Women On Outside Looking In / by R. Sheth

Women On Outside Looking In

January 8, 2004

In ancient Greece and Rome, as well as in many other societies, exile was considered a form of punishment every bit as severe as death. It also was the fate of some of drama's most tragic characters -- from Oedipus and Medea to Aida and Hamlet.

These days, exile -- which comes in many forms, and is sometimes even self-imposed -- remains every bit as troubling and complex a state of existence as in earlier times. And two modern dramas about the state of modern women living outside the societies of their birth are now headed for Chicago stages.

Opening tonight at the Storefront Theater is "Behind Their Eyes: Stories of Afghan Women Alive and Among Us," presented by Nebraska's Angel Theatre Company in collaboration with several Chicago artists. Opening Jan. 17 at the Loop Theater is Velina Hasu Houston's "Tea" -- a production of the Silk Road Project, a Chicago theater dedicated to the work of Asian, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean writers. "Tea" evokes the lives of Japanese women who arrived in this country after World War II, most often as the wives of GIs. Here's a closer look...


In Velina Hasu Houston's play, "Tea," four Japanese immigrant women who live in Kansas come together to perform a ritual act -- the cleaning and packing up of a dead woman's household. Usually, such a task is undertaken by the relatives of the deceased. But here the responsibility is assumed under unusual circumstances, and in the process of carrying it out, the women's own lives are altered.

Houston's story was loosely inspired by the life of her own mother, and her mother's friends. Born in Japan, Houston is the daughter of a Japanese woman and a half Blackfoot Indian/half African-American serviceman. The two met in Japan in 1946, in the wake of World War II, and later settled at the military base in Ft. Riley, Kan. There, they were part of a community that included many other Japanese brides, as well as Italian, German and French women who had relocated after marrying Americans. Together they formed an unusual enclave within a larger, more established agricultural community of mostly Irish- and German-American families.

"I remember, as an adolescent, listening to the stories of my mother and her friends and being fascinated by them," said Houston, whose play, "Tea," is to be directed in Chicago by Lynn Anne Bernatowicz (who recently did a superb job with the Goodman Theatre revival of Edward Albee's "The Zoo Story"). First staged at New York's Manhattan Theatre Club in 1987, "Tea" has subsequently been staged throughout the United States and Japan.

"I think I understood these women because I was experiencing identity problems of my own," said the writer. "In a sense, we were all going through culture shock together, with different communities and different generations seeing how they could fit in. And there were tragic as well as comic aspects to it."

"We were dubbed an 'international community' in Kansas, with immigrant mothers, and strange food in our lunchboxes, and different customs at home. And in some way all this was even more pronounced in my family because my father, who adored my mother, always felt a bit guilty for taking her out of her culture, so he tried very hard to make our house a kind of Japanese sanctuary for her."

When Houston finally sat down to write the stories of these Japanese women, she gained an even greater respect for their journeys, "these young brides with very shaky English who were trying to make a place for themselves in the American heartland." She also remembered the woman who inspired the tragic figure at the center of "Tea" -- a woman some called "crazy" because even on sweltering summer days she would walk down the street in an overcoat.

"In fact, she was just a very delicate person with an abusive husband who had five children, and who became something of a pariah in the community after one of them died in an accident. My mother sympathized with her and would invite her to tea, though none of my mother's friends would come when she was there. This woman ultimately committed suicide."

Houston, a professor at the University of Southern California's School of Theatre, and the author of many other plays and books, interviewed 48 women throughout Kansas to gather material for her play.

"Initially, many of them did not want to be taped, and told their stories only very hesitantly. But as they spoke -- revealing things they'd never even told their own children -- all the pain and laughter just began spilling out."