Karen Tsen Lee in Tea
(© Corky Lee)
Karen Tsen Lee in Tea
(© Corky Lee)
The first ever national Asian American Theater Festival officially runs June 11-24, but some of its featured shows are already on the boards, such as Pan Asian Repertory's production of Velina Hasu Houston's Tea. Widely regarded as a classic in the field of Asian American performance, this 1987 work deals with something that had rarely if ever been seen on stage before: the lives of Japanese war brides following World War II. The subject matter remains compelling, but director Tina Chen's clunky staging calls attention to the play's shortcomings rather than enhancing its strengths.

Tea begins with the suicide of its primary character, Himiko Hamilton (Karen Tsen Lee). Four other women -- all Japanese-born wives of American soldiers -- gather for tea to try to make sense of her death, as well as their own lives. Among them are the prim Atsuko (Ako), who married a Japanese American soldier; Chiz (Momo Yashima), the hippie-like widow of a Mexican American G.I.; Setsuko (Jo Shui) whose African American husband recently passed away; and Teruko (Akiko Hiroshima), who, like Himiko, married a white soldier. The ethnicities of the women's husbands have affected the ways that each has interacted with American society, and there are prejudices among the women, as well.

While the four living women take their tea, Himiko's ghost hovers on the sidelines, listening in and commenting upon their conversations. In addition, the play includes numerous flashbacks that allow further insights into each woman's life. Sadly, the transitions into these sequences are handled rather awkwardly, often with a blackout followed by a few moments of theatrical dead space as the actors change costume or get into position.

It doesn't help matters that the play includes an abundance of exposition, although Houston has at least attempted to vary the ways in which it's delivered. In addition to the testimonials by the five women, the performers also take on the roles of the characters' respective husbands and daughters. Unfortunately, these scenes fall rather flat. The actors rely excessively on stereotypical mannerisms to indicate maleness when playing the husbands and youthfulness as the daughters.

The interactions between the women include moments of levity, but Chen has been unable to bring out much of the play's humor. The more seriously dramatic material fares better. Lee does a good job with some very difficult monologues that have her talking to her unseen husband, mother, and daughter.

Yashima was a bit shaky on her lines at the performance I attended, but scored with a moving monologue that details the death of Chiz's husband and the void that it left in her life. Hiroshima is the only one of the performers who is able to make her comic moments land, and her bright smile is full of warmth and energy. Shui has a solid presence, but her part seems underwritten. Ako successfully conveys her character's superior attitude, but is unable to convincingly portray Atsuko's change of heart within the play -- which is unfortunately one of the show's most important dramatic moments.

Tea is unapologetically forthright in its identity politics, which may turn off some audience members hoping for a bit more subtlety. But its message of hope and reconciliation remains powerful, and despite the production's flaws, still resonates.