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After Pearl Harbor, Mixed-Race Couple Cruises Toward Uncertainty In ‘White To Gray’

Fox Smith and Ben Nordstrom star in White to Gray.
John Lamb

Forty-eight hours after the ocean liner S.S. Lurline left Honolulu for San Francisco, the sun rose on “a day that will live in infamy.” In a new drama based on this real-life voyage that began two days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, a young couple is caught in the crossfire.

St. Louis playwright Rob Maesaka was riveted when he learned about the ship navigating the Pacific during the attack that prompted the U.S. to join World War II. The historic rendering in “Pearl Harbor Ghosts” by Thurson Clarke read “like an Agatha Christie mystery,” he said.

According to the book, tension grew and tempers flared as the news began to reach the high-seas travelers. “They didn’t know if there were Japanese subs in the water, waiting for them,” Maesaka said. “They didn’t know if there were spies on the boat leaving Hawaii because they knew the attack was going to happen.”

Years later, Maesaka wondered: “Wouldn’t it be interesting to have an interracial relationship established and formalized right before the attack happened?”

The result of that idea is Maesaka’s original play “White to Gray,” which St. Louis' Mustard Seed Theatre debuts Friday night.

From Romance to Revenge

In “White to Gray,” actor Ben Nordstrom plays a young white American named Peter. Fox Smith plays Sumiko, his Japanese-American girlfriend. Act One portrays a happy time of blossoming romance and setting sail for adventure. But in Act Two, suspicion and fear grip the passengers. Japanese-Americans who are on board are regarded with hostility.

“There's a character who’s interviewing one of them, and says, 'The president of the U.S. and the rest of America, we don’t trust you people. We’re disgusted to be in the same room with you,’” Maesaka said.

Rob Maesake
Credit Provided by Mustard Seed Theatre
Rob Maesaka

The subsequent internment of Japanese-Americans during the war is a well-documented stain on the pages of American history. Maesaka's own family, who hails from Hawaii, experienced discrimination of their own.

"White to Gray" also explores a dilemma faced by some Caucasian Americans, through the character of Peter. Should he stay true to his country — or his beloved?

The play's themes resonate in St. Louis, especially today, Maesakasaid. Families and friends are split by their reactions to the August shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown by then-Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. The entire country has been rocked by the ripple effect that's inspired both activism and powerful pushback.

“That kind of anger and frustration and hate, when it’s embedded in something having to do with race, really hits an emotional core with people,” Maesaka said.

Maesake was recently moved by another local play based on a 1967 film that also explores racial issues. The Rep’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” is the classic tale of two families struggling with their children’s interracial romance.

‘Yes, it’s a story from the ‘60s," Maesaka said. "But it’s amazing how the play-version really hits a pretty tender nerve, particularly right now."

Read more about Maesak's own personal journey regarding “White to Gray,” on the Mustard Seed website blog.

‘White to Gray’ presented by Mustard Seed Theatre

Where: Fontbonne University Theatre, 6800 Wydown Blvd., 63105    

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, Feb. 6-22

How much: $30/general; $25 student, seniors. Pay with a can/what you can Feb. 12 and 19

Tickets/Information: Mustard Seed website  

Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL   

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.

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