urgently to try to come to terms with his national identity (his "I'm a Yank!" zeal barely masks an underlying shame in his ancestry). While he's there, Japan bombs Pearl Harbor and Okui is conscripted by the Japanese military. He ends up running a prisoner of war camp in Nagasaki where American soldiers are routinely tortured and killed. The atomic blast brings Okui's four-year ordeal to an abrupt close, but as the play begins he faces a new ordeal: the U.S. army is about to try him for treason. An opportunistic army lawyer hoping to leverage his "small degree from a small law school" into a major military career volunteers to represent Okui. Lieutenant Randolph has devised a clever plan to get in the army's good graces while defending a suspected traitor: instead of investigating the possibility of his client's innocence, he'll make sure the case against Okui is solid enough for a clean conviction.
McKay lays on the army's xenophobic paranoia a bit thick at first, with a prison guard beating and taunting Okui while Randolph and his superior--Colonel Bowman, a survivor of Okui's camp--chortle over their plans to hang the Jap. But McKay employs a bit of subtlety, and his play kicks into high gear, when Randolph begins to suspect that Okui might be innocent, that he may have stayed in the Japanese army to fight the enemy from within as he claims. With impressive economy, McKay packs a series of exchanges between Okui and Randolph with explosive potential, revealing just enough hints about the underlying truth to keep us hooked, creeping incrementally toward the fiery showdown with army brass we know awaits us, like dessert after a full-course meal. At the same time he cleverly dramatizes Okui's inner conflict (despite a few tortured monologues), as his allegiance is torn between his ancestral land, now designated an enemy nation, and his own country, intent on stringing him up for his harrowing acts of patriotism.
But when McKay breaks with the courtroom-drama form, injecting quasi-expressionistic dance sequences or misty memory scenes, Nagasaki Dust falters. Though some of the scenes are effective--Okui bidding his father farewell, or whipped into such a frenzy by his Japanese commanding officer that he uses a live Chinese prisoner for bayonet practice--they seem excessive and diffuse, stalling rather than accelerating the play. In these numerous interruptions, more demonstrations than drama, McKay clarifies where our sympathies should lie and what conclusions we should draw. Watching Okui crumble before his Japanese-American girlfriend's accusation that he's ashamed of his heritage doesn't push the play into new territory but holds it back in soupy bathos.
Like so many contemporary playwrights, McKay apparently feels compelled to break with convention, as though writing a straight play weren't interesting enough anymore. Indeed, American playwrights have spent so much time fracturing narratives and breaking fourth walls in the last few decades--often to great and lasting effect, no doubt--that current writers seem to have forgotten that sometimes the most powerful way to tell a story is from start to finish. And sometimes the most compelling way to dramatize the story is to force it into an unrelenting present, to let everything unfold in real time. Aristotle's classic unities may seem hopelessly outdated, but they've survived over a few millennia for good reason: they encourage a playwright to set his story in the one time and place where it must occur, in the perfect dramatic compressor. Without self-imposed constraints, playwrights face mere possibilities. Yet drama is born not from possibility but from necessity.
McKay understands the difference. When he clamps down and pushes everything into a (literally) imprisoned present, his scenes crackle. And as Dan Smith's sterling performance as Okui shows, strong acting can supercharge the most conventional of scenes. Smith's blunted desperation--exactly right for a soldier who has been through hell and back only to face it anew--establishes an emotional ground zero from which everything else resonates.
Nagasaki Dust is a strong piece of theater despite its regular lapses. But if McKay were to stick to his dramatic convictions rather than cater to current theatrical fashion, he might just end up with a great play.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzanne N. Plunkett.