Ghost in a kimono
Artistic director Peggy Shannon loves to do Velina Hasu Houston’s plays at the Sacramento Theatre Company; previous efforts include Kokoro and Shedding the Tiger.
The current project, Houston’s 1987 play Tea, is her best-known work. Set in central Kansas circa 1968, the story features five Japanese war brides who married American military men of different ethnic backgrounds. The play chronicles the bridges burned with relatives in Japan, the way the white Kansas townspeople continue to regard the women as foreign, marital problems and the difficulties that the women’s mixed-race children face.
Four women gather to honor the deceased central character, who shoots herself in the play’s opening scene. The dead woman’s spirit comments and talks about her abusive spouse, whom she shot “through the heart I never knew he had” before going off the deep end.
Grim stuff, but Tea also has an emotional accuracy and even moments of levity that Shedding the Tiger lacked. There are funny—OK, cuttingly funny—scenes in which the war brides impersonate their husbands on a hunting trip and catty chat between their daughters.
Also effective are scenes in which the women re-enact their grilling by military interviewers (“Have you ever been a prostitute?”) and in which the women sing (“My Country ’Tis of Thee” vs. “Kimigayo,” the Japanese anthem, with its imperial overtones).
At its best, Tea is a fascinating dramatization of the touchy issues of race, nationality and equality and a valuable portrait of a little-recognized chapter of American life. Houston’s ear for these characters is acute, more so here than in her other plays, probably because this play draws more heavily from her life.
However, Houston can push her message too hard. Determined to drive home points about assumptions and attitudes, she sometimes short-circuits her characters. In an artistic sense, this socially committed playwright can become her own worst enemy.
Shannon, the director, uses darkness and pools of light, a rotating set and a mixture of Japanese and Western costumes to illustrate the conflicting identities in play. The cast is strong, particularly the serene Takayo Fischer.