David Fonteno and Dian Kobayashi 
in Yohen
(© Corky Lee)
David Fonteno and Dian Kobayashi
in Yohen
(© Corky Lee)
The word "yohen" is a Japanese term that describes how an accident in the pottery firing process creates discoloration and an unintended shape in certain pots. While some people are inclined to discard such works, deeming them ugly, to others they have a certain strange beauty. Philip Kan Gotanda's two-hander Yohen, uses this phenomenon as a brilliant metaphor for an interracial marriage (Japanese and African-American) that may or may not be worth keeping. Ably directed by Seret Scott, the 80-minute play is more nuanced and developed than many works twice its length.

The play is set in 1986, in Gardena, California, where Sumi (Dian Kobayashi) asks her husband of 30 years, James (David Fonteno), to move out of their house so he can start dating her afresh. While the situation may sound like a wacky sit-com pilot, Gotanda uses it to explore the intricacies of race relations, personal fulfillment, aging, and long-term relationships. In a series of short scenes, the audience witnesses the couple's adjustment to their new situation, as well as the changes in their individual lives. Both Sumi and James are in their 60's, and trying to break out of established routines proves difficult. James is a retired army man, and finds renewed vigor teaching boxing to disadvantaged youths. Meanwhile, Sumi quits her unfulfilling job in order to go back to school full-time to study pottery.

The two characters often reminisce about their pasts, both shared and separate. Sometimes, they work in tandem to recall certain details, but there are also stories told which they never shared while they were still living together. By the play's end, the audience sees the couple's relationship starkly exposed, with some ugly truths revealed, as well as their deep, abiding love for one another.

Fonteno is excellent, endowing James with an easygoing manner and dynamic range of expression. Unfortunately, Kobayashi's performance is uneven. She pushes too hard in the first few scenes, indicating Sumi's emotional states. As the play progresses, the actress' work becomes more natural, and she has a good rapport with Fonteno.

Charlie Corcoran's attractive set has a delicate quality to it, which fits the fragile state of James and Sumi's relationship. Cliff Caruthers sound design incorporates jazzy piano tunes that nicely underscore the play's action. Unfortunately, major equipment problems at the performance I attended prevented me from determining the effectiveness of Kazuko Oguma's lighting design.

Yohen's point-of-view vis-à-vis race and aging is also one that is rarely seen in the theater. Such a fresh perspective proves to be quite rewarding.