Five Japanese women learn to adjust to a new life in rural Kansas alongside their American GI husbands following World War II. Hero Theatre presents a revival of “Tea,” Velina Hasu Houston’s powerful, lyrical exploration of the immigrant experience that has become a modern classic in its nearly four-decade history of production.
Hero Theatre Resident Director Rebecca Wear helms a fully double-cast company for a Saturday, April 23, opening at the Rosenthal Theatre at Downtown L.A.’s Inner-City Arts, 720 Kohler St. (just south of the Arts District), where performances will continue through May 15. Two previews are set for April 21 and 22. The month of May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.
Two all-Asian female ensembles tell the story of five Japanese immigrants in this deeply moving, yet humorous and surprising play that illuminates a little-known chapter in American history. Set in Fort Riley, Kansas during the late ’60s, Houston’s tale of five war brides who married American soldiers during the American occupation of Japan illuminates universal themes of loneliness, loss and the need for community.
Despite their common situations, these women are not a close-knit group. Yet, when one commits suicide, the others come together to clean her house and perform a ceremonial tea service. The restless spirit of the dead Himiko watches over them, seeking peace in the next world as her guests remember and relive their experiences coming to a new country and struggling to fit in.
The two companies include Elaine Ackles, Olivia Cordell, Hiroko Imai, Tomoko Karina and Hua Lee, and Yukari Black, Alix Yumi Cho, Ariel Kayoko Labasan, Sayaka Miyatani and Bolor Saruul.
Imai and Black share the role of kindly Setsuko Banks, whose African American husband recently passed away.
Lee and Saruul double as snooty Atsuko Yamamoto, who feels she is “above” the others because her husband is Japanese American.
Ackles and Labasan portray the assimilated Chizuye Juarez, who loves coffee and is known as “Chiz” to her friends (much to the chagrin of Atsuko, who thinks the nickname sounds like “Cheese”).
Cordell and Cho play Teruko MacKernzie, married to a white man.
And Tomoko Karina and Sayaka Miyatani take on the role of tragic Himiko Hamilton.
“Tea” is rooted in Houston’s own experiences growing up in Kansas as the daughter of a Japanese mother and half African American/half Native American father who met during the American occupation of Japan. The play is based on true incidents, and the characters are composites of women she has known. Tea is the third play in Houston’s war bride trilogy, which also includes “Asa Ga Kimashita” (Morning Has Broken) and “American Dreams.”
“I am honored to be a daughter of a Japanese woman who sacrificed so much so that her children could be of two nations in the deepest, most profound ways,” wrote Houston in a blog post. “It is a legacy that, all my life, I have striven to live up to and to pass on to my children.”
The Hero creative team includes set designer Carlo Maghirang, lighting designer Azra King-Abadi and music and sound designer Dan Harada. The costume designer is Maggie Dick and associate costume designer is Marvin Hildago. Audrey Forman is assistant director. The stage manager is Ashley Weaver. Hero Theatre resident artist Gabe Figueroa produces for the company.
“Tea” premiered at the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York City in 1987, and has since seen productions across the country and around the world, including at the Old Globe Theatre; Olympia Dukakis’s Whole Theatre; ACT in Seattle; Pittsburgh Public Theatre; Barrington Stage Company; Kumu Kahua Theatre in Honolulu; La Salle-SIA in Singapore; the People’s Art Theatre in Beijing; and Japanese productions at Osaka’s Amagasaki Piccolo Theatre and Tokyo’s Theatre X, just to name a few.
It has been broadcast on television by NHK, Japan’s public media organization, and recorded for radio by L.A. Theatre Works. It is published by Dramatists Play Service.
Hero Theatre is a community-based company that uses art to model and bring about social and environmental justice. They invite audiences to envision and experience America as they do. Hero examines classical and contemporary works, ensuring that equity, diversity and inclusion remain in the forefront.
Next up at Hero, following “Tea,” will be “Rise: An Immersive Stand for Safety,” a Hero-commissioned world premiere devised and directed by immersive theater artist Jack McCarthy that tackles themes of anti-violence, anti-suicide and gun control for high school youth.
Hero Theatre and its offshoot, Hero Multimedia, recently launched Nuestro Planeta, a ten-year multimedia, new works initiative that educates Latiné film and theater audiences about environmental justice within the Americas.
Performances of “Tea” take place Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. from Saturday, April 23, through Sunday, May 15 (no evening performance on Sunday, April 24). There will be two previews, on Thursday, April 21, and Friday, April 22.
Tickets to all performances except previews are $35; tickets to previews are $30. To purchase tickets and for more information, call (323) 206-6415 or go to www.HeroTheatre.org. Visit the playwright’s website at www.velinahasuhouston.com/