Corrections or additions?
This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the January 9,
2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Tadashi’s Journey Across Worlds & Cultures
A teacher once visited a small town in Kansas where
there was no theater. There she read some prose and poetry written
by an Afro-Asian girl, not yet a teenager, who had never seen or read
a play. "You should write a play," she told the girl.
style is quite visual."
Playwright Velina Hasu Houston, whose name itself is a meeting of
East and West, was that girl. The daughter of an Afro-American man
and his Japanese bride, her multicultural experience weaves through
her plays, many of which have been internationally produced.
In Houston’s latest play "Waiting for Tadashi," opening for
its world premiere at George Street Playhouse on Friday, January 11,
an Afro-Amerasian man, Tadashi, searches for meaning, identity, and
a personal sense of "home."
"If I had to identify myself culturally, I would use the term
`nikkei,’ someone of Japanese decent," says the playwright, in
a telephone interview following a day’s rehearsal. Houston is
professor, playwright-in-residence, and playwriting director at the
University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Houston adds that,
because she has spent so much time in Hawaii, she also refers to
with a Hawaiian word "hapa," which simply means someone of
Houston, has written many plays and essays on mixed-race identity,
including the bittersweet "Tea," produced at the Whole Theater
Company in Montclair in 1989. "Tea" tells the story of a
group of Japanese war brides living in Kansas. Yet Houston takes a
gentle exception to my question as to whether an artist with
roots has special insights or advantages on the subject. She firmly
states that all artists write either from their own experience or
from the experience that floats around their environment.
"We all have unique stories to tell and perceive the human
as our laboratory," Houston says. She aligns her feelings with
those of playwright Arthur Miller who once said, "Writers must
live a useful life."
Houston’s ancestry is yet more complex. While her mother is Japanese,
her father is Black Foot Native American and African-American. "It
is how those three distinct cultures coalesce and their reverberations
that frame my cultural references," she says. As a writer, she
tries to find a universal story in the midst of this specific context.
"I want my plays to resonate beyond my own cultural
While her new work, "Waiting for Tadashi," is set in a diverse
cultural landscape, it also encompasses aspects of the human
to which we can all relate. The core story is of an Afro-Amerasian
man and his mother, their disillusionment and reconciliation.
"The family depicted in the play is similar to my own, including
two sisters and an adopted brother," says Houston. She says her
adopted brother triggered her the desire to tell this story. Set in
Tokyo, Kansas, and California, between the years 1949 and 1999, the
play introduces Tadashi, an Afro-Asian who is on the brink of turning
50 and has been in a long-term relationship with his surrogate mother.
When this relationship comes to an end, it throws him off balance.
In order to stabilize himself, he feels the need for a centering
This leads him on an odyssey to find and reconnect with his actual
mother, from whom he has been estranged for over 30 years.
occur when he finds out that this mother is not in fact his biological
mother, but his adoptive mother.
Houston describes how the play proceeds both in the
present day, natural world and in a parallel fantastical world of
Tadashi’s imagination. While attempting to find his mother, Tadashi’s
own doubts and fears, represented by demons and spirits from his past,
haunt and thwart him.
Houston sees Tadashi’s journey to seek a centering force as a path
of self-purification as it is experienced in the Shinto faith. "It
must be self-driven," she says. Her own background has been
by Japanese folk tales, fairy tales, legends, mythology, and rituals,
which also prompted her to incorporate elements of Japan’s Noh and
Kabuki theatrical traditions into her play. Movement for the play
is under the guidance of Yass Hakoshima, a world-renowned dancer and
mime, now a resident of Montclair. The story is enlivened by a fusion
score of original jazz and Japanese Shakuhachi music designed by David
It was an unobstructed path, one without Tadashi’s obstacles of demons
and spirits, that took Houston from Kyoto, where she had been living
since 1999, to New Jersey’s George Street Playhouse. Introduced by
colleagues at the New World Theater at Amherst, artistic director
David Saint was looking for plays that explored a multi-cultural
When Saint read Houston’s play, "he immediately embraced it,"
she says. Saint brought it to George Street initially for a workshop
production in spring, 2000, as part of its Next-Stage Festival.
by Saint, who was eager not only to produce it but also to direct
it on the main stage, Houston says she did a lot of rewriting between
the Next Stage and two subsequent workshops at the Brava Theater
in San Francisco and at the Sacramento Theater Company.
Houston isn’t worried that audiences will encounter a different world
in her play, one that they may not immediately recognize. The
cultural landscape, she says, will give way to very familiar territory
— an American family. "Although it is a very different
family," she says, "the classic mother and son conflict will
speak to many people."
"David (Saint) and I clicked from the early stages of developing
the play. His mother had recently died and he seemed to understand
the quest of a man trying to understand himself, as well as the bond
between a mother and son. As a result, the play became very powerful
for him. The fact that he continues to understand it, and that the
play continues to feed his process is very important to me," she
Houston was born in Japan and raised in Junction City, a small Kansas
town of about 9,000. Surprisingly, this setting nurtured and fed her
artistic growth. Junction City "was right next to Fort Riley,
a big fort where the military chose to send a lot of mixed
she says. "It was an international community, including, among
many women from all over Asia and Europe, about 700 Japanese women,
all connected to the military."
"I grew up in the kitchens of German, Japanese, and even a few
Thai women," she continues. "Being in the kitchen, I listened
and learned what it was like to grow up in Germany, in England, in
southern Italy." In fact, Houston had the whole world around her
giving her "food" for thought. This was, she says, "my
gateway to the world."
Houston is a single parent, who says she doesn’t want to sound
but likes to brag about her children. They are her "brainy"
15-year-old son who sings, plays piano and guitar and wants to be
a pediatric surgeon, and her 5-year-old ballerina, violinist, and
gymnast daughter. Of course, they may be motivated a little by a
who received her undergraduate degree in communications, theater,
and philosophy from Kansas State University in 1980, and subsequently
a master’s degree in playwriting and screenwriting and Ph.D. from
UCLA in critical studies in cinema and television.
Houston has also been named by the National Japanese American
Society as a Japanese Woman of Merit. Three of her plays have had
their world premieres over the last 18 months. She expects to finish
three more over the next three years. Wouldn’t the teacher from Boston
who encouraged the small-town Kansas girl to write a play be pleased?
Using actors who understand your work is as important as having the
right director. Houston says she is pleased that Tony and Drama Desk
nominee ("Shogun") June Angela, who has appeared in other
plays by Houston, is back with her playing a character described as
Shape Shifter Dazzler. The cast also includes Takayo Fischer, another
Houston player ("Tea" and "Shedding the Tiger") as
Satomi, and Clark Jackson (Drama Desk award for Off-Broadway’s
who will originate the role of Tadashi. Others include Danny Johnson,
Sabrina Le Beauf, Mia Tagano, and Sue Jin Song as Shape Shifter
Three-time Tony-award winner Theoni V. Aldredge designed the costumes.
— Simon Saltzman
Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. Opening night,
through February 3. $18 to $45. Friday, January 11, 8 p.m.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.