Anyone who loves theater will make an effort to see a show like The Coast of Utopia or Spring Awakening but it takes a special kind of theater lover to venture up to 86th Street and climb up (or ride the creaky elevator) one flight to see a show in a makeshift theater with no proscenium and old church pews for seats. But there, in the United Methodist Church of St. Paul & St. Andrew, is where the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre is presenting its current production of Tea, Velina Hasu Houston's drama about four Japanese war brides marooned in the alien landscape of the American midwest after marrying husbands who occupied their homeland during World War II and now, nearly 20 years later, mourning the death of a friend who has recently committed suicide.
I confess that I am an inconstant lover when it comes to seeing shows that play too far away from Broadway or Theatre Row, Lincoln Center or the Public Theater. But when I read a piece in the New York Times about the 30th anniversary of the Pan Asian Rep (click here to read it), I realized that it had been nearly that long since I'd seen one of their productions and I felt like such a hypocrite for bragging about my passion for theater while neglecting shows and companies that really need to be loved that I sneaked off alone to see the show. Luckily for the Rep, there are more steadfast theatergoers in the city than I am and about 50 of them turned out to see Tea the night I went. The play, which was written 20 years ago and premiered back then at the Manhattan Theatre Club, is one of those identity dramas in which each character represents a certain aspect of a minority community’s experience, from the resolutely assimilated to the tragically marginalized—think of it as a kind of “The Boys in the Band Wear Kimonos”.
Only about a quarter of my fellow audience members were Asian and while that diversity was heartening it also at times seemed to work to the detriment of the show; the laughter was uncertain when Houston poked gentle fun at her characters, as though people weren't sure it was politically correct to enjoy the jokes. Or maybe they were reticent because the play tries too hard to cover every conceivable issue these women might have faced. Or it could have been because the production was flatly directed. Or that the acting was uneven, although Momo Yashima was nicely wry as the most Americanized of the women. And yet the show offered a glimpse of lives that too few of us know about. Walking out of the theater, I overhead a man say to his friend, “I can't say that it was a great dramatic experience but I did learn some things.” Over the next few weeks, there will be other opportunities to learn, and maybe even to have a great dramatic experience, as the inaugural National Asian American Theater Festival runs from June 11 to June 24 at venues in every borough of the city. The 32 productions will range from the National Asian American Theatre Company’s presentation of the William Finn musical Falsettoland to a one-man show called Korean Badass.