Corrections or additions?

This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the January 16, 2002

edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Review: `Waiting for Tadashi’

Grand intentions, brilliant production values, and

a prosaic script that never transcends the playwright’s

autobiographical

imperative, make "Waiting for Tadashi" a play you would like

to see succeed, but which does not.

Velina Hasu Houston’s family saga, now receiving its world premiere

production at George Street Playhouse, encompasses a history and

sociology

that will be unfamiliar to many. It chronicles 50 years in the life

of Tadashi, a child born of a Japanese woman and an African-American

serviceman during the years of occupation after World War II.

Playwright Houston describes her intention to bring together elements

of traditional Noh theater, Japanese Kabuki (both forms unfamiliar

to this critic), Western drama, and magic realism. And visually, she

succeeds. Yet in dramatic terms, her script tells, but rarely shows,

the contours of Tadashi’s story. Director David Saint’s choice to

present the actors as if in some archaic theater form, results in

an unaffecting hybrid.

Told as if "through the prism of memory," the play’s setting

is a triangular kaleidoscope of polished mirrors, framed in red, and

flanked by stylized paintings of a pagoda and a stand of pine trees.

Within this reflective world, wondrous sights unfold: we see a

beautiful

Japanese goddess who walks on the earth, a supernatural demon who

thwarts Tadashi’s every hope, a bright, brilliant scene of falling

snow, and a fearful fire.

The play’s ritualistic opening is truly riveting. Within the stage

kaleidoscope we see the perfect form of a doll-like woman, with black

hair to her waist, who wears a lilac silk kimono embroidered with

weeping willows. Gracefully, with slow, swaying movements, she emerges

from the triangular frame onto the circular, wooden stage. This is

the supernatural Shape Shifter Dazzler, played by June Angela.

"You

stand out, a crimson pomegranate amid a world of green leaves,"

she says, as she deposits a wrapped bundle on the ground which we

take to be a baby.

Thus we are introduced to Tadashi Lane, an Afro-Amerasian man of 50

who is still trying to come to terms with his racial, national, and

familial identity.

Contrasted with the upright form and quiet grace of

the goddess is the brutish, almost spherical form of a supernatural

demon, a red bubble of energy in white mask with vermilion tufted

hair. Shape Shifter Confuser, played by the masked Sue Jin Song, is

Tadashi’s nemesis. Where the first woman saw hope for the baby she

calls "a hybrid thing so rare," the Confuser calls him "a

half-American mongrel." Unrelentingly vicious, she abuses the

helpless boy in an escalating sequence of violent episodes.

As Tadashi, Clark Jackson makes a valiant effort with a role that

demands that he portray either a man of 50 (significantly older than

the actor) or a boy of seven. His is a character who wakes up

screaming

from nightmare after nightmare, walks on his knees, and asks virtually

every woman he meets, "Do you love me?" For the most part,

Jackson plays his role like the empty-headed puppet of his orphanage

days when he was coerced into believing "I’m nothing, I’m

nobody."

It comes as a shock to learn, at the play’s conclusion, that Tadashi

is a competent man with a profession and a job.

As directed by Saint, I was unable to connect with the actors’ stiff

delivery of Houston’s expository text. Sabrina Le Beauf as Chikako,

the playwright’s alter-ego, and Mia Tagano as the elder sister, stand

rooted to the spot, elbows held close to the body, as they share their

stilted dialogue.

Only Takayo Fischer as Satomi, Tadashi’s Japanese-born adoptive

mother,

plays her role with enough verve and dramatic timing to move the

audience.

Speaking with a heavy Japanese accent, Fischer is believable at all

points in the story’s 50-year span. And with her impeccable sense

of timing, she succeeds in rousing the audience to laughter with the

sparest of lines. Danny Johnson, as her husband and Tadashi’s adoptive

father, is the only other actor who truly inhabits his role.

The historical underpinnings of Houston’s play — the shocking

story of the discarded offspring of American servicemen — were

unfamiliar to me, as they will be to many. And as we learn from two

tiny black-and-white family snapshots in the theater’s lobby, the

story is based on the playwright’s own family history. We can see

her, her older sister, and her adopted brother (who becomes the

Tadashi

of the play’s title) as they were in the 1950s. So earnest is Houston

to report on history, she also introduces masked characters in black

robes to recite facts and figures on cultural attitudes, slum

orphanages,

and the death and abuse of Amerasian orphans.

Yet rarely does Houston’s language rise toward poetry. Most of it

takes the form of the most prosaic expository narration, even as the

story is littered with hateful and racist speech. This, Tadashi tells

his parents, is being directed toward him by others. (Was there ever

a child who has not been called hateful names?)

Accolades go to set designer James Youmans, costume designer Theoni

V. Aldredge, and lighting designer Joe Saint for their brilliant

contribution,

and to choreographer Yass Hakoshima.

By the time of the play’s mother-son reconciliation, embellished with

a touching tale of a wristwatch that she has lovingly kept wound for

30 years, there’s no place for the actors to go dramatically. Family

members sit awkwardly on lovely silk pillows while, on opening night,

one of the actors, so moved by the events of which she is a part,

cried real tears.

"Thanks for the pop psychology," says Tadashi to his sister,

toward the end of the play, as the three adult siblings revisit the

topic of racial identity. Unfortunately, for the audience, it’s a

sentiment that rings only too true.

— Nicole Plett

Waiting for Tadashi, George Street Playhouse, 9

Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. Performances continue

through February 3. $18 to $45.


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