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History

The History Behind the Drama

compiled by Laura Brueckner

I don’t know what made me do it, but I crawled under the barbed wire and crossed the railroad tracks and walked on the road for awhile. [I] came to a shack just a little bigger than our outhouse back home in Hardwick [California]. The sunlight came in through the cracks in the walls and then I saw that it was a grocery store. [It] was worse than the barracks in the camp. The floor was just dirt…and that’s when I saw the feet. I looked up and there was a Negro man and woman and a little boy and girl. They stared and stared at me. It was scary. […] They were black, so I guess I stared too. I don’t think they ever saw anyone who looks like me either…an Oriental. Funny. We just looked and looked at each other. Then they smiled at me.

—Takayo Tsubouchi Fischer, “I Snuck Out”

Drama in the Delta explores many outcomes of President Roosevelt’s 1942 decision to imprison 120,000 Japanese Americans in internment camps. Most of these camps were located west of the Mississippi. However, two of the camps—Rohwer and Jerome Relocation Centers—were located in post-Confederate Arkansas, making them sites of anti-Japanese segregation within a region already heated with intense racial injustice.

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An African American laborer works with Japanese American inmates at one of the Arkansas camps.

Arkansas at the time was still part of the “Jim Crow” South, which got its name from a character in the period’s racist and massively popular blackface minstrel shows. The “Jim Crow” laws aimed at total segregation of the black population from white culture and spaces, and were in effect from 1877 to the mid-1960s. “Whites Only” drinking fountains and bathrooms were just some of the more obvious markers of a comprehensive legal and social system of unjust and humiliating restrictions placed on African Americans.

Although these two systems of segregation rigidly scripted the interactions between African Americans, white Americans, and Japanese Americans, historical records demonstrate that interracial and intercultural encounters were not patrolled in recreational settings. Live performances, from baseball games and judo tournaments to blues concerts and kabuki theatre, were settings where racially and culturally diverse groups of people could—and did—interact more freely. While many considered these shows, games, and concerts mere “entertainment,” these performances provided an opportunity for meaningful interracial coalitions to form between performers and audiences. These alliances had the potential to undercut official segregation policies.

Anti-Japanese Policies Collide with Black-White Segregation

On February 19, 1942, following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor (and the calculated stoking of massive anti-Japanese sentiment in the United States) President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, “Authorizing the Secretary of War to Prescribe Military Areas.” Executive Order 9066 stated that military commanders could designate any place in the United States a theatre of war and exclude any and all persons seen as potential espionage or sabotage threats. Roosevelt’s order also gave the U.S. military the authority to evacuate and transport these excluded people to “other accommodations as may be necessary.” Despite such general language, the order was targeted at one ethnic group in particular, and resulted in the evacuation of all individuals of Japanese descent from the West Coast and their transport to inland relocation centers.

However, Roosevelt authorized this containment of approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans before determining the logistics of their imprisonment, so in the months that followed, the federal government approached a number of state governments to provide possible detention sites for this unprecedented mass internment of civilians.

Although he protested the decision, Arkansas governor Homer Adkins had no choice but to allow the construction of two barbed-wire-enclosed camps in the severely impoverished southeastern corner of his state known as the Delta. Adkins agreed to this only under the express condition that none of the Japanese internees be allowed to settle in Arkansas after the war, where they might permanently disrupt the South’s racial segregation. As a result of these negotiations, the U.S. War Relocation Authority (WRA) imprisoned more than 15,000 American citizens and long-time residents in the new Rohwer and Jerome Relocation Centers built for this purpose in the Arkansas Delta.

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Trucks carrying internee belongings enter the Rohwer Relocation Center, showing the railroad that bisected the entrance.

Linked by 30 miles of railway line, Rohwer and Jerome became the fifth and sixth largest cities in Arkansas in a matter of weeks. They were unique among the WRA camps in that they imprisoned not only Japanese Americans who were evacuated from California, but also the highest percentage from Hawai‘i, which did not implement mass internment like the mainland. In addition, many internees destined for Arkansas had come from metropolitan areas like Los Angeles, although over half of the adults had been farmers. In other words, this large group of newcomers represented a very different demographic than that of the surrounding Arkansas Delta, a population of impoverished sharecroppers in a charged black-white racial economy.

Rohwer and Jerome were also unique because they were the only WRA camps located in a former Confederate state, where the notorious “Jim Crow” laws held particular sway. They were therefore the only sites at which anti-Japanese segregation occurred within a culture of massive official black-white segregation. Even before the full camp populations had been transferred there, the reputation of the Arkansas camps had spread among Japanese Americans. As former internee Daisuke Kitagawa remembers, “No one, irrespective of where he were originally from, wanted to be sent to the two Arkansas camps, Jerome and Rohwer. The fact that those camps were located south of the Mason-Dixon Line made them unpopular, and there were all kinds of rumor rampant about them.”

Imprisonment and Performance

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Girls’ Kabuki performance of Nozaki Mura, Rohwer camp, 21 October 1944.

The internees had many reasons for fear and anxiety. They had all endured forced evacuation from their homes and confiscation of their property and businesses, followed by long journeys to makeshift prisons. Participation in Kabuki dance-drama became one of the most popular survival mechanisms for Japanese Americans unlucky enough to end up both behind the barbed wire of a camp and south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Some Issei (first-generation Japanese immigrants) still remembered Kabuki as a melodramatic theatre for the Japanese masses. The genre came of age in their homeland at roughly the same time that William Shakespeare was producing his plays in England; both featured all-male casts of performers (thus female impersonators) and, like Shakespeare’s theatrical heirs, kabuki performance continues to the present day. Kabuki, then, had the potential to provide internees a way to revive and celebrate common cultural traditions even while in prison. Whether as a coach, director, performer, or audience member, participating in Kabuki performance also became a way of talking back to an essentialized notion of Japanese culture, as this traditionally all-male theatrical form was often performed by highly Americanized Nisei (second-generation Japanese American) girls in the Rohwer and Jerome camps.

