From page to stage: Theatre Calgary mounts play based on Medicine Hat man's memoir

Yoshie Bancroft, left, plays Mitsue Sakamoto, and Kevin Takahide Lee is Hideo Sakamoto, in Forgiveness. (Moonrider Productions - image credit)
Yoshie Bancroft, left, plays Mitsue Sakamoto, and Kevin Takahide Lee is Hideo Sakamoto, in Forgiveness. (Moonrider Productions - image credit)

When Mark Sakamoto signed over the rights to his memoir, Forgiveness: A Gift From My Grandparents, he said he didn't want to get too entrenched in the process of turning it into a stage play.

He wanted to see the artistry of the theatrical production unfold in front of him.

And as it was staged in Vancouver earlier this year, he said it was surreal.

"To be sitting beside my father and watch a character that is my father walk onto the stage. To look down the aisle and see generations of Sakamotos and MacLeans looking at generations past of Sakamotos and MacLeans was a moment that I don't think I was prepared for, and kind of couldn't be prepared for," he said in an interview on the Calgary Eyeopener.

Mark Sakamoto's memoir was published in 2014. It explores the stories of two of his grandparents caught up in the events of the Second World War.

His maternal grandfather, Ralph MacLean, volunteered to serve overseas and wound up captured by the Japanese army. His paternal grandmother, Mitsue Sakamoto, was forced from her family home in Vancouver and sent to an internment camp in Alberta. Years later, their children would meet.

"That's why I'm sitting here beside you," Sakamoto said.

Moonrider Productions
Moonrider Productions

The book won the Canada Reads prize in 2018. Shortly after, Theatre Calgary artistic director Stafford Arima said the idea for a theatrical production — a co-production with the Arts Club Theatre Company in Vancouver — took form.

"The story of Forgiveness takes place in Canada, but very specifically, in Calgary, Alberta, Medicine Hat, Lethbridge and Vancouver," Arima said.

"It is a Canadian story, and because the main characters lived and breathed in Alberta and in British Columbia, it just felt fitting for us to co-commission this work so that both of our theatres … could experience this spectacle and epic play about a time of Canadian history."

The production had a short run in Vancouver at the beginning of 2023 before being tweaked for its showing in Calgary.

It runs from March 7 to April 1 in the Max Bell Theatre at Arts Commons. The official opening night is March 10.

Hiro Kanagawa, the playwright behind the production, said they've taken everything they learned from the Vancouver run to make the play even better.

"All of the changes that we made are just working beautifully and have improved the show tremendously," he said.

"With the play, every time you put it on, it's a whole new thing."

Transforming a memoir

Kanagawa had the task of taking the memoir and transforming it for the stage. He wrote the first complete draft at the Banff Centre, and its first reading was at the Medicine Hat Public Library.

With the memoir's many characters and locations, Kanagawa said he needed to find a starting point where all of the story's events would begin.

"I came to the notion that that central hub could be the dinner where Ralph and Mitsue meet for the first time, that kind of gave me a structure that I could work with," he said.

Moonrider Productions
Moonrider Productions

The story begins and ends in 1968, before the writer, Sakamoto, is born.

Sakamoto said he's excited for audiences to meet his grandparents through the show.

"It's a story of how they were pushed down, but more importantly, how they got up and how they refused to lose their human dignity over the course of these injurious years," he said.

LISTEN | Mark Sakamoto describes memorable moments from the production:

The content of the production is personal to Arima, who said his father and other family members were also interned during the Second World War.

He said thinking of the many Canadians sent to the camps shows why a story like Forgiveness is important to tell.

"We don't want this to happen again. We don't want this idea of xenophobia and perhaps the fear of the other to move us into a place where we repeat history in any way."

For Kanagawa, that sentiment has become all the more relevant throughout the creation of the production.

They started before the pandemic began. Kanagawa said they watched as anti-Asian hate incidents rose.

"Ralph, at the hands of the Japanese, and Mitsue, at the hands of the Canadian government … suffered tremendous atrocities and racism," he said.

"To rise above and ultimately to find the grace and kindness in their hearts to forgive, I think that is a very important message for the times that we live in today."