Velina Hasu Houston's political play "Tea," about the post-World War II resettlement of Japanese war brides and their American husbands offers an occasionally disturbing glimpse into American policy. Performed by the Asian-American Association Players at the Agassiz Theater last weekend, "Tea" could have made its point more strongly. But its tameness allows it to be comfortably entertaining, and it does have its comic moments.
Set in Junction Town, Kansas, which is referred to bitterly by Himiko Hamilton (Haewon Huang) as a "hick town," the play revolves around a tea ceremony attended by four Japanese war brides (five, if you include one who is there in spirit, quite literally). The action takes place almost entirely in the home of Himiko, who has just died. Through the differing reactions of the characters to the significance of tea, Houston reveals the life stories of each them.
As if to remind the audience that the play is about the clash between the East and the West, Houston begins with a rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner," which cuts into "Sakura," a Japanese folk song. The stylized quality of the prelude, almost like a traditional Japanese drama, is alternately interesting and trite. Using brief statements, each of the women introduces herself to the audience. But the traits of the characters which be prelude conveys would be obvious in any case. And the inclusion of some really banal lines does not help. [Of tea] "We Japanese women drink a lot of it... Become it... Swallow the tempest... And nobody knows... The storm inside." One can only express these sentiments so many times after Oliver Stone's movie. "The Joy Luck Club," before they start sounding simply silly.
Thankfully, the rest of the play does not follow in the vein of its overly trite prelude. By alternating scenes in which the characters interact with each other or address the audience, Houston creates a finely woven story of some hapless Japanese women trapped in America.
Huang puts in a very strong performance as Himiko, who, though technically dead, is caught in a limbo between this world and the next. As the tragic Himiko, who is trying to come to terms with her new life, her abusive husband and her daughter, she is convincing. She captures the almost schizophrenic character effortlessly and without melodrama. One carp: the foot stamping -- once, twice, and yes, it's very effective, but once with every exit, it's distracting.
Then we have Atsuko Yamamoto (Joan Cheng), a snobbish prude who stubbornly clutches to her Japanese roots and refuses to acknowledge that her Japanese-American husband has completely forgotten his cultural heritage. Cheng fleshes out the part to perfection. She is delightfully funny when she plays out the bitchy side of Atsuko.
As the almost hippie-like Chizuye Juarez (or "Chiz" as she chooses to call herself), Sarah Song successfully serves as a counterpoint to the bourgeois Atsuko.
The other two characters, Setsuko Banks (Dori Takata) and Teruko Mackenzie (Laurie Tanaka), are less colorful but the players nevertheless made their lines count. Punchlines are well delivered and convey the ingenuousness of their characters for the greatest impact.
The spartan and unfussy set, with the large scroll paintings of sunflowers (by Cynthia Soto), and simple tea table and cushions, provided an effective backdrop for the play. Having and open stage allows smooth transitions between the naturalistic scenes among the women and the more stylized ones in which they address the audience directly.
Director Ong Ker Shing has certainly done a fine job of bringing out the most endearing qualities of the characters in the play. Marco Simons capably coordinates the lights so that the attention of the audience is always fixed on the characters.
Though the play is certainly not as relaxing as your everyday cup of tea (as its title suggests), it is funny and does what it sets out to do--educate, enlighten, and entertain.