‘Desert Rock Garden’ to look at internment camp experience from a fresh perspective

Chloris Li, left, and Lane Nishikawa in New Village Arts' "Desert Rock Garden."
(Daren Scott)

New Village Arts Theatre is presenting the world premiere of this play by Japanese-American playwright Roy Sekigahama


Last fall, San Diego playwright Roy Sekigahama took a research trip to Delta, Utah, to visit a place many Americans may not know as well as they should, the Topaz War Relocation Center.

During World War II, Sekigahama’s parents, aunts and uncles were interned at Topaz with thousands of other Japanese Americans under Executive Order 9066. Enacted two months after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the federal order authorized the relocation of 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent on the West Coast to barren camps like Topaz for the duration of the war.

“Before I went, I thought all of this happened 80 years ago, but when I was there, I realized there are issues coming up right now that are really relevant,” said Sekigahama, a retired stock market researcher who lives in Hillcrest.

Playwright Roy Sekigahama photographed last June at the Japanese Friendship Garden in Balboa Park.
(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Saturday, Feb. 19 marks the 80th anniversary of Order 9066. It also marks opening night for the world premiere of Sekigahama’s play, “Desert Rock Garden,” a story of hope that blooms between a 12-year-old orphaned girl and a lonely 72-year-old man in the Topaz camp in 1943. Sekigahama said he hopes the play, which was commissioned by New Village Arts Theatre in Carlsbad, sheds light on a dark chapter of America’s history while also highlighting the resilience of the internees.

Sekigahama said his father and other family members, who were Northern California strawberry farmers, didn’t dwell on their painful experiences from the camp because they couldn’t change the past. Instead they moved forward to make new memories, which he said is the Japanese way. As a result, when he wrote his play, he didn’t want to dwell on the racism or politics of internment. He wanted to focus on how people adapted to their circumstances and persevered.

The play is being directed by Ari Cervas, who is a co-founder of San Diego’s MaArte Theatre Collective, a Filipinx theater ensemble, and a stage director who specializes in working with emerging playwrights on new plays.

“I’m interested in plays that feel deeply connected to community and feel immediately relevant to the communities they’re being shared with. This play checked all the boxes,” Cervas said.

Cervas said members of the Japanese American Citizens League have consulted on the project and attended rehearsals to offer insights and ideas for honoring the experiences of internees. As part of this production, several educational lobby displays are being designed to better inform ticket-buyers about the history of the camps.

Lane Nishikawa, left, and Chloris Li in New Village Arts' "Desert Rock Garden."
(Daren Scott)

Cervas said Sekigahama’s play is unique in how it addresses the internment story from a hopeful perspective. In the Topaz camp, the orphaned Penny and elderly “Fuzzy” come together as Fuzzy is transforming a corner of the desert camp into a Japanese-style Zen garden with raked sand, rocks and other features. In that space, Cervas said they find “safety inside circumstances that are not safe.”

“Plays that are about horrific historical moment tend to focus on suffering, but I think there’s something really special and refreshing about Roy’s script,” Cervas said. “Yes, it’s happening during a heartbreaking, painful time, but it’s not about the suffering of the people who experienced it. It’s about the way they’re able to be resilient throughout those circumstance and choose joy and to continue to laugh and make their world a safer and better place.”

The role of Fuzzy is being played by Lane Nishikawa, a Japanese American actor, playwright and filmmaker whose 2019 documentary “Our Lost Years” examined internment history and the internees’ 10-year fight for redress and reparations. His family lived in Hawaii during the war and all of them were placed into camps.

‘Desert Rock Garden’

When: Opens Saturday, Feb. 19 and runs through March 13. Showtimes, 7:30 p.m. Thursdays. 8 p.m. Fridays. 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays. 2 p.m. Sundays. Plus some additional performances on weekdays.

Where: New Village Arts, 2787 State St., Carlsbad

Tickets: $23 and up

Phone: (760) 433-3245