Jo Shui, Ako, Momo Yashima, Karen Tsen Lee, and Akiko Hiroshima in the 20th anniversary remounting of Tea, by Velina Hasu Houston. It opens June 11 at the Pan Asian Repertory Theater to mark its 30th anniversary and kick off the National Asian American Theater Festival, June 11-24 in various NYC venues.
Tea and fortitude in the American Bible Belt
By Jerry Tallmer
Japanese women have for hundreds, maybe thousands of years, pursued the delicate, intricate social ritual of sharing tea and talk together, but not always to the rather un-Japanese background beat of Dont Sit Under the Apple Tree With Anyone Else But Me or How Much Is That Doggie in the Window? or yes My Country, Tis of Thee
These ladies, you see, four friends plus the one who has (drastically) departed from them, are here in the States by virtue of wedlock. They are what were once called Japanese war brides, fish out of water in the very different cultural environment in and around Fort Riley, Kansas, where the World War II G.I.s who married them and brought them home to America are now stationed.
I was born right outside Tokyo, but I grew up in Junction City, Kansas, says Velina Hasu Houston, the playwright whose 1987 Tea has, on its 20th anniversary, been re-mounted as one of the keystones of as its billed the first-ever National Asian American Theater Festival, June 11-24 in various venues of this city.
I used to sit around in the background, and listen to my mother and her friends as they were having tea in Kansas, says Ms. Houston herself of mixed parentage on the phone from Los Angeles. Her (now 78-year-old) 100-percent Japanese mother from a quite affluent family of merchants is the model for the level-headed character named Setsuko in the play. The playwrights father, the late Lemo Houston pronounced like that street in New York was the offspring of a black American father and native American mother. My father, who had been an MP on Guam, used to tell me: I killed your mothers people. I had to do it.
Many years later, in her research for Tea, Ms. Houston went back to Kansas and interviewed some 50 of her mothers old Japanese girlfriends or other women of the ages of those girlfriends.
I wanted to represent a unique chapter of Japanese immigration history that we dont see in history books the fortitude of these women in the American Bible Belt. Some had positive stories, some had tragedies. Actually they ran the gamut from upper class to middle-class to lower class.
They had been and sometimes still were subject to stereotyping. Audiences would ask, reporters would ask, even scholars would ask me: These girls were all bar girls and prostitutes, werent they?
Part of it was the Madame Butterfly myth. They were also looked upon in some quarters as people who had betrayed their own countrymen and countrywomen.
Some had tragedies: Velina Houston, that child on the fringes of her mothers tea sessions, kept her ears open. In the play there is a suicide by drowning (kimono sleeves packed full of stones), a suicide by rifle, and a troubled young womans gruesome death that locks into those other two deaths. There is also some unexpected black humor (dramatically, not ethnically black): Himiko, the war bride at the center of the play, saying: Im about as Japanese as corn flakes
and I killed my husband because he laughed at my soy sauce just one time too many. Soon after that she pours beer upon his grave the brew he loved so much when he was alive.
It was 25 years ago, at a playwrights retreat in West Virginia, that Velina Hasu Houston met another young woman, Tisa Chang, who would do as much in her own way for Asian-American drama, from the producing and directing end. Back then, Tisa Chang had already founded the Pan Asian Repertory Theater which this year celebrates its own 30th anniversary with Tea (June 11-17) to be followed by Cherylene Lees Carry the Tiger to the Mountain (June 20-23), both at the West End Theater in the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew, West End Avenue at 86th Street.
Ms. Changs Pan Asian Rep is one of the Festivals three executive members, the other two being Jorge Ortolis Ma-Yi Theater and Mia Katigbaks NATCO (National Asian American Theater). The entire 13-day fete embraces 30 different shows in all five boroughs.
The Tiger play, first done by Pan Asian Rep in 1998, is about the racial hate-crime murder of Detroit autoworker Vincent Chin in June of 1982 just 25 years ago a case that rocks the Chinese-American community, and not just that community (the guys who killed Chin thought he was Japanese), to this day.
Tisa Chang, born in Chunking a long time ago, before the Communist takeover, came to this country at the age of 5 or 6, and grew up in New York, where her father, Chang Ping-Hsun, was Chinese Consul General from 1946-57.
As so often in stories about New York theater in the 1970s, a third woman enters the picture, and her name is Ellen Stewart. It was as a dancer-actress at La MaMa that Ms. Chang asked Ms. Stewart La MaMa herself for a chance to direct, and the result, in 1973, was The Return of the Phoenix, a Peking opera inculcated with Chinese values and codes.
It opened on a shoestring, during the Death Slot July 4 weekend. Fortunately, [the late] Richard Shepard of The New York Times came down to East 4th Street and loved the show, praised it.
Four years later, Tisa Chang was on Broadway for six months in David Rabes The Basic Training of Pablo Hummel, opposite Al Pacino. While in it, she started the Pan Asian Repertory Company paid for by earnings from the Broadway show. A production of R.A. Shiomis Yellow Fever, in which a Japanese detective solves a murder in Chinatown, put us on the map.
Helping bring the project to birth was the actor Ernest Aruba of Pacific Overtures hes my ex-husband and hes gorgeous and very talented and hes still helping.
Velina Houstons Tea was first done in 1982 by the Manhattan Theater Club at the New York City Center. The current production is directed by another Tina Tina Chen and the tea drinking women, each of whom wants their tea done another way, weak, strong, hot, cool, are played by Jo Shui, Akiko Hiroshima (possibly a stage name), Ako (no other name), Karen Tsen Lee, and Momo Yashima (sister of Broadway and Hollywoods Mako).
Throughout the play, each and all of these ladies interject, at intervals, a short spare syllable that sounds like neh. It just means You know or Isnt it so? or Isnt that right? says Tina Chang.
When she and Velina Hasu Houston first met, Ms. Houston says Ms. Chang lamented that the younger generations dont know about Asian classics. I said: You know, were doing classics.
Neh, neh. Isnt it so?
For National Asian American Theater Festival schedule and other information, call (212) 352-3101, or go to www.NAATF.org.
For Pan Asian Repertory productions call (212) 352-3101 or (212) 868-4030 or go to www.panasianrep.org.