It’s Hard to Find the Perfect Temperature

“Tea”1992 – A Contemporary Theatre, Seattle, Photo by Chris Bennion. Foregrounded: Marilyn Tokuda as Himiko Hamilton. In the background, left to right: Cynthia Gates Fujikawa as Teruko, Ako as Atsuko, and Sherryl Ray as Setsuko.

Tea is not quiet.

But turbulent.


So fine you can’t see them.

So dense it seems to be standing still.

I wrote those words in my early twenties in my play “Tea” and have had the singular experience of hearing them delivered by numerous Asian and Asian American actresses over nearly four decades.

Like some relationships that are forty years long, “Tea” and I travel our distinct journeys, but sometimes I see a production, like the current production at Los Angeles’ Hero Theatre, Producing Artistic Director Elisa Bocanegra (, and I am reminded of my original, vital need to write the play.

For the first time since early productions of “Tea,” I attended the initial rehearsal of Hero Theatre’s production and have seen the play several times. Revisiting the world of the Japanese women of “Tea” is not like stepping into the past, but being mired completely in the female immigrant present.

The late Academy Award-winning Actress Olympia Dukakis with Hero Theatre Producing Artistic Director, Actress, and Director Elisa Bocanegra from Hero Theatre’s website

Prior to meeting me, Elisa Bocanegra discovered the play in her search to find new classics. When we became friends, we realized that “Tea” connected us and that we shared one other significant connection – the late and wonderful Olympia Dukakis.

Harry Mavromichalis image of Olympia Dukakis. (1)

Olympia was one of the early producers of the play along with Manhattan Theatre Club and the Old Globe Theatre. Not only did she embrace the play as an important exploration of immigrant culture in the U.S., but she also embraced me artistically and personally. I lived with her family in New Jersey while the play was in rehearsal and, throughout our friendship, she encouraged me to write plays that explored the world through my personal lens, not the lens of mercantile theatre (European American white patriarchal mainstream theatre). That time also was blessed with the presence of Olympia’s mother, Alexandra. Daily, I shared breakfast with her and she told me about her experience with a Japanese exchange student as well as her views about living in a country in which one was not born.

Olympia was one of few people who encouraged my artistic, innately BIPOC, polyethnic, and polycultural voice. Even my advisor at the University of California at Los Angeles urged me to write for a wider audience. When he said it to me, the fan was whirring in his office and I wasn’t sure if he said to write for a wider audience or a whiter audience, although at that time and for many years in the theatre, the two adjectives were basically synonymous.

“Tea” 1989, Whole Theatre, Montclair, New Jersey, Produced by Olympia Dukakis. From left to right: Lani Miyazaki as Himiko, Lily Mariye as Teruko, Shuko Akune as Atsuko, and Takayo Fischer as Setsuko.

Separately from my friendship with Olympia, Olympia also met and became close friends with Elisa when they performed in a production at Roundabout Theatre in New York. When Olympia learned through her friendship with Elisa about the many challenges that actors (particularly actresses) of color face in striving to find meaningful roles in theatre and film (or to be cast at all), she encouraged Elisa to start her own theatre company. Elisa founded Hero Theatre and Olympia supported her in her efforts, serving on her board and being the inspiration for Hero Theatre’s Olympia Dukakis Mentorship Program for emerging theatre-makers.

Olympia is quoted aptly on the Hero Theatre website, “…Most of us talk one way and live another. There are a few people who truly, truly walk the talk.”

Organically and emphatically, Olympia advised me to walk the talk. In Elisa, I saw another artist and scholar who also was not afraid to live and create in that vein. Creating theatre that goes beyond lip service and truly excavates what is stirring in our souls is holistically sound and admirable. That is theatre I want to witness.

I feel as though I wrote the play “Tea,” and then woke up one day and (with surprise) heard it termed as a modern “classic.” That was not a label that history applied to a BIPOC, much less polyethnic, voice. Reflecting upon this notion, I consider a theatre like Hero and its leader Elisa who understands that art and culture cannot evolve unless the idea of what is classic to our existence evolves, too. “Classic” cannot be exclusive to the European American patriarchy and its history. What about “And the Soul Shall Dance” by Wakako Yamauchi? “A Raisin in the Sun” by Lorraine Hansberry? “F.O.B.” by David Henry Hwang? “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf” by Ntozake Shange? “Marisol” by Jose Rivera? These plays are important, valuable, and memorable to me. And to many others.

