Tea a Rich Brew of Postwar Cultural Conflict / by R. Sheth

January 20, 2004
By Hedy Weiss

Collectively, they were dubbed "the Japanese war brides" -- the young women who, in 1945, found themselves amid the devastation and humiliation of a defeated nation, who naively or opportunistically fell in love with occupying American soldiers, and who subsequently waved goodbye to their powerfully tradition-bound world to venture into wholly unknown territory in the United States.

Individually, however, they had very different personalities and histories. And most crucially, they had radically different experiences in their new lives in rural Kansas, where they ended up living on or near a military base.

The fates of five such Japanese women transplanted to the United States are at the heart of Velina Hasu Houston's deeply moving and insightful play "Tea," which is now receiving a superb, exquisitely tuned production by the Silk Road Project, the relatively new theater company devoted to showcasing playwrights of Asian and Middle Eastern descent. And in witnessing these women's often troubled, invariably complex lives -- lives in which they existed in a sort of limbo as they attempted to straddle distinct cultures and fend off a profound sense of isolation -- you become aware of just how difficult the transition to a new society can be for any "outsider."

Houston, whose own mother was "a war bride," tells the story of one particularly tragic woman, Himiko Hamilton (Stephanie Santos), who becomes something of a twist on Madame Butterfly. A Tokyo girl who earned money by dancing with American servicemen, she became pregnant by one of them. Ostracized by her family, she marries the man, who turns out to be a brutal redneck and who makes her life in Kansas a living hell. At the same time, she is shunned by the other Japanese women in the community who perceive her as a source of scandal. Eventually she will kill her husband in self-defense and then ultimately take her own life.

We learn all this in retrospect, as the play brings together four other Japanese war brides who perform the ritual cleaning and packing up of the dead woman's household. In the process, these women gather around a table for tea and reminiscences, while Himiko's ghost becomes a subtly palpable presence. Among them are: Setsuko Banks (Mary Ann de la Cruz), a genteel, ladlylike person, loosely based on the playwright's mother, who married a black man; Teruko MacKenzie (Kate Garassino), a naive, rural girl of high spirits; Atsuko Yamamoto (Roxanne Lee), a snobbish but insecure woman who married a Japanese-American, and Chizuye Juarez (Erika Winters), who married a Mexican-American man and adapted to American culture with a vengeance.

None of these women were terribly close before coming together for this ritual. But in one way or another, in the course of their brief act of cultural solidarity, they come to realize just how profound their need to communicate with each other has been. Amid laughter, tears, a bit of cat-fighting and the soothing, clarifying effect of the tea ceremony (already a bit modified by life in this country), the women come to terms with their own demons, as well as with the deeply troubling spirit of Himiko.

It is Himiko's story that is most devastating, of course. And Santos, an actress of continually surprising feral power, turns in a haunting performance -- a commanding and thoroughly unsentimental portrayal of a woman who is emotionally and physically battered to the point of madness.

Lynn Ann Bernatowicz, a rising star among Chicago directors, has cast the show -- a rich showcase for the city's underserved Asian actresses -- with an impeccable eye. She has elicited fine work from all of them, in addition to establishing the many shifting moods and time periods of this deftly structured play.

The quiet, "social worker" aspects of Setsuko, who has one of the happier marriages, is winningly embodied by de la Cruz, with Garassino neatly capturing the unsophisticated farm-girl aspects of Teruko, Lee winningly defensive and elegant as Atsuko, and Juarez fittingly brash as the hippest of the group. In the course of the play, each of the women, all of whom are adept at various accents, conjure their youthful selves, their husbands (the source of particularly wonderful comedy) and their own rock 'n' roll-loving, Japanese-American children.

Richard Schneider's teahouse-like set -- a mix of tatami mats and bits of Americana -- helps conjure the mood, as do Kurt Ottinger's expert lighting design and Joanne Witzkowski's character-defining costumes.

The 90-minute play has a few too many endings (it could easily fade out with the candlelight vigil scene). But there is such a sense of lives explored here -- of personal journeys full of upheaval and adjustment -- that you leave the theater shaken and reawakened.