By MIA NAKAJI MONNIER
“I need to go benjo,” says Noriko Matsuda Jameson (played by Emily Kuroda), rushing behind a screen at the back of the stage.
This word is one I’ve heard countless times from my Japanese American relatives, sandwiched into English sentences in bilingual declarations like “Let me run to the benjo before we go” or “If anyone needs to go benjo at the funeral, they can use the one in my motor home.”
One person I’ll never hear use the word, however, is my mother, who moved to the United States from Osaka thirty-some years ago and says otearai, a more up-to-date word literally meaning “washroom,” instead. Even after more than three decades in America, she still hesitates to accept words like benjo, and she reacts with a combination of resignation and curiosity when I tell her I’ve gone to my first Obon or tried Spam musubi for the first time.
Somewhere in the past few decades, though, even parts of my mother’s Japanese have become out-dated, representative of relics used by so many Japanese abroad after the language has evolved past them in Japan.
“Say toi-re-tto!” corrects Noriko’s daughter, Hiromi Jameson (Melody Butiu). “Saying ‘benjo’ is like saying ‘crapper’ now.” Hiromi and Noriko are two of the central characters of Velina Hasu Houston’s latest play, “Calligraphy,” which premiered at the Los Angeles Theater Center on November 12 and will continue to run until December 12.
While “Calligraphy” is not meant to be an autobiographical story for Houston, it draws inspiration from her experience as an African American and Japanese woman in the Midwest and Los Angeles, being raised in the U.S. by a Japanese mother, and spending time in Japan as part insider, part outsider.
“Calligraphy” is infused with a unique blend of cultures that anyone growing up multiracial, or even just as a minority in their home country, will be able to recognize. What makes Houston’s work feel most true is that it shows that even among family members, people whose cultural influences come from the same place, there remain cultural clashes and gaps of understanding.
The play gives us a glimpse into the lives of two cousins presumably in their thirties: Hiromi, the half African American cousin in Los Angeles, and Sayuri (Fran de Leon), the Japanese cousin who lives in the suburbs of Tokyo. Though their mothers have long since stopped communicating, Hiromi and Sayuri keep in touch across the Pacific via Skype, a device that by the end of the play begins to feel tiresome on stage.
Though the cousins have almost opposite lives and personalities—Hiromi is stable and practical, a wife and a mother; Sayuri is flighty and oversexed, unmarried but less independent than she would like to be—they have both recently become caregivers for their mothers and face the challenges of balancing their own lives with their duties as daughters.
In the meantime, their mothers, Noriko and Natsuko (Jeanne Sakata), face the difficulties of aging: losing memory, dealing with past decisions and injustices, and becoming increasingly dependent on their children. The sisters have been estranged for years because of both geographical distance and Natsuko’s resentment towards Noriko’s marriage to “that black Yankee.” Towards the end of the play, they reunite and begin, in the smallest way, to rebuild a relationship.
Emily Kuroda gives a beautiful performance, filling out the role of Noriko as a lost, loving, and ultimately brave woman. As she declines into Alzheimer’s, she begins to have hallucinations about her deceased husband Eamon and the very beginning of their relationship in Japan. The role of Eamon is played by Kevin Daniels, an actor decades younger than Kuroda, but the two make their scenes feel simultaneously believable and dreamlike, lending them particular poignancy.
In “Calligraphy,” Houston deals with serious issues of the heart that can not be expected to be summed up neatly, all loose ends tied by the end of the play. Still, the plot seems to meander a little; though it appears to be a story centered on parent-child relationships, the daughters drop out in the last scene, and the final sentiment left me more confused than moved.
What “Calligraphy” offers, though, is stimulating food for thought—about multicultural experiences, aging, and finding a balance in life somewhere between concern for self and love and obligation towards family.
“Calligraphy” will be playing at Playwrights’ Arena and the Latino Theater Company at the Los Angeles Theater Center through Dec. 12. General tickets cost $30 (all Thursday performances are $10). Student and senior tickets are $20. Group discounts are available. For tickets or more information, please call (866) 811-4111 or visit www.thelatc.org.