The Oxford Dictionary defines a classic story as “accepted or deserving to be accepted as one of the best or most important of its kind.” Merriam-Webster defines a classic as “serving as a standard of excellence…being of recognized value,” “historically memorable .”[i]

What is historically memorable to some of us may have never crossed the minds of others. Recently, I wrote a short play inspired by the theme of betrayal and Dante’s “Inferno.” In it, several BIPOC females from world history are represented (Queen Lili‘uokalani, Phillis Wheatly, Buffalo Calf Road Woman, and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz). All of them are largely unknown to the mainstream U.S. Certainly, they  never were discussed in my school textbooks. I am thankful that “Tea” has made an indelible imprint in culture and that it is historically memorable to many. The play has transcended nation (it has brought me into conversation with people in Algiers, Egypt, India, Denmark, Brazil, Korea, China, Malaysia, and other countries). It has transcended generations, engaging people over eighty and people under thirty as well as secondary school and university students globally. It has transcended ethnicity (many who have no Asian heritage find parallel meanings germane to their lives in the themes of the play; Elisa’s mother was an immigrant from Puerto Rico and Olympia’s mother was an immigrant from Greece, historically memorable ties among us). In addition, the play has transcended time. Decades after it was written, it enjoys a continuous production life, is studied around the world, and has been translated into several languages.

Long before the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police (and countless other African American murders in the same vein, which incidentally have not ceased) and long before the murders of Asian-descent women in Atlanta (a majority of them were native Asian, not Asian American), I raised in “Tea” many notions that society wasn’t ready to confront: polyculturalism, multiculturalism, ethnic intersectionality, anti-Blackness, anti-Asian sentiments (and intra-group as well), interracial marriage between native Asians and men of color, polyethnic identity, to name a few.

Nowadays, society has a temporal awareness of anti-Blackness and anti-Asian/Asian American hatred, but in the years in which “Tea” is set and the years in which I wrote the play and saw it begin its long production life, such awareness was about as viable as dirt. I found resistance to Asian female culture most vehement in New York and other parts of the east coast.

So, I bring to Hero Theatre’s current production of the play the consciousness that society is evolving with regards to its engagement with issues of ethnicity, but that view is merged with an understanding that society’s perspective of ethnic-related matters can turn on a dime and also is different based upon what region of the country in which one is breathing. Views of ethnicity in, let’s say Kansas where I grew up, are different than views of ethnicity in California.

“Tea” 2007, Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, New York; Karen Tsen Lee as Himiko.

Another dimension of impact that “Tea” has given birth to that gladdens me is that it has created opportunities for over 500 Asian and Asian American actresses to perform roles of depth rather than being relegated to superficial roles – or to confront no roles at all. Every time I become aware of another actress cast in “Tea” who has not been in the play before, I feel good that my work makes a difference in the lives of such actresses who deserve opportunities that they so often are denied.

Actresses who have performed in “Tea” over the years with me at the opening of “Tea, With Music,” a musical adaptation of the play, East West Players, Los Angeles, 2012.
The new-generation company of “Tea” currently at Hero Theatre: Elaine Ackles, Olivia Cordell, Hiroko Imai, Tomoko Karina, Hua Lee, Yukari Black, Alix Yumi Cho, Ariel Kayoko Labasan, Sayaka Miyatani, and Bolor Saruul.
“Tea” 2021. Wallace Theater, Princeton University. Lewis Center Princeton Arts. Another new-generation production. (2)

My mother is now ninety-three years old. 

The playwright’s mother as a teenager and today.

From the moment I remember existing in this world, she gave me love and support. She asked me to never forget that I was both native Japanese and  American. I have lived in that polyethnic vein my entire life and will continue to do so, racists and monoracial advocates be damned. In the 1980s, I talked about the racial binary that exists in the U.S. I always have been non-binary ethnically. Now that term is used to describe people who are non-binary in terms of gender. I understand that circumstance extremely well given my own journey on this planet.

“Tea, With Music,” East West Players, Los Angeles, 2012; Actresses with Playwright and Playwright’s mother,  (left to right: Tiffany Marie Austin, Joan Almedilla, Janet Song, Velina Hasu Houston, Setsuko Takechi (the playwright’s mother), Yumi Iwama, and Jennie Kwan. 

My mother, who found the white European concept of “Mother Goose” inappropriate for her mixed ethnicity children, chose to share the folklore, legends, and traditions that she knew best – those of pre-World War II Japan – with her children to help us develop our own unique place in this world. That nurturing had a massive impact on the development of my literary voice.  Critics often address the blending of east and west in my work. That is organic to how I was reared.


As I grew older, I realized that Japanese war brides were the victims of prejudicial stereotypes that were proliferated by native Japanese, Asian Americans, and non-Asian U.S. citizens. The stereotypes were about as hostile and vicious as the hatred that BIPOC people decry today as they protest unkindness and viciousness being practiced against them by whites. (#stopwarbridehate) Witness how the migration of thousands of Japanese women into the U.S. at the end of World War II is just a paragraph in Asian American history books, if present at all.

