THEATER REVIEW: Getting Their ‘Groove’ On

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The Nisei Widows are amazed at yoga teacher Patrick’s bridge pose. From left: Jeanne Sakata as Tomi, Tui Asau as Patarick, Emily Kuroda as Hana, June Kyoko Lu as Betty, and Takayo Fischer as Sumi in East West Players’ "The Nisei Widows Club: How Tomi Got Her Groove Back." (Photo by Michael Lamont)

The Nisei Widows are amazed at yoga teacher Patrick’s bridge pose. From left: Jeanne Sakata as Tomi, Tui Asau as Patarick, Emily Kuroda as Hana, June Kyoko Lu as Betty, and Takayo Fischer as Sumi in East West Players’ “The Nisei Widows Club: How Tomi Got Her Groove Back.” (Photo by Michael Lamont)

By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu English Editor in Chief

Eight years ago, I took my grandmother to see the “The Nisei Widows Club: Holiday on Thin Ice,” the last time the widows graced the stage at East West Players. It seemed to be a show that she would enjoy and she did, including the lunch at Mitsuru Grill beforehand.

Sadly, Nana, who died last year, isn’t here for the newest installment, “Nisei Widows Club: How Tomi Got Her Groove Back,” but I think she would have enjoyed catching up with Hana, Tomi, Sumi and Betty.

Takayo Fischer as Sumi and Tui Asau as Kimo practice “lovely hula hands.” (Photo by Michael Lamont)

Takayo Fischer as Sumi and Tui Asau as Kimo practice “lovely hula hands.” (Photo by Michael Lamont)

Nana’s widows club included best friend Mrs. Hashimoto, who like her, moved to Gardena in her youth from Hawaii. Those two women shared more years with one another than just about anyone else, including their husbands.

These bonds of friendship, made deeper by years of shared experiences, loss and laughter, is what makes for a welcome return of the “Nisei Widows.” In this production, the four women have just returned from a funeral for the son of Tomi, the diva-ish former Nisei Week queen, played again by Jeanne Sakata.

Grief-stricken Tomi has crashed at the Gardena home of Sumi (Takayo Fischer) and the play begins as the widows return from the funeral to figure out how to take care of their high-maintenance friend. Almost immediately one of them whips out a Ziploc bag of Spam musubi, swiped from the funeral reception, just one of the little touches that will have JA audience members nodding their heads in recognition

Those humorous details that reflect the quirkiness of Nisei (or is it all of us JAs?) is what makes it a fun evening. “Nisei Widows Club” also mentions recent developments in the community, including the passings of Frances Hashimoto and Sen. Daniel Inouye, and the hasty departure of a certain former JACCC executive that the widows dub a bakatare. They even welcome the hiring of his successor, Leslie Ito and put a plug in for The Rafu.

Talking to Tim Dang, EWP producing artistic director, after the press preview last week, he explained that time has passed for the widows and for Little Tokyo as well, and so the script written by Betty Tokudani (a pseudonym for co-writers Dang, Marilyn Tokuda and Denise Iketani) reflects those changes. The play is directed by Amy Hill.

The four women decide a change of pace will help Tomi get back on her feet and out of Sumi’s home. Tech expert Hana (Emily Kuroda) finds a yoga class at the Venice Japanese Community Center on her iPad. The widows are a sight in their leg warmers, sweatpants and gaudy tights, as they gawk and admire studly instructor Patrick (Tui Asau). I giggled with every awkward yoga move by Betty, played with a sweet ditziness by June Kyoko Lu.

It is Patrick who suggests that the women go to Hawaii, where his brother Kimo (also played by Asau) is a hula instructor. Kimo teaches the widows their hula moves as well as the deeper meaning behind the rhythmic swaying. In these scenes, “Nisei Widows Club” brings to mind the Hawaiian spirit and philosophy from Keo Woolford’s 2007 solo show “I Land.”

There is not much in the way of conflict in “Nisei Widows Club” as the characters move from one humorous scenario to the next. In this way, it reminds me of the classic sitcom “Golden Girls.” After the show, I couldn’t help comparing the Nisei to their TV counterparts. Sensible Sumi is Dorothy, while Tomi could only be the lascivious Blanche, and could sweet Nisei Betty be anyone but Betty White’s character, Rose?

The producers say this is the third and final installment of “Nisei Widows Club,” but I for one hope that’s not the case. With such easy affection and humor, it’s easy to imagine new adventures for Hana, Tomi, Sumi and Betty. Perhaps in a few years it will be the Nisei Widows on a cruise ship or finding romance at Keiro or a “Hangover” night of playing slots at the Cal. Now that the widows have their groove back, there’s no stopping them.

Performances of “The Nisei Widow Club: How Tomi Got Her Groove Back” continue at the David Henry Hwang Theater at the Union Center for the Arts until Dec. 8. For tickets and information, visit www.eastwestplayers.org or call (213) 625-7000.

Pictured at opening night for “The Nisei Widows Club: How Tomi Got Her Groove Back” on Nov. 13 are (back row, from left) Tim Dang, co-writer and EWP artistic director; Denise Iketani, co-writer; Nancee Taye Iketani; cast members Tui Asau, Takayo Fischer and Jeanne Sakata; Irene Sanaye Furukawa; director Amy Hill; Katie Hirning of AARP, which is co-presenting the play; (front row, from left) Donna Kimura; cast members June Kyoku Lu and Emily Kuroda; Michael Yama of “Betty White’s Off Their Rockers”; Daphne Kwok of AARP. Nancee Iketani, Furukawa, Kimura and Yama appeared with Fischer, Sakata, Lu and Kuroda in the original “Nisei Widows Club” in 2003. (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)

Pictured at opening night for “The Nisei Widows Club: How Tomi Got Her Groove Back” on Nov. 13 are (back row, from left) Tim Dang, co-writer and EWP artistic director; Denise Iketani, co-writer; Nancee Taye Iketani; cast members Tui Asau, Takayo Fischer and Jeanne Sakata; Irene Sanaye Furukawa; director Amy Hill; Katie Hirning of AARP, which is co-presenting the play; (front row, from left) Donna Kimura; cast members June Kyoku Lu and Emily Kuroda; Michael Yama of “Betty White’s Off Their Rockers”; Daphne Kwok of AARP. Nancee Iketani, Furukawa, Kimura and Yama appeared with Fischer, Sakata, Lu and Kuroda in the original “Nisei Widows Club” in 2003. (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)

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