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‘Woman Warrior’ Unveils Four Generations of Japanese American History in Illinois

Left, Komachi Sasaki holds her granddaughter Connie Shirakawa. Right, Shirakawa is pictured as an adult. After a career writing advertising copy, she now performs as a storyteller.

URBANA —The Spurlock Museum in Urbana will host a one-woman show on December 2, following its successful run in Chicago. This performance delves into the Japanese-American experience in Illinois, spanning four generations.

Connie Shirakawa, the creator and performer of ‘Woman Warrior,’ initially believed she had no stories to share. However, as she delved into the writing process, she discovered a wealth of untold narratives, realizing that her initial assumption might have been far from the truth.

“Once you start, it’s almost a flood — a cathartic experience — and you remember things,” Shirakawa said. “It’s kind of like therapy.”

Her parents met in an internment camp in Arkansas after being forced to leave their homes in California. Once they were released, because they weren’t allowed to return to the West Coast, they moved to the west side of Chicago. 

Shirakawa and her brother didn’t really know much about what their parents went through. They only caught glimpses of their past in small things, like an old army blanket they had.

Komachi Sasaki was the grandmother of Connie Shirakawa. She’s one of the family members who’s lives Shirakawa reflects on in her show “Woman Warrior.” Photo courtesy Connie Shirakawa

Now, she wants to emphasize the importance of young Japanese Americans learning more about their own history from their elders before they pass on.

“You do not know where you belong until you figure out who you are,” Shirakawa said.

For Sharon Evans, the director of the project, this story highlights the ongoing need for change in the United States, especially in how we understand and teach about discrimination in American history.

“It’s important for these stories to be told and remembered, because there’s a lot of political stuff happening all the time about ‘the other,’ and we’re seeing it play out now,” Evans said. “So let’s all examine this. Let’s look to history.”

While the piece has funny moments, Shirakawa doesn’t shy away from the serious themes, she said.

“We want to keep aspects of it light, but we’re not afraid to go deep,” Evans said. “Because we respect our audiences. They’re intelligent.”

The performance is happening in conjunction with the museum’s Nikkeijin Illinois exhibit, which closes on Dec. 10. Following the show, exhibit curator Jason Finkelman will lead a discussion.

“Woman Warrior” starts at 3:00 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 2, in the Spurlock Museum’s Knight Auditorium.

Owen Henderson

Owen Henderson

Owen Henderson covers arts and culture, as well as LGBTQ issues for Illinois Public Media News. He studied journalism, Spanish and theater at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and has worked with Illinois Public Media in various capacities since 2021.

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