What kinds of things were said about war brides? It was said (is said) that they were prostitutes, bar girls, thieves, dirty, etc. All in all, they were seen as being lower than other Japanese, other Asian Americans, and just about anybody else.

2010, Chado Tea Room, Los Angeles, California. Actresses who were in various productions of “Tea”  and the Playwright (from left to right: Shuko Akune, Takayo Fischer, Velina Hasu Houston, Kimiko Gelman, Momo Yashima, Dian Kobayashi, June Angela.

I remember when a production of “Tea” took place in Long Beach, California. At the time, the mayor was a Japanese American. She didn’t even want to speak to me because I was the daughter of a Japanese war bride.  She deigned to come see “Tea” and, as a result, struck up a conversation with me, deciding that I wasn’t so bad after all if I could write that play. (Gee, thanks.)

“Tea, With Music,” 2012, East West Players, Los Angeles, California. Photo by Michael Lamont.  From left to right: Janet Song, Jennie Kwan, Joan Almedilla, Tiffany Marie Austin, Yumi Iwama.

When my parents came from Japan and arrived in Seattle, a Japanese American couple who ran a restaurant refused to let them come in because my mother was a war bride and my father was Black. How ironic that such racism was propagated by Japanese Americans given what they experienced during World War II with regards to President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 and forced incarceration (another experience that wasn’t in my school textbooks).

Years ago, a Japanese American friend introduced me to her father who said (before he said hello), “I can’t believe the daughter of a Japanese prostitute is in my house.” When I was invited by an open-minded member of the U.C.L.A. Asian Pacific American Alumni Association to join the organization I heard the group leader, a Los Angeles Japanese American judge (making decisions about the lives of many Black people) tell the membership person that it was alright to let half-white Asian Americans join, but not ones who were half Black. Nice to know justice is unbiased.

Chiyoko Denham with four barber shop colleagues (names unknown) in Japan, circa 1948.

In Japan and in Asian American settings, I’ve had people look at me with pity because they see me as the uncomely offspring of a war bride and a Black man. This amuses me. If anything, I feel that I should pity them for not having had the benefit of my polycultural upbringing and journey. Equally amusing is an attitude I often encounter: people who think one cannot have any affinity with being Japanese if one is also mixed with Black ethnicity. What a silly and limited prejudicial notion. The one test they like to fling is whether or not I speak Japanese.

My mother speaks English, but many would say she can’t speak English. While I am not fluent in Japanese, I speak Japanese in the same way that my mother speaks English (or spoke English; she stopped speaking it about twenty years ago and now says very little at all). When I speak to some Japanese immigrants, they refuse to respond to me in Japanese and opt for broken English. Some native Japanese people say I don’t speak Japanese at all and some Americans think I can’t because I’m part Black.

As for me, I believe in bilingualism, especially coupled with authentic, innate polyculturalism. I also, however, believe that a U.S. citizen is not obligated to speak an ancestral language (do German Americans  speak German?).

Regarding language, I want to take a moment to talk about accents, particularly in terms of Asian American performance. Many younger-generation Asian American actresses do not want to perform with an accent. They forget that many people that they think of as Asian American are actually native Asians (like most of the women murdered in Atlanta) and naturally have accents. It is akin to performing a British role and not adopting a British accent (although my native English husband says that Americans slide over seventeen British regions in five minutes of donning a “British accent”). If one is going to perform an Asian (as opposed to Asian American) character, then understand that the accent is part of the authenticity of the individual. To eliminate that natural dimension of the character for one’s own political needs is appropriating and synthetic.

Beyond language, cooking and eating of foods are strong representations of culture. In the early 1980s, I was astonished to learn that Americans ate Japanese food. Today, I am stunned at how popular green tea is (it even comes in tea bags!). Only Asians drank it when I was young. Even Asian Americans did not. Cultural embrace is a fine thing. Let us appreciate cultures that are different than our own. Authentic cultural appreciation is beautiful; inauthentic and ersatz cultural appropriation is not.

Once people who deny my polyculturalism and native Japanese imprinting have seen “Tea,” they have a different view of my engagement with Japanese culture. Some are uncomfortable that a Japanese and Black woman has more organic Japanese culture in her than they do. Some exoticize the notion of “war brides,” drawn to the story with some sort of expectation of sweet wickedness. Others are disturbed that a Japanese and Black woman is the author of the play rather than someone who traditionally looks Japanese (like an image in a Japanese airline travel poster). In this new era of anti-Black/#stopAAPIhate consciousness, there is finally an openness about the play’s themes and also about the fact that a polycultural Japanese person wrote it rather than an Asian American or an airline-poster Japanese person. (Keep your eyes on the light.)