The internees also felt intense pressure to demonstrate their loyalty to the U.S. while imprisoned, hoping that this would result in release from the camps. Many—especially young Nisei—expressed their patriotism through all-American styles of performance: beauty pageants, baseball games, plays in English, and even productions of the blackface minstrelsy still so popular in the American South. These expressions of Americanness sometimes resulted in syncretic performance festivals that combined traditional Japanese cultural elements with the aesthetics of popular American entertainment.

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Schoolchildren’s Fourth of July pageant at one of the Arkansas camps, circa 1943–44.

Performance, then, was an important cultural survival tool used by many internees. The Issei brought their traditional performance repertoire with them to Rohwer and Jerome, and the Nisei regularly employed their knowledge of American-style performances, sharing and melding these different practices. In Arkansas, however, they encountered another level of bias to negotiate: the largely unquestioned racial hierarchy governing black-white relations in the South. Here also, many internees met African Americans—most for the first time, as Takayo Tsubouchi Fischer describes in the epigraph.

African American Performance Culture in the Delta

As the Japanese disappeared, soundlessly and without protest, the Negroes entered with their loud jukeboxes, their just-released animosities and the relief of escape from Southern bonds. The Japanese area became San Francisco’s Harlem in a matter of months. A person unaware of all the factors that make up oppression might have expected sympathy or even support from the Negro newcomers for the dislodged Japanese. Especially in view of the fact that they (the Blacks) had themselves undergone concentration camp living for centuries in slavery’s plantations and later in sharecroppers’ cabins. But the sensations of common relationship were missing.

—Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Though the epigraph above refers to the evacuation of Japanese Americans from the Fillmore District of San Francisco, Angelou’s observation can also be applied to other venues. Common experiences of race-based mistreatment and legal discrimination did not automatically engender feelings of fellowship between the African Americans already living in the racially charged Arkansas Delta and the Japanese Americans incarcerated in the local Rohwer and Jerome camps.

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An African American laborer loading a train car at one of the Arkansas camps.

Life was already hard for African Americans living under Jim Crow. Lack of education and capital had forced most into working as sharecroppers, with unfair contracts condemning them to the same backbreaking labor for the same white plantation owners who had once shackled and abused them or their parents under slavery. At the end of a harvest, despite hard work and abundant crop yields, many black sharecroppers found themselves actually owing money to the white landowners. With the courts favoring whites in any dispute, African Americans who objected to the terms of their “employment” had only one choice – cutting their losses and moving on. By the late 1890s to early 1900s, the poverty, deprivation, and injustice experienced by generations of these Americans had given rise to its own artistic expression – the Blues.

Blues music began to enter the mainstream in 1941, with the broadcast of a radio show called “King Biscuit Time” in Helena, Arkansas. Named after its sponsor, a baking flour manufacturer, King Biscuit Time introduced Delta Blues musicians like Sonny Boy Robinson, Robert Junior Lockwood, and Pinetop Perkins to a broad listening public for the first time. Though there were African Americans and others who did not approve of its suggestive rhythms or its frank lyrics about the pains—and pleasures—of life, Blues laid the foundations for almost all other later genres of American music. In the Arkansas Delta, attending live performances of Blues music became a popular activity for all Americans—including Japanese Americans who found themselves in the South for the war.

Drama in the Delta: The Game

Drama in the Delta will recreate both Rohwer and Jerome prison sites as they existed in 1944, as well as locales around the Delta, cityscapes of Little Rock, and the segregated military training facility at Camp Shelby in nearby Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Each of these historic sites served as a venue for important, subversive interracial performances that circumvented the official dynamic of race relations.

The aim of Drama in the Delta is for players to explore an interactive three-dimensional model of key historic sites from the WWII Arkansas Delta from the perspective of a diverse cast of historically inspired avatars. Players will have the opportunity to experience and resist the systems of racial segregation that governed home-front life when black-white “Jim Crow” laws intersected with U.S. anti-Japanese policies. Whether performing one of the game missions or watching a show, players will develop a dynamic and complex understanding of this important chapter from our nation’s history.

For Further Exploration

Anderson, William G. “Early Reaction in Arkansas to the Relocation of Japanese in the State.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 23 (Autumn 1964): 196-211.

Bearden, Russell E. “The False Rumor of Tuesday: Arkansas’s Internment of Japanese-Americans.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 41 (Winter 1982): 327-39.

Bearden, Russell E. “Life Inside Arkansas’s Japanese American Relocation Centers.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 47 (Summer 1989): 170-96.

Howard, John. Concentration Camps on the Home Front: Japanese Americans in the House of Jim Crow. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Life Interrupted: The Japanese American Experience in WWII Arkansas. Ed. Johanna Miller Lewis. Public History Program, University of Arkansas at Little Rock. <http://ualr.edu/lifeinterrupted/>

Roxworthy, Emily. “Nisei Girls’ Kabuki in Wartime Arkansas: Cultural Segregation and Cross-Dressing at Rohwer and Jerome,” Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory 20.2 (July/August 2010): 185-203. <http://www.womenandperformance.org/>

Ward, Jason Morgan. “‘No Jap Crow’: Japanese Americans Encounter the World War II South.” Journal of Southern History 73 (February 2007): 75-104.

Williams, Sue, dir. Time of Fear. PBS Home Video, 2005.

Yumiba, Carole Katsuko. “An Educational History of the War Relocation Centers at Jerome and Rohwer, Arkansas, 1942-1945.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 69 (Summer 1989): 169-96.

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