CATS’ “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” is a ‘must-see’ local production

We thoroughly enjoyed the debut of CATS’ production of “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” at the historic Nevada Theatre in Nevada City. On stage from April to May 9, it is a “must see” local production and one of CATS’ best efforts in its 21-year history.

“Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” is based on Jamie Ford’s best-selling book about the love and friendship between Henry Lee, a Chinese American boy, and Keiko Okabe, a Japanese American girl, during the internment in World War II.

CATS’ production — the California premier of this show — is entertaining, dramatic and educational all at once, with some poignant scenes (Henry and Keiko sharing their first kiss through a barbed-wire fence, or Japanese Americans being marched to internment camps — in this case, down the aisles of the theater).

We, along with our teenage son, were captivated throughout. The play also is “right-sized” for the Nevada Theatre, which offers an intimate setting for the scenes. The music helps set the mood for the era.

The acting is memorable with characters such Henry (Kevin Lin), Keiko (Lyra Dominguez), Sheldon (Michael Lewis) and his saxophone; Mr. Lee (Hock G. Tjoa), Mrs. Beatty (Carol Menaker) and Chaz (Ben Hedenland), among others.

We get a glimpse at a romantic relationship (Henry and Keiko), an emerging friendship (Henry and Sheldon); and the multigenerational friction that can define a father-son relationship (Henry and Mr. Lee).

We also are educated about the internment of the Japanese Americans during World War II — a shameful period of U.S. history, as we discussed in our winter issue. (Manzanar, at the base of the Sierra in the Owens Valley, was one of the camps; it was photographed by Ansel Adams in 1943).

We experience the racism that persisted in the era, illustrated by Chaz’ bullying and name calling of Henry and Keiko in school, for example.

“It is a very important piece of history that is sometimes overlooked and forgotten, but something that must be told and experienced and remembered,” writes director Annie Lareau, who is working with Community Asian Theatre of the Sierra for the first time.

“I had the great pleasure of reading the book many years ago, and soon after, I found myself quickly on a journey to obtain the rights of the novel to make it into a play for Book-It-Repertory Theatre of Seattle.”

Annie recently returned from making her directional debut at the Kennedy Center for the Arts in Washington, D.C., with the one-man Science comedy show, Doktor Kaboom: Live Wire to sold-out houses.

Entertaining and educational

“Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” is historical fiction. Henry Lee’s memory takes him from 1980s Seattle to his childhood as a Chinese American student in an exclusive all-white school in the 1940s. Isolated and bullied, Henry finds comfort in the unlikely figure Keiko Okabe, a Japanese student.

Because of the Japanese invasion of China, Henry’s father forbids their friendship, and despite increasing hardship, the friendship becomes a budding romance — only to be cut short by the Japanese evacuation and internment of Keiko’s family during World War II.

Forty years and a lifetime later, newly a widower, Henry struggles to bridge the gap between his Chinese father and his American son, between America past and present, and finally between the girl he loved and the woman who can finally give him peace.

“Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” was first commissioned, produced and developed in the “Book-It Style” by Book-It Repertory Theatre of Seattle. The “Book-It Style” transforms literary works into theatrical productions. CATS’ 2010 Elly Award winner, “Snow Falling on Cedars,” was performed in the “Book-It Style.”

CATS is also know for its cultural enrichment programs. It is offering an overnight trip to Manzanar on July 18-19 to help deepen the experience of the production. Author Jamie Ford will attend a performance on April 25, speak to the audience and sign his book.

An exhibit about World War II, emphasizing the War in the Pacific, is on display at the Eric Rood Government Center in Nevada City.

The California Museum in Sacramento also has an exhibit that explores a century of Japanese-American history in California through the personal stories of formerly interned Californians.

We have read the book “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet,” and seen both exhibits, and we would recommend them too.

(Photo: CATS)

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