Tag Archives: Tea

The FPI Files: Hero Theatre’s Revival of TEA

By Alison Minami

Velina Hasu Houston

This month Hero Theatre of Los Angeles will open its revival of Velina Hasu Houston’s TEA, one of the most widely produced Asian American plays worldwide since it first premiered at the Manhattan Theater Club in 1987. TEA follows the experiences of five Japanese war brides, women who immigrated to the U.S. as the wives of American servicemen, in Junction City, Kansas. Four of the women gather for tea after the violent suicide of the fifth, whose ghost reverberates throughout the play with an anguished urgency.  

At the end of World War II, roughly 50,000 Japanese women came over to the United States. Houston, who was herself born and raised in Junction City and the daughter of a Japanese war bride and African American father, traveled around the state interviewing nearly fifty Japanese war brides to research the depth and diversity of experience within this community. Worried for her safety, her mother insisted on joining her on the trip—this was, of course, before the ubiquity of GPS and cell phones! The two were both surprised and moved by the vulnerability and openness of traditionally reserved Japanese women sharing their experiences. Many of the women they spoke to were living in isolation as the only women of color in the towns where they lived. Their stories of immigration, cultural clash, alienation, racism, mental health, and domestic abuse as well as resilience, love, sisterhood, and motherhood were distilled into the characters that make up this all-female, all-Asian cast. Houston’s aim was always to “represent these women more meaningfully and truthfully, so that people would see that they were human beings beyond their stereotypes.”

Hiroko Imai, Elaine Ackles, Tomoko Karina, Olivia Cordell and Hua Lee. Photo by Jenny Graham

But the inspiration for the play, and really all of Houston’s work, has roots in her Japanese upbringing. Houston grew up listening to Japanese folklore from her mother. One of her early childhood memories was helping to serve tea to her mother’s Japanese friends when they came to visit her home. This job—replenishing cups of hot tea—allowed her to be the proverbial fly on the wall as she listened to their conversations of struggle and joy both in Japan and in coming to America. Houston says, “When you’re in an immigrant family, you just have a different perspective of U.S. society.” Children of immigrants are constantly observing America through two (or more) languages and cultures, often defending one over the other and constantly flitting back and forth or standing in the liminal space at their crossroads.

Over thirty years later after its first debut, TEA continues to carry universal and relatable themes that pull at the heartstrings and challenge society’s stereotypes around identity. Long before intersectionality was a widely coined term, Houston was writing about the convergence of race, ethnicity, language, nationality, and culture. As a mixed-race playwright, she has always naturally been drawn to the experiences of women who live between worlds. In the early days of her career, she was marginalized because her work defied categorization. She says, “I’ve spent my life never being Asian enough or never being Black enough.” When asked about the evolution of the play, Houston explains that while the themes have always remained the same, “the society listens differently” with a different consciousness that is reflective of our current cultural sensitivities and appreciations. Further, with every new production, TEA goes through the process of re-interpretation and re-imagination; from the acting, to direction, to set, and sound. Houston describes with delight “my experience of the play always changes” and that it is “forever alive and breathing.”

While the pandemic offered Houston the time and space to work creatively, she understands how badly theater institutions were impacted. She recognizes the need to be “sensitive as artists to help cultivate the industry back to health.” What better way to do so than to buy your tickets to TEA? Part of HERO theatre’s mission is to re-define the modern classics. Undoubtedly, Houston’s TEA has earned its place in the canon of American dramatic writing. Directed by Rebecca Wear, TEA will run at Inner-City Arts from April 21 to May 15. For full cast and schedule visit: http://www.herotheatre.org/tea.html

Two all Asian female ensembles tell the story of five Japanese immigrants in ‘Tea’ by Velina Hasu Houston
Photo by Elisa Bocanegra
Know a female or FPI-friendly theater, company or artist? Contact us at lafpi.updates@gmail.com & check out The FPI Files for more stories.

Want to hear from more women artists? Make a Tax-Deductible Donation to LAFPI!

Donate now!
Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non‐profit arts service organization. Contributions for the charitable purposes of LAFPI must be made payable to “Fractured Atlas” only and are tax‐deductible to the extent permitted by law.

What’s on Your Viewing/Reading List?

I have listed some of the plays I like to frequent.  Some I have never seen on the stage and some I have read and seen; all are very good plays.  Have you seen or read these plays by these female writers?

