INTO THE NEXT STAGE: Hurry to See ‘Tea, with Music’ at EWP

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By GEORGE TOSHIO JOHNSTON

Unless there’s a change in the schedule, this weekend will be your last chance to see in its current run of playwright Velina Hasu Houston’s signature work “Tea, With Music” at East West Players in Little Tokyo.

I met Houston, who has for several years now been a USC professor, associate dean for faculty recognition and development and director of dramatic writing, more than two decades ago. Back then, she was a pioneer in Hapa-related issues as a founder of a nonprofit group called Amerasian League.

If you’ve followed Houston’s career over the years, you may have heard of this play — but just by the title “Tea.” That’s how I saw it on at least two occasions over the years, going back to when I first wrote about it when it played at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego circa 1987 or ’88 when I was at Pacific Citizen.

This new EWP staging is different, however, because it includes musical accompaniment and songs. That doesn’t mean it’s a full-blown musical, as Houston explained to me in a phone conversation.

“It’s a live piano accompanying the singing,” said Houston, adding that it’s only in the “memory scenes” or scenes that take place in the play’s past where there is music.

The reason, she says, for doing it this way is that the director, Jon Lawrence Rivera, told Houston that whenever he read the memory scenes, “he heard music.” (She also said that the composer himself, Nathan Wang, is scheduled to play piano for this closing weekend.)

Houston added, “I believe that ‘Tea With Music’ is a very different animal than the play ‘Tea,’ because of the music and because it tries to tell the same story but using music as one of the avenues to tell the same story.”

With or without music, “Tea” is a special work to me because its main characters are all Japanese women who married U.S. servicemen stationed in postwar Japan. As the product of a similar union and circumstance, Houston’s work — one of the few to address and depict the American lives of a fringe group within a minority community — feels personal, even though it’s not my story.

For giving voice and depiction of an unrecognized, underrepresented group, I’ll always be grateful to Velina — whose own background is Native American and African American on her father’s side, Japanese on her mother’s — for creating “Tea.”

Even though they probably didn’t know it at the time, the couples in these international, intercultural and usually — but not always — interracial marriages were decades ahead of today’s miscegenation-friendly, post-John & Yoko environment that only the most Neanderthal amongst us oppose. In that regard, the characters in “Tea,” husbands and children included, represent a “first wave” of what has now become a pretty common, pretty normal occurrence.

In “Tea,” the five main characters — one of whom, as an apparition, appears to the audience but not to the other women — are stuck together in a little community of their own in late-’60s Kansas, embedded in the U.S. military’s own subculture within the larger American fabric.

Had they all lived in Japan and never married Americans, it’s safe to say that these women probably wouldn’t have known each other, and that even if they did, they might not have chosen to like or interact with one another.

A flashback to happier times, at a dance hall in Japan. From left: Himiko (Joan Almedilla), Teruko (Jennie Kwan), Setsuko (Yumi Iwama), Chizuye (Janet Song) and Atsuko (Tiffany-Marie Austin) in East West Players’ “Tea, with Music.”

But their similar marriage choices, backgrounds, language, customs and proximity do bring them together, this time under the most tragic of circumstances — a suicide committed by one of their own, Himiko, after murdering her abusive husband.

Different as the women are, it turns out that their shared ancestral culture, symbolized by Japanese green tea, brings them together to confront not just their friend’s tragic passing but also the various issues that have arisen from their respective life choices.

Needless to say, it’s a moving, powerful story, Japanese American without a doubt, but a different type of Japanese American story than one from the more typical Issei-Nisei-Sansei-Yonsei lineage.

“Tea” has, over the years, provided a showcase for Japanese American, Japanese, Asian American and Asian women actors, in that five actresses not only depict Japanese women, they also play the roles of their respective spouses and daughters. In that regard, I only half-jokingly told Houston that because of “Tea,” she has been like a one-woman employment agency for actresses of Asian heritage.

Interestingly in our conversation, on the topic of “colorblind” casting — still a controversial topic today — Houston did say that there have been circumstances where producers wanted to stage “Tea” with non-Asian actors.

Houston: “They do that primarily because they live in a part of the country where they don’t have any Asians or Asian Americans, and they don’t have the kind of budget that would allow them to fly them in and house them and use them, but they feel that the themes of the play are so important to them that they want to present them anyway.

“My response has usually been, if that is indeed the case, they should present it with the actresses authenticating the roles as they would any other roles, but they should not use any yellowface or prosthesis.” She noted that one of those productions of “Tea” has a Latina cast; another of her plays, “Asa ga Kimashita,” had an-all Caucasian cast.

With those exceptions, though, Houston says she is very stalwart in her opinion regarding nontraditional casting, that because whites already dominate American theater, producers should try to include non-white actors whenever possible — but at the same time, having white actors portray non-whites when there is readily available non-white talent is anathema to her.

While it was no doubt a period piece when she wrote it in the 1980s, the passage of the decades since “Tea” debuted means it has become a time capsule of a generation of Japanese women who are rapidly disappearing.

 “The play is a historical piece now. It’s set in 1968. I don’t change the time, no more than any other play would change the time to fit the contemporary period,” she said. “The prejudices and immigration issues that those women faced reflects how those things existed in 1968. And that affects costume design, how the set designer might address the scenic design; it affects all kinds of things.

“In the future, particularly when this generation of women has passed on, it is my hope that the play will continue to be produced as a period piece.”

Interestingly, Houston’s “Tea” started first so many years ago as a book before it became a play. Now, she says her novel adaptation of the play is now done (after 10 years of working on it!) and in the hands of a publisher. Who knows, maybe someday “Tea” will become a motion picture. If it does and Velina is still around (should that day ever come) to oversee it, I’m sure it would be great.

As stated, “Tea, With Music” ends this weekend. It stars Joan Almedilla, Tiffany-Marie Austin, Yumi Iwama, Jennie Kwan and Janet Song. Go to http://eastwestplayers.org for details; according to the site, it’ll show at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, Dec. 7 and 8; and 2 p.m. on Sunday. Ticket prices vary but there are student and senior discounts. The phone number is (213) 625-7000.

Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

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George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2012 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.

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