Barrington Stage's 'Tea' sends five women on a journey
Wednesday August 18, 1999
By Jeffrey Borak
A play by Velina Hasu Houston (performed without intermission). Directed by Julianne Boyd; scenic design, Michael Schweikardt; costume design, Martha Bromelmeier; lighting design, Victor En Yu Tan; sound design, Bruce Ellman. Through Aug. 29. Eves.: Tue. 7; Wed.-Sat. 8, Mats.: Fri. 2; Sun. 5. Barrington Stage Company, Consolati Performing Arts Center, Mount Everett Regional School, Berkshire School Road, Sheffield. 1 hour 28 minutes.
Himiko Hamilton.......................June Angela
Setsuko Banks.....................Takayo Fischer
Teruko Machelli...................Carol A. Honda
Atsuko Yamamoto..............Dian Kobayashi
Chizuye Juarez......................Diana Tanaka
Berkshire Eagle Staff
SHEFFIELD -- During the American occupation of Japan at the end of World War II, over 100,000 native Japanese women married American soldiers. Between 1946 and 1960, they came to the United States with their husbands and were settled at remote Army posts around the country, one of which, Fort Riley, in Kansas, is the setting for Velina Hsu Houston's born-in-anger play, "Tea," which is being given a tepid, emotionally uninvolving production at Barrington Stage.
Houston knows this territory intimately. She is the daughter of a Japanese woman who married a World War II American soldier who was half Native American and half black. The play is based on an extensive series of interviews Houston did with 50 Japanese women living in Kansas, where a large portion of these "international brides" and their husbands were sent.
It's an aspect of World War II that, like the Japanese internment camps set up here by our government, is little known but which reaches deep into the soul of a nation that was founded by immigrants.
At its heart, "Tea" is about asserting a sense of place and belonging in a geographic setting and emotional climate that is alien, alienating and unwelcoming.
Emblematic of all this is the play's central figure, Himiko Hamilton (affectingly played by June Angela), whose fatal shooting of her abusive husband two years earlier has pushed her to the edge of madness. It is not long into "Tea" when Himiko kills herself, setting her spirit on a journey toward peace and resolution, a journey that is meant to be shared by four other Japanese brides -- the accommodating, optimistic Setsuko Banks (Takayo Fischer); the judgmental Atsuko Yamamoto (Dian Kobayashi); the rational Teruko Machelli (Carol A. Honda); and the thoroughly assimilated and cynical Chizuye Juarez (Diana Tanaka) -- who come to Himiko's house ostensibly to tidy up and share tea. But something deeper is operating here as the women talk over tea. They have come, because, Chizuye pointedly observes near the end of the play, "when the first of us goes so violently and it's all over the papers, it wakes us up. For the first time in our lives, we gather together all the pieces of our used-up years and come running here hoping we'll find some kind of miracle that will glue it all back together and send us into our old age with something to hold onto."
Houston works with a variety of theatrical forms and styles, eastern and western. The result is a patchwork quilt whose pieces don't fit.
The women talk at each other as much as they talk at us, which is most of the time. What emerges is a journalistic exercise that, ironically, misses the human story at its heart.
"It is the Japanese way to carry everything inside," Teruko says at one point but it is precisely that sense of something being carried inside that is missing here. Whatever renewal, purpose or calm these women may feel when they leave Himiko's house at the end remains private, if it is there at all. It's the completion of a journey we neither feel, see nor share.
Houston's women are little more than mouthpieces for the outrage and pain Houston wants us to share with her about the impossible situation that greeted these women who, as one sequence shows, married American soldiers for a variety of reasons.
The play's emotional standard bearer is Himiko. In Angela's hands, Himiko ignites what little resonance Boyd's emotionally and physically static production carries.
The product of a checkered past and impoverished upbringing, Himiko seems headed for disaster from the beginning.
"I wish I would have died in World War II," she says at one point. "It was an easier war than this one."
Angela conveys all of this -- pain, wry humor, anguish, uncertainty, hopefulness, motherly love, despair -- with wrenching fidelity to the truths that shape her character. The rest is silence, a story still waiting to be told.
August 18, 1999; News Archive, New England Eagle