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Theater Review: Dukesbay Productions' "Tea"

Living in limbo

From Left, Kathy Hsieh, Susan Mayeno, Eloisa Cardona, Aya Hashiguchi and Joy Misako St. Germain star in Dukesby Productions' "Tea." Photo credit: Jason Ganwich

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Yürei: "faint spirit." That's the Japanese term for ghosts, of which there are many in Velina Hasu Houston's 90-minute play Tea. It's about Japanese war brides in Junction City, Kansas, in 1968. In the 15 years after World War II, when U.S. troops occupied Japan, more than 100,000 American servicemen married Japanese women and returned with them to the States. Tea's four living characters meet in the home of a fifth war bride, Himiko Hamilton, to clean her empty house and share o-cha (tea) in her memory. Minor spoiler alert: "Mrs. William Hamilton" didn't have the best life. She died without receiving the proper respects and rituals, so now she's fated to wander the house as a faint spirit.

This was an episode of American history I know little about. I'm humble enough to acknowledge also that there are dimensions of Japanese and Japanese-American culture about which I'm shamefacedly ignorant. It took a while for me to understand that the gorgeous unit set for Dukesbay Theater's current production (designed by Burton Yuen and Lois Yoshida, realized by an A-team of builders and painters) represents both one environment and two. Himiko's home is downstage; a tatami room upstage represents, in Houston's words, "an obscure netherworld where time moves at will." Himiko, played here by Eloisa Cardona, drifts through both areas and appears in video segments edited by Mick Flaaen.

Director Randy Clark's introduction effectively braced us for the play's downbeat moments, of which there are plenty to go around. I was pleased to discover a lot of humor in the show as well. Much of this is at the expense of Atsuko (Aya Hashiguchi Clark), a perpetual pill who looks down her nose at Himiko's blond wig and erstwhile employment as a dancehall girl. Countering Atsuko's negative energy are the demure pleasantness of Joy Misako St. Germain's Teruko and frequent verbal provocations from Kathy Hsieh's Chizuye. Susan Mayeno plays Setsuko, a gentle, dignified soul. All are effective in their roles and contribute distinct presences. I'd advise Hashiguchi Clark to be wary of frequent disdainful exhalations, however, which can vent useful tension from her performance.

As for Ms. Cardona (Himiko), her Nipponese accent sounded spot-on to my Western ears, especially in her establishing scene. Cardona, it turns out, is ethnically Filipina, and Hsieh is a Taiwanese spelling of a common Chinese family name, Xie. Director Clark is both male and Caucasian. Yet I never felt anything but the utmost respect for these women, their culture, and the indignities, injustices and outright brutality they experienced while semi-assimilating into a pre-PC, Podunk-American town. (Setsuko's life resembles that of Hasu Houston's mother.) Like Tacoma Opera's wonderful, Salish-inflected production of The Magic Flute, Dukesbay's Tea is a laudable example of multiethnic cooperation toward the celebration of one particular culture. The script hammers expected beats, but this production is lovely as a suibokuga (ink wash) painting.

TEA, 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, through Nov. 16, Dukesbay Theater, 508 Sixth Ave. #10, Tacoma, $10-$12, 253.267.0869

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