Why the timely play “Tea” continues to be staged around the world
Velina Hasu Houston’s play “Tea” begins with the death of a character. After Himiko Hamilton, a Japanese living in ft. Riley, Kan., takes his own life, four of his friends, who belong to the same Buddhist Church, gather to clean his house. Over cups of tea, they reminisce about the past and mourn Himiko’s death. “There is a feeling of guilt, shame and anger,” says Hua Lee, one of the actors who plays Atsuko, the head of the church. “We’re trying to find a way to honor his spirit.”
The friends reminisce about how they met their American husbands during the U.S. occupation of Japan after World War II, and the adaptations they had to make after moving. They wonder if they could have done more for Himiko.
The setting of the play – centering on a group of women having tea together – was inspired by Houston’s own upbringing in Kansas. His mother, Setsuko Takechi, a Japanese war bride like the five “Tea” characters, would meet for tea once a month with her Japanese friends. As a young woman, Houston helped chill their cups while absorbing their stories.
Since its debut at Manhattan’s Theater Club in 1987, “Tea” has been produced around the world. Houston incorporates into her play the experiences of her mother and other Japanese women who married American servicemen and immigrated to the United States in the 1950s. Houston’s parents met when her father, Lemo Houston, a soldier African-American, was stationed in Japan after World War II. After a long courtship, Houston and Takechi were married, despite both families’ strong disapproval of the relationship.
LA’s Hero Theater, which has productions at the Rosenthal Theater at Inner-City Arts, originally planned to stage ‘Tea’ two years ago before the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered theaters across the city. . The theater is back with its own version of Houston’s work. On view through May 15, Hero’s staging of “Tea,” directed by Rebecca Wear, features two all-Asian actors.
It’s a particularly timely look at racism, including that which can manifest within communities of color. “It’s always been sadly ironic to me that the folks at BIPOC confront the racism of white people, but rarely confront the racism they exert on each other in myriad ways,” Houston says. “As a both Asian and Black person, I am amazed at the amount of anti-blackness I encounter in the Asian and Asian American communities.”
In 1979, Houston moved to Southern California to pursue a master’s degree in playwriting, screenwriting, and English at UCLA. She then earned a doctorate in critical studies at USC, where she currently teaches. While pursuing her Masters in Fine Arts, Houston began work on “Tea”, her third piece. After studioing it with the Asian American Theater Company in San Francisco, she launched it on the East Coast a few years later.
To research the play, Houston returned to Kansas, where she and her mother interviewed dozens of Japanese war brides. Takechi’s presence, coupled with the fact that she spoke Japanese, helped the women feel more comfortable talking about their experiences. Over nearly 50 interviews, the young playwright developed a deeper understanding of what these women had been through.
She thinks her mother learned a lot from the experience as well. “I think it was enlightening enough to [her] to see Japanese women living in cities where they were the only non-white person,” Houston says. “And also hearing different stories about how people had come to meet their American husbands and move to the United States and build a life for themselves.
“These are very moving interviews, as the women were telling their stories fully for the first time. Sometimes their children sat down and it was the first time they heard stories about their mother’s story.
Some of the women spoke about dealing with the trauma of domestic violence, a theme that also emerges in “Tea.”
“I was stunned by some of the things they said to me,” Houston says. “What probably bothered me the most was when a woman told me that her husband had bitten off part of his lip. I just never forgot that.
Two weeks after completing interviews, she completed the first draft of “Tea.”
The five characters in the play – Atsuko, Chizuye, Himiko, Setsuko, and Teruko – were inspired by the women Houston interviewed. “Tea” moves back and forth in time, with Himiko appearing as a ghostly spirit or presence, often joining in the conversation as if she were still alive. Ghost characters often appear in Houston plays; she sees them as something influenced by Japanese stories, fairy tales, and legends her mother told her growing up.
After debuting in 1987, “Tea” was staged by the Old Globe in San Diego the following year. In 1989 actress Olympia Dukakis introduced him to the Whole Theater Company of Montclair, NJ Dukakis invited the playwright to live with her and her family during rehearsals. Houston was there for eight weeks, and she and Dukakis became lifelong friends. “His mother was an immigrant from Greece,” Houston explains. “So there was this understanding of the struggle that immigrants go through to find a place for themselves in this country.” She says Dukakis also encouraged her to write what she really wanted and not give in to commercial pressures.
Elisa Bocanegra, founder and artistic director of Hero Theater, also considers Dukakis a mentor. They met in 2011, when the two starred together in the Roundabout Theater production of “The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore” in New York City. Bocanegra, who is Latina, felt discouraged by the limited scope of roles offered to her. Dukakis encouraged the performer to create his own theater company. Bocanegra founded Hero later that year and eventually moved it to Los Angeles.
“Tea” is particularly poignant for Bocanegra, because it reminds her “so much of my mother and my aunts who came from Puerto Rico,” she says. “They were themselves married to soldiers and came to the United States.” Bocanegra says she always felt “a loneliness and a sadness they had, having left their own country and being seen as ‘another’ in America.”
The play features two casts, one performing in the evenings and the other during daytime shows. They did it for “a few reasons,” says director Wear. “First and foremost, there’s so much amazing talent out there, and we really wanted to give opportunities to all the actresses we could.”
They also wanted to give the actors opportunities to pursue other professions if the opportunity arose. “As other theater companies have recognized in Los Angeles,” Wear says, “there’s always a navigation for artists in terms of figuring out when to do theater and when to do TV and film. That guy framework therefore provides the necessary support so that performers can actually do both when necessary.”
Wear also acknowledges that “Tea” comes at a time when anti-Asian sentiment and hate crimes are on the rise in the United States. “Sometimes we invite the audience in, and then other times we actually confront them,” she says. “Playing between these impulses actually shaped every part of the show, from the staging to how we handled the accents to the sound.”
Dean Harada’s sound design and original music also reflect influences from Japanese ghost stories, Wear notes. In the opening scene, Himiko delivers a monologue, calling out her deceased husband, daughter, and mother, before exiting the stage. The music that underscores the monologue is both haunting and jarring, and it blends sounds from traditional Japanese theater like wooden clappers and samisen, a traditional string instrument.
The actors found personal resonance in the play in different ways. Tomoko Karina, one of the actors playing Himiko, was born in Japan and immigrated to the United States as a young adult. For her, it’s important that Houston’s play dismantles racist stereotypes of Japanese women as a monolith, instead giving the characters layered and nuanced stories. “The war brides weren’t just prostitutes and bar girls,” says Karina. “Which I even thought. But this is not true.
Lee, whose character is strong-willed and feels superior to others, first met “Tea” while studying acting at UC Davis. Lee liked it so much she wrote an essay about it. “If there was one play I would have produced, it would be this one,” she says. “Velina’s writing is so raw and honest. She is unapologetic in her quest to explore and disseminate the human experience.
“A piece like this is so timeless. It was relevant then, and it’s still relevant today.
Or: Rosenthal Theater at Inner-City Arts, 720 Kohler St., Los Angeles.
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m., 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Sunday. $35. Until May 21.