KPBS AIRDATE: May 28, 1997
Isolation. Alienation. Persecution. A search for identity. The themes are universal, but also particular to minority groups, outsiders, strangers in a strange land. Three very different presentations, from very disparate cultural perspectives, are currently gracing San Diego stages. First, let’s take time for “Tea.”
Velina Hasu Houston’s 1987 delicate, autobiographical “Tea” concerns Japanese war brides who were forced to live on a military base in Kansas. They aren’t an especially cohesive group; some have assimilated much more than others. But when one of them takes her own life, the rest come together with her ghost, for tea, to “cleanse the spirit.” Tea, or ocha, the playwright tells us, is less quiet than it appears, much more turbulent. And, like its Japanese consumers, “so dense, it seems to be standing still.” The same may be said for this play, which, though occasionally explicit or overwritten, is also lyrical and heartfelt, and heart-wrenching at times.
The Asian American Repertory Theatre gives it a lovely production, as simple and tender as the piece itself. Chil Kong has directed with sensitivity, and his cast of five is wonderful, especially Shinhong Byun and Jenny Selner, who represent the extremes of rejecting or embracing a new culture. The actors display their versatility in the telling portrayals of the characters’ husbands and their daughters. But it is the final reconciliation scene, with each woman in formal kimono, which is most moving and haunting.
These women have been no less abused or mistreated than many latinas or Chicanas. In “Both,” by San Diegan Samuel Valdez L., a Mexican-American man and woman confront their demons and their games, their cultural and personal assets and liabilities. It’s a funny and startling and chilling and brutal piece, excellently performed by Gabriel Romero and Silvia Torres. Valdez, whose co-direction with Tijuana’s Dora Arreola is stylized and inventive, found many ways to make the piece truly bilingual, as bi-cultural as its theme. Only occasionally does that weigh down the play; more often it heightens the sense of confused and uncertain identity. In a far more comic manner, the dilemmas of inter-cultural and inter-gender identity are also explored in “Ay, Compadre!,” which, with “Both” and two other plays, will be excerpted in the first annual Showcase by the Teatreros Alliance, a coalition of border-region theater artists, this weekend at Centro Cultural de la Raza.
And, covering similar questions of identity and persecution, the 17th annual JCC/Streisand Festival of New Jewish Plays continues over the next three Mondays. One of the former presentations, Mark Harelik’s “The Legacy,” will be a mainstage production at the Old Globe this summer. Harelik appears in the June 9 staged reading of “Vilna’s Got a Golem,” a piece about Jewish rage and revenge which received a 1996 Barrymore Award for Outstanding New Play. The reading features live klezmer music. The June 2 and June 16 presentations concern life, love, identity, faith and morality in 19th century Russia and 20th century America.
Old themes, new plays. It’s a great time to experience San Diego’s rich cultural and theatrical diversity.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1997 Patté Productions Inc.