nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 18, 2006
Philip Kan Gotanda's play Yohen is about an interracial couple—he's African American, she's Japanese. They met during the American occupation of Japan, when he was in the army and she was a rarity, a divorced Japanese woman. Thirty-plus years later, they are near retirement age, living in Gardena, California, and their marriage is in serious trouble. The word yohen is Japanese for "strange kiln," referring to pottery that hasn't turned out as expected, having undergone an unforeseen transformation during the firing process. The question that gets asked when yohen is created is whether to save it or to throw it away. That's the same question that Sumi and James are confronting about their long and, until recently, fairly stable relationship.
What I found most compelling about the play is the fact that, though the race issue is always present and often a direct antecedent to some of Sumi and James's problems, Yohen feels fundamentally about the challenge of growing old together and, perhaps inevitably, growing apart. Urgent circumstances like love and security drive a young couple to mate and fuel a kind of passion; when those hot emotions dwindle, what's left for a pair whose values and roots are fundamentally different? James, after three decades of service in the military, has become a couch potato whose only interest is sports. Sumi, who works as a secretary in a law office and also goes to college, where she's studying art history (with a concentration in Japanese pottery), wants James to do something more with himself; she's bored with him, she tells him. But when James takes up her call by volunteering to coach local teenagers in boxing at a nearby gym, she's not satisfied.
Gotanda traces the cracks in this relationship with sensitivity and in sharp detail. Through a series of taut scenes, we watch Sumi and James grapple with their unfulfilled present and their often-misremembered shared past. James reminisces about the first times Sumi met his family; all she can recall is that his father never spoke to her, ever, in all the years they knew each other. James seeks assurance that Sumi's mother liked him, but all Sumi will commit to is that she said he had a good heart.
Eventually, matters come to a head, and it's not just the racial disparity that emerges at the heart of their problems. But Gotanda understands that, for better or worse, race is fundamental to self-identity, in the 1940s when Sumi and James decided courageously to ignore naysayers and marry, and in the 1980s when the play takes place (and, surely, in 2006 as well). Can people cast aside something that's so essential a part of their makeup? Must they? These are some of the questions that Yohen looks at, and though it offers no conclusions, the piece is potent in its exploration.
The production at Pan Asian Repertory, a New York City premiere, is very effectively staged by Seret Scott on a simple unit set (designed by Charlie Corcoran) that includes James and Sumi's living room (Sumi's influence on the design is enormously apparent) plus "haven" areas stage left and right for Sumi and James (hers is a pottery studio, his is the gym). Carol Pelletier's costumes, Kazuko Oguma's lighting, and Cliff Caruthers's sound design all aide immeasurably in defining character and mood here; so too do the pieces of pottery (provided by Peter Callas and Olivia Sullivan Ridgeway) that figure significantly in the story.
The performances are bold and unsparing. Dian Kobayashi captures the complexity of Sumi, and is unafraid to show us the unattractive aspects of her character—her rigidity, her snobbery, her unwillingness to compromise. David Fonteno's portrayal of James is transcendent, finding the insecurities, the pride, the courage, and the simplicity of this warm-hearted man. Together, they paint a very real portrait of a couple who have only just come to understand the nature of the difficult choices they now face.