Tea And Empathy: Adventures in Japanese-America / by R. Sheth

March 26, 2004
By Jamil Khoury

Perhaps there is privilege in being the artistic director of a small, not-for-profit theatre company in an era of ever dwindling support for the arts. Certainly not in terms of glamour or financial gain (trust me, there is none), nor in any momentary relief from the exhaustive, all consuming, task intensive labor that characterizes producing a play, but in terms of learning and growth, my job is a gem! Allow me to expound a bit. In the summer of 2002, my life partner, Malik Gillani, and I, founded Silk Road Theatre Project, a Chicago-based theatre company dedicated to showcasing playwrights of Asian, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean backgrounds. Silk Road, in turn, afforded us the privilege of producing the Midwest premiere of "Tea," the award-winning Japanese-American play.

Many Chicago Shimpo readers either saw Tea during it’s successful and critically-acclaimed seven-week run at The Loop Theater (January 14 – February 29, 2004), or are familiar with the play due to the generous coverage it received in this paper. For those not familiar, Tea follows the lives of five Japanese “war brides,” who, along with their American servicemen husbands, were settled by the US military in the seldom-hospitable environs of rural Kansas. Written by Kansas-born Velina Hasu Houston, herself the daughter of a Japanese-American “war bride” and a mixed-blood African-American/Native-American father, the play’s powerful use of language and imagery, and the universality of its message, had us hooked upon the first read. It is a play that speaks quite profoundly about the trials and tribulations of immigrant experience, the challenges posed by assimilation and cultural preservation, and the ways women navigate male-supremacist societies, such as the United States and Japan.

But beyond the play, what was most rewarding about producing "Tea" was getting to know the Japanese-American community. For true to Silk Road’s mission, we sought out the community as a partner, and in particular, the community’s leadership. Early on, we began to discover and differentiate diverse “groupings” within the community(ies). There were Japanese nationals, Japanese ex-patriates, Japanese-born immigrants, and the successive generations of US-born Japanese-Americans, many of whom claim mixed ancestry. The “sliding slopes” of American acculturation and identification with Japan differed greatly within each demographic.

Much to my chagrin, I never did quite sort out the Issei from the Nissei from the Sansei from the Yonsei, not to mention the Kibie and Shin-Issei, but the words and their inter-generational contexts managed to enter my consciousness. Other variables, such as class, gender, geography, and religion, began to further illuminate the contours of the community for me. As, respectively, a second, third, and fourth generation Syrian, Polish, and Slovak-American, I am no stranger to the rich “entanglements” of hyphenated identities, but recognize that markers and meanings tend to differ – sometimes radically – between communities.

To our delight, Japanese and Japanese-Americans were present at nearly every performance. Their presence enriched the overall experience, not only for cast and crew, but for the non-Japanese audience as well. Particularly exciting was our final preview performance on January 16, 2004, which was a benefit for the Japanese-American Service Committee. The entire audience was Japanese-Americans and their friends. In a post-show discussion, Playwright Velina Hasu Houston riveted the audience with “swatches” from the rich tapestry of her life experiences. Often after performances, I would approach Japanese-Americans, eager for their thoughts. Many had been deeply touched by the play, as evidenced by the tears in their eyes. They told me they could relate to the characters, particularly their encounters with racism, their sense of displacement, and the feeling of being trapped between two worlds, and never quite belonging to either. Several Japanese nationals thanked us for illuminating a history that has been largely revised in Japan. One woman recalled being taught in Japan that the “war brides” were all “traitors” and “prostitutes.” "Tea" provided a welcome counter to such depictions, enabling her to associate heroism and dignity with the women’s experiences, and to feel proud that they were Japanese. Needless to say, such responses greatly reinforced the importance of what we at Silk Road Theatre Project are doing.

On a less positive note, Silk Road Theatre Project did receive some anti-Japanese hate mail during the play’s run. The letters assumed us to be Japanese (Jamil and Malik being such quintessentially Japanese names!), and were quite crass and vulgar. I even received a phone call from an irate woman who had received a mailing of ours. She berated me with “you Japanese this” and “you Japanese that,” blaming me for everything from the bombing of Pearl Harbor to the destruction of the US automotive industry! I of course refused to tell her I wasn’t Japanese (nor did I in any way suggest I was), but instead gently walked her through all her animus towards Japanese people. By the end of the phone call, her tone had markedly changed, and she started praising “you Japanese” for being “such hard working people.” “I really admire you guys,” she assured me, and expressed an interest in bringing her friends to come see Tea!

But without question, the most profound, yet emotionally vexing, aspect of the experience was confronting the enormous reservoir of pain that exists within the Japanese-American community. It is a pain coupled with shame and disillusionment, rooted in the memory of forced internment during the second-world war. In many of my conversations with Japanese-Americans, a reference to internment (overt, implied, or otherwise) would “enter the vernacular” within minutes. For some, the experience is the defining episode in Japanese-American identity, for others, an inescapable recurring nightmare.

I had long known that Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast had been hauled into concentration camps set up by the US government. I had long maintained this was an insidious stain on the American narrative and our collective consciousness. But what had long been an issue I could engage intellectually, or employ politically, particularly when arguing against other injustice, suddenly became very real and tangible to me. It was no longer abstract, or merely useful as analogy. I began to actually feel how traumatizing an experience it was and how humiliating a memory it remains. For a community of loyal, tax-paying American citizens to be stripped of their freedom and dignity, and, in many cases, their homes and businesses, then “re-located” to concentration camps in the California desert, because of their ethnicity, is more than just historical anecdote or a helpful teaching tool, it’s a continual day-to-day burden for the survivors and their families. The emotional, material and spiritual toll of the experience is still being tallied, the open wounds continue to inflict hurt and fear, and the erasure of this injustice from mainstream public discourse only magnifies the victims’ sense of marginalization.

In our post- 9/11 world, where talk of resurrecting internment camps on American soil has resurfaced, where the civil liberties of Americans are once again under attack, and where Arab and Muslim-Americans are being singled out for scrutiny and harassment, the Japanese-American experience serves as an important reminder to us all. It is a living testimony to the horror that unfolds when politicians suspend the promise of the US Constitution to placate misguided fears, and to satisfy the xenophobic, reactionary impulses those fears evoke. It is a homegrown warning against the political “expediency” of scapegoating vulnerable populations. I remember feeling extremely grateful after 9/11 for the forthright and powerful statements issued by leaders of the Japanese-American community, often in the press, reminding the American public and our elected officials not to visit upon Arab and Muslim-Americans the same injustice that had been committed against their community. I applaud those Japanese-American leaders for seizing the moral high ground at such a difficult and perilous time.

So therein lies the great privilege of being an artistic director. In producing "Tea," I have been challenged, educated, and humbled. My consciousness has been raised, I’ve made friends in the Japanese-American community, and I’ve had the opportunity to work with one of America’s greatest playwrights. I have long believed in the transformative power of the theatre, and in the theatre’s unique role in creating catharsis. The experience with "Tea" not only affirmed those beliefs, but it has galvanized us to act upon them further.