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STAGE REVIEW : ‘Tea’ and Empathy : Velina Hasu Houston’s Heartfelt Stories of Japanese War Brides

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Five Japanese women are thrust into deepest Kansas, alongside their GI husbands, shortly after World War II. They’re supposed to become a part of the great American melting pot.

But when one of them shoots herself, the others are drawn to the traditional Japanese teapot.

Velina Hasu Houston’s “Tea,” at the Odyssey Theatre in West Los Angeles, is an impassioned and impressionistic look at these women and, by extension, at some of the implications of one of today’s trendiest buzzwords: “multiculturalism.” Although her play is set in Kansas nearly 30 years ago, Houston’s concerns are equally those of Los Angeles in 1991.

These are women who are truly torn. Attracted to America by young love and by the self-confidence of the victorious young nation, they had no idea of how stranded and unhappy they would feel in the Great Plains, where their husbands are assigned at Ft. Riley. That national self-confidence now feels like a choking insularity.

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Houston’s play immediately places us at a flash point of the cross-cultural despair. In the opening scene, one of the women, Himiko Hamilton (Gerrielani Miyazaki), commits suicide--and we quickly learn that she has already shot her husband.

Himiko’s problems were not caused by cultural dislocation. Her family history, even in Japan, is tragic. But her isolation in Kansas left her with few escape routes.

The other women gather in Himiko’s house for a ceremonial tea--and because they urgently need to talk about their common experiences, in the wake of Himiko’s death. The rest of the play is structured around that talk, which is overseen by the spirit of Himiko. But the conversation is broken up by brilliant scenes in which the women play their younger selves in Japan and Kansas, as well as their husbands and their children.

They haven’t talked like this before, because at least some of them don’t like each other much. Their common bond is threatened by the differences among them. Houston is careful to respect the individuality of each character along with their cultural links.

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One of the characters, Setsuko (Takayo Fischer), is based on Houston’s own mother. Married to an African-American, Setsuko’s wrenching departure from Japan was the subject of Houston’s “Asa Ga Kimashita,” seen at East West Players in 1984. Another Houston play, “American Dreams,” read at L.A. Theatre Works last Thursday, also touches on Setsuko’s experience. Some enterprising theater should stage these in repertory.

But Setsuko is perhaps the least vivid of the characters in “Tea.” Most of the friction is between Atsuko (Shuko Akune), who married a Japanese-American, and Chizuye (Diana Tanaka), whose Mexican-American husband died shortly after her arrival in the United States. Partly out of necessity, partly out of personality, Chizuye has become more Americanized than the others, and Atsuko--the head of the local Buddhist chapter--resents her for it. There is a strain of bigotry in Atsuko, but there is also a cynicism arising from cultural loss in Chizuye.

The nervous intermediary between Atsuko and Chizuye is Teruko (Lily Mariye). Mariye enacts the most startling sea change in the play, when we see her playing Teruko’s husband and “sugar pie” with an enormous Texas drawl during the funniest flashback.

Yet all of the actresses do wonders, especially considering they haven’t much time to tell their individual stories. Houston compresses a lot into one intermissionless act, evoking with lyric imagery what might take too long to tell in a more naturalistic style. Occasionally, the language may sound rushed or overwrought. But generally, these actresses and director Julianne Boyd, repeating the work they did at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre in 1988, bring the women into our hearts and minds with equal clarity.

Set designer Craig E. Lathrop framed vistas of unending Kansas fields on the walls, then picked up the same straw color for the tatami where the women take tea, placing the tatami over some all-American black linoleum. C. L. Hundley designed quickly assembled kimonos to accompany Bella Arguetty’s carefully chosen American outfits, and J. Kent Inasy lit the stage in a style befitting the spirit of the dead Himiko.

‘Tea’

Gerrielani Miyazaki: Himiko Hamilton

Takayo Fischer: Setsuko Banks

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Lily Mariye: Teruko Mackenzie

Shuko Akune: Atsuko Yamamoto

Diana Tanaka: Chizuye Juarez

By Velina Hasu Houston. Directed by Julianne Boyd. Sets Craig E. Lathrop. Lights J. Kent Inasy. Costumes Bella Arguetty. Kimonos C. L. Hundley. Sound Bruce Ellman.


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