 

Yellowman  by Dael Orlandersmith (2002 Pulitzer Prize finalist)

“Alma and Eugene have known each other since they were young children.  As their friendship blossoms into love, Alma struggles to free herself from her mother’s poverty and alcoholism, while Eugene must contend with the legacy of being “yellow” — lighter-skinned than his brutal and unforgiving father.”  From back cover*

My Red Hand, My Black Hand by Dael Orlandersmith

A young woman  explores her heritage as a child of a blues-loving Native American man and a black sharecropper’s daughter from Virginia.”   From back cover*

*”Alternatively joyous and harrowing, both plays are powerful examinations of the racial tensions that fracture families, communities, and individual lives.”   From back cover Vintage Books  play publication YELLOWMAN & MY READ HAND, MY BLACK HAND

 

How I Learned to Drive by Paula Vogel (1998 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1997 Obie Award winner)

A wildly funny, surprising and devastating tale of survival as seen through the lens of a troubling relationship between a young girl and an older man.  HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE is the story of a woman who learns the rules of the road and life from behind the wheel.”   From the back cover of Dramatists Play Services, Inc. play publication

 

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

Adaptation by Lydia R. Diamond

“Nobel Prize-winning Author Toni Morrison’s THE BLUEST EYE is a story about the tragic life of a young black girl in 1940′s Ohio.  Eleven-year-old Pecola Breedlove wants nothing more than to be loved by her family and schoolmates.  Instead, she faces constant ridicule and abuse.  She blames her dark skin and prays for blue eyes, sure that love will follow.  With rich language and bold vision, this powerful adaptation of an American classic explores the crippling toll that a legacy of racism has taken on a community, a family, and an innocent girl.”  From the back cover of Dramatic Publishing publication

 

Ruined by Lynn Nottage (2009 Pulitzer Prize winner, 2009 Obie Award winner)

“A rain forest bar and brothel in the brutally war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo is the setting… The establishment’s shrewd matriarch, Mama Nadi both protects and profits from the women whose bodies have become battlegrounds between the government soldiers and rebel forces alike.  RUINED was developed through the author’s pilgrim to Africa where countless interviews and interactions resulted in a portrait of the lives of the women and girls caught in this devastating and ongoing tragedy.” from the back cover of Theatre Communications Group publication

 

Crimes of the Heart by Beth Henley (1981 Pulitzer Prize winner)

At the core of the tragic comedy are the three MaGrath sisters, Meg, Babe, and Lenny, who reunite at Old Granddaddy’s home in Hazlehurst, Mississippi after Babe shoots her abusive husband. The trio was raised in a dysfunctional family with a penchant for ugly predicaments and each has endured her share of hardship and misery. Past resentments bubble to the surface as they’re forced to deal with assorted relatives and past relationships while coping with the latest incident that has disrupted their lives. Each sister is forced to face the consequences of the “crimes of the heart” she has committed.  From Wikipedia.org

 

Tea by Velina Hasu Houston

Four women come together to clean the house of a fifth after her tragic suicide upsets the balance of life in their small Japanese community in the middle of the Kansas heartland.  The spirit of the dead woman returns as a ghostly ringmaster to force the women to come to terms with the disquieting tension of their lives and find common ground so that she can escape from the limbo between life and death, and move on to the next world in peace — and indeed carve a pathway for their future passage. Set in Junction City, Kansas, 1968; and netherworlds.  from the back cover Dramatists Play Service, Inc. publication

 

Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks (2002 Pulitzer Prize winner)

“TOPDOG/UNDERDOG, a darkly comic fable of brotherly love and family identity, tells the story of two brothers, Lincoln and Booth, names given to them as a joke by their father.  Haunted by the past and their obsession with the street con game, three-card monte, the brothers come to learn the true nature of their history.”  From the back cover Theatre Communications Group publication

 

The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler (1997 Obie Award winner)

“THE VAGINA MONOLOGUES introduces a wildly divergent gathering of female voices, including a six-year-old girl, a septuagenarian New Yorker, a vagina workshop participant, a woman who witnesses the birth of her granddaughter, a Bosnian survivor of rape, and a feminist happy to have found a man who “liked to look at it.”  From the back cover Dramatist Play Service, Inc. publication

 

HEADS by EM Lewis (2008 Francesca Primus Prize winner)

An American engineer. A British embassy employee. A network journalist. And a freelance photographer. As hostages in a war zone, each responds to the unbearable situation differently, with stark reality and difficult choices. HEADS is a heart wrenching story about finding hope and intimacy in an environment with seemingly no way out.  From the Pittsburgh Playhouse website.

 

Note: not all awards are listed for the plays or playwrights.