Tea / by R. Sheth

January 21, 2004
By Jonathan Abarbanel

This smart but didactic play by Velina Hasu Houston rises above its limitations through the impassioned performances of the company, as directed by Lynn Ann Bernatowicz. It’s the second show in two weeks to focus on otherwise-unseen women living in history’s shadows. The first, Through Their Eyes, told of Afghani refugee women. Tea tells of Japanese women who married American servicemen during the post-World War II Occupation, and moved to the United States.

There were 100,000 so-called “war brides” (even though the war was over), and Tea creates a fictionalized platoon of them, respectively married to African-American, Asian-American, Mexican-American, Euro-American and white redneck soldiers; a rainbow platoon of five unseen husbands. Tea is set in 1968. Four of the women gather after the suicide (a very Madama Butterfly opening scene) of the fifth, Himiko Hamilton, who has killed herself after descending into a personal hell. Two years earlier she shot her abusive husband in self-defense, an act soon followed by the rape/murder of her adolescent daughter. Himiko’s emotional instability and acts of violence are not the usual stereotypes of refined, constrained, mannerly, subservient Japanese women. Tea both explores and explodes the stereotypes as it traces the often-unhappy lives of its five women, who gave up country, culture, family, food, language, religion, dress, everything to become Americans, only to face devastating racisim, isolation, intolerance and insecurity here. Tea pulls no punches in showing how dissimilar the women are from each other, thrown together only by common heritage and plight. This is the most original aspect of Tea, and provides the play’s drama as the women struggle to find commonality in the face of the first death within their tiny Japanese-American community. The ghost of Himiko hovers among them seeking expiation.

Tea covers a great deal of territory very quickly, often speaking in pronouncements rather than conversation. “We are here today because we are Japanese,” one states, iterating the obvious. “Our dignity was tied to a tree and left hanging for strangers to spit on” another says rhetorically. Yet some pronouncements hit home: “I wish I would have died in World War II. That was an easier war,” Himiko says.

Despite its occasional turgidity, the 85-minute show ultimately packs an emotional punch. With tea drinking as a metaphor, playwright Houston’s characters—even Himiko’s ghost—achieve satisfying resolution. The five performers—all at least part Asian—rise to the ensemble challenge with intensity and variety: Stephanie Santos, Ann de la Cruz, Kate Garassino, Roxanne Lee and Erika Winters. Richard Schneider’s traditional Japanese theater scenic design serves the purpose, although Japanese theatrical staging conventions are not utilized. Costumer Joanne Witzkowski has a field day with the 1960’s fashions, supplemented by wedding and ceremonial kimonos at telling moments.