nytheatre.com review by Kat Chamberlain
May 24, 2007
We all have our own experience of being a stranger in a strange place. But a case can be made that few face a situation as harsh as marrying into the very country that has just defeated and occupied your own.
That is the case Velina Hasu Houston's Tea, a much savored and produced play, now passionately revived for the National Asian American Theater Festival, makes with both visual and verbal beauty. Himiko, a Japanese war bride who until 1968 has spent 20 years in a Kansas army town, has a hard tale to tell. We are confronted with a shocking mixture of serenity and violence right at the start—wearing a gorgeous kimono, she slowly takes out a shining handgun from her left sleeve, aims at her slender throat, and fires.
Her tragic death brings four other war brides, more acquaintances than friends for various reasons, to her now empty home to have tea. By cleaning Himiko's house and drinking what she calls "tea for the soul, tea to cleanse the spirit," the women attempt to find solace, comfort and, along the way, self and mutual acceptance.
With Himiko's spirit lingering at the tea party, all five women share their own stories—the guilt of leaving a ravished homeland behind, the struggle to face the unknown and the residual wartime hostility, and the heartbreak of losing again the new life they have dreamed much for and managed to build. Even their sense of identity—the Japanese-ness that most of these women hang on to, proves difficult to preserve. "You say we may live the Japanese way wherever we go," recounts one wife of the complaint to her husband.
The five army wives are given instantly recognizable and likable personalities, a wise approach for a play that deals with so many complex issues. Even the snobby and judgmental Atsuko, played by a flavorful Ako, is treated by the script with funny lines and a surprisingly moving confrontation. The most focus is on Himiko, played with gusto by Karen Tsen Lee, who relives and reflects on her brutal life. However, the extreme nature of her hardship—horrors that crumble even a war survivor such as herself—albeit entirely possible and real, puts the other wives' stories somewhat out of balance and may diminish their significance.
But it is the small details of what happens when East meets West that makes this excellent theatre for both cultural study and entertainment. One wife recalls being told by her husband, "You're standing on the toilet! Sit down." So she sits—facing the wall. Houston's use of poetic language and sweeping social commentary offers plenty of intellectual interest. But it is when the wives get down to the Japanese food, the English class, and the hunting rituals of their American husbands that life as these war brides know it is brought vividly in front of our eyes.
Tina Chen's direction is tender and sure, giving loving attention to each and every character, and keeping an unhurried pace for the epic stories to unfold. A very spunky Chizuye, played by Momo Yashima, is the most charismatic of the talented bunch. A tatami (woven straw mat) room and a Japanese maple in front of the house add wonderful ambience to the elegant set designed by Charlie Corcoran. But ultimately it is Houston's words that weave a poignant tapestry of haunting voices, from a past not so much forgotten, but rather never fully acknowledged. The strangers among us turn out to be, as we discover through sipping this steaming cup of tea, very much ourselves. Go taste some. It is indeed, good for the soul.