Not many people would guess that the first Japanese citizen to visit America was a magician in 1866.
When David Hirata discovered that, he had the inspiration for his new solo magic show, The Jap Box. The show blends Japanese American history with Hirata’s brand of magic. It’s playing at the Marsh Theatre in Berkeley through December 1.
“It’s a kind of history of Japanese Americans in America told through magic,” Hirata said to the Mercury News. “We start with Namigoro Sumidagawa and his story and his interaction with Wellington Tobias, which says something about attitudes towards race in America, and weave that with my own personal history as a magician and my interest in the magic of these men. And my own identity as a Japanese American then weaves in the fact of the internment as part of my family history.“
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the show draws a line between Sumidagawa, one of the first Japanese Whites ever saw, to Hirata himself. Sumidagawa magic dazzled audiences in America and magicians in yellow face in the U.S. quickly appropriated it as their own. The Japanese magician used a bottomless box, originally called the Soko-nashi bako, as his main prop. Thus the show’s name, The Jap Box.
It’s not lost on Hirata the risk he took using a racial slur and incorporating it into his show.
“I was extremely nervous when I considered the title,” Hirata said to the Mercury News. “I talked to some Japanese American friends and my family, and they all felt it was fine, because artistically the title works.”
Hirata pays tribute to Sumidagawa, even incorporating one of the later’s bits, the butterfly trick, into the one man show.
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