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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review|
The music instantly and promisingly puts us right into the world we are about to enter. Before Kate Smith finishes belting out "The Star Spangled Banner"" the melody shifts to a Japanese melody. We're in America -- Junction City, Kansas in the year 1968, where five Japanese women have lived for some twenty years as the wives of American servicemen they met during the American occupation of Japan after World War II.
The woman whose home we've entered, Himiko Hamilton (June Angela), was the most troubled of the "war brides." While she had come to consider herself "as Japanese as corn flakes," she killed her abusive redneck husband when "he laughed at her soy sauce just one time too many." With her beloved daughter also dead, Himiko has committed suicide. Her death has brought four other Japanese-American women ( played by Takayo Fisher, Carol A. Honda, Dian Kobayashi and Diana Tanaka) together to mourn for her over tea. The ceremony of taking tea -- a long-standing Japanese practice designed to bring the tea drinkers in balance with themselves and each other. The women have not been close to each other or to the ghostly Himiko . While they have adjusted to life in America, the pain of the oppression and ridicule resulting from their international unions has kept them at a considerable remove from close friendship which might have contributed toward that harmonious state sought through the ritual of taking tea together.
Unlike the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, this small segment of Japanese-American history is less familiar. With Tea playwright Velina Hasu Houston, herself the daughter of a "war bride" (the Setsuko of the play) who married a half Native American Indian and half black American soldier, has taken an imaginative step in closing that information gap. The reminiscences that surface during this extended tea ceremony give us an often moving insight into these women's lives, their pain of being scorned by people in their old as well as their adopted world. Julianne Boyd has nurtured her play through various productions and it fits well into Barrington Stage's growing list of plays that reflect lives from all stages of the fabric of modern life. As the playwright's love for her mother and the other women she sought out to balance and flesh out her story is evident, so is Ms. Boyd's love for the play.
I wish I could say that the tea ceremony at the Consolati Art Center was a perfectly balanced affair, with enough flavor and steam to send us home with the sense of having experienced a play that has been perfected over the years. Truth to tell, Tea is something of a lukewarm experience, with enough steam to rouse our interest in and sympathy for its characters, but not enough to really get fully involved.
The cast works well as an ensemble, yet with each character allowed her own distinctive personality. Atsuko (Kobayashi), for example, vividly illustrates that even the discriminated against often are not immune to becoming prejudiced. She disdains Chizue's nickname (Chiz) and "hippy" hair style and clothing and insensitively comments on the death of Setsuko's husband with "Negroes don't live very long. The food they eat, you know." Tanaka paints a lively portrait of Chizuye, the most joyous and adaptive of the war brides. Carol A. Honda is particularly good in making the most of the humor during the moments when the women portray their husbands and children. While this role-switching provides all the women with some fine comic moments, its downside is that it interrupts the flow of the play's netherworld atmosphere.
Julianne Boyd's direction is true to the Japanese play sensibility of the script. However, neither she or her set designer have found a way to provide this dramatized tea ceremony the intimacy it needs to make us feel part of it instead of onlookers from afar. This is due in a large measure to the Consolati Art Center's large, elevated stage which at times makes the voices sound hollow and indistinct. Michael Schweikardt's square proscenium (a favorite "look" in the Berkshires this summer) works nicely to represent a Japanese tatami room to the rear of the main set's assemblage of American and Japanese props. However, this five-way memory play would probably have worked better if some of the stage had been closed off to more closely connect audience and actors. The repeated lineups of the ensemble and shifts in viewpoints further add to our sense of emotional disengagement. This may be intentional on the part of the playwright and director ([per one of the women's remark that "it is the Japanese way to carry everything inside") but in the final analysis it makes for less than bracing cup of theatrical tea.
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© Elyse Sommer. July 1999