Tea | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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TEA, Silk Road Theatre Project, at the Loop Theater. In Japanese society, drinking tea is not only a pastime but a religion and an emblem of nationalist pride. It serves a no less mythic purpose in Asian-American playwright Velina Hasu Houston's Tea, set in the late 60s in a backwater Kansas military settlement that features "wide-open plains and narrow minds." Here four Japanese war brides--stripped of their native comforts and customs--host a tea ceremony in remembrance of a fifth whose suicide has sent ripples through a divided community.

Houston's attempt to distill the experiences of thousands of postwar immigrants into five complementary characters initially suggests a Japanese version of The Joy Luck Club. But her efforts to give them life are palpable, and she takes pains to consider the racial and sexual politics of the era without flaunting its social consciousness.

Director Lynn Ann Bernatowicz emphasizes the cultural rifts with a staging that draws heavily on the Noh tradition, employing stylized movement as a bridge between scenes grounded in grim everyday rituals. Houston tries to put her characters' struggles in context with two perfunctory scenes in which they envision themselves as their husbands and children, but the women's stories are gripping enough: multifaceted portrayals by Roxanne Lee and Erika Winters anchor the talented ensemble. The theme of cultural extinction haunts Tea: Houston's women drink to both love and loss, sipping cups of warm tea to cut a Zen path between a troubling past and an unpromising future.

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