Actress June Angela, who portrayed Himiko in several productions of “Tea.”

Stereotypes are heinous no matter who harbors them. Let’s go back to the dictionary. Merriam-Webster describes a stereotype as “a standardized mental picture that …represents an oversimplified opinion.. [or] prejudiced attitude….” I reject stereotypes about Black people, gay people, transgender people, Asian people, Asian American people, Latinx people, Native Americans – you name it. Yes, such views are oversimplified, distorted prejudgments.

However, I just as vehemently reject stereotypes about Japanese war brides, which often come from BIPOC groups that are fighting stereotypes themselves. In preparation for the writing of “Tea,” I interviewed forty-eight Japanese immigrant women living in the state of Kansas. I learned about the variety of their backgrounds and understood that Americans of any upbringing could have similar economic diversity. My advice? Educate yourselves. Seek enlightenment. Please. (#stopAsianwarbridehate)

Too often I see the terms Asian and Asian American conflated. They are not the same things. For example, ask someone born and raised in Japan if they feel that they are of the same culture as a Japanese American. They will respond resoundingly, “NO.” Native Japanese culture and Japanese American culture are two very different things. I was reared with native Japanese culture, not Japanese American culture. That is one of the reasons that my identity confounds monoracial cultures and, yes, a reason that they marginalize me. No matter. The tea tastes very good over here.

This conflation, however, has something to do with my feelings about the movement to stop hatred against Asian Americans and Pacific Islander Americans (AAPI) that began after the murder of several persons of Asian descent in Atlanta.

First of all, the majority of the victims were native Asians, not Asian American. Most likely they spoke accented English. Like my mother. And all of the Asian immigrants I know.

Secondly, aforementioned, I do understand that many Americans do not discern any difference between Asian identity and Asian American identity. That, however, allows negativity to be directed at either culture broadly. On the positive side, it also allows Asian American culture hopefully to embrace and genuinely appreciate Asian cultures.

Many people in the U.S. movement to stop violence against AAPI communities do not seem to understand that AAPI people come in a variety of phenotypes. The treatment of non-traditionally-appearing AAPI people by traditionally-appearing AAPI people can be traumatic. I know firsthand.

In an online meeting about stopping AAPI hate, I had a very uncomfortable experience that emphasized such trauma. When an Asian American woman scanned the faces online, she saw mine and stated that an “ally” was in the room, but that the meeting was an Asian American affinity space and the “ally” should leave. I knew she meant me. When I didn’t leave, she repeated her message, but with an icy firmness that I assume was meant to scare me out of the room. I did not leave. A mixed ethnic Asian American texted me asking if the woman meant us. That person, however, was mixed with white and therefore more acceptable in Asian American circles in particular. Here this group was meeting to stop hatred, but they were practicing the same kind of hatred against me. What kind of Asian American affinity was that?

The playwright and her mother in 2007.

I write what I must write. I don’t plan it. I don’t have an agenda (except to write). The stories that emerge from my soul are different because life flows through me from different sources that are far removed from that of mainstream America, and that travel through a perspective that is informed in ways that are unusual with regards to convention.

I wrote “Tea” because that was and is my life. For years, I sat at my mother’s table in our tiny dining room in Kansas when her Japanese woman friends would come over for tea. These moments were few and far between, and also short in duration; maybe an hour or so before children would come home from school and dinners had to be prepared. Small dishes of various kinds of Japanese food filled the table. I was the tea girl, making sure that the tea was freshly brewed with aromatic leaves that my mother’s sister Haruko regularly sent from Japan.

Those tea times were the beginnings of the play that I named “Tea.” It is a simple word, but it resonates tenfold in my soul. It is a metaphor for the lives of the Japanese immigrant women of Kansas who I love, especially my mother who had come from Matsuyama, Japan, so many years before and built a life for herself in a small Kansas town, staying there after her husband died because she was afraid of the racism that her Afro-Asian children might suffer in Japan; it was already bad enough in the  U.S.

“Tea,” 1992, A Contemporary Theatre, Seattle, Photo by Chris Bennion. From left to right, Sherryl Ray as Setsuko, Ako as Atsuko, Marilyn Tokuda as Himiko, Cynthia Fujikawa Gates as Teruko, and Diana Tanaka as Chizuye.

I supplemented those experiences with interviews of forty-eight Japanese women living in numerous Kansas towns, my mother being the forty-ninth. When I finally sat down to write the play, it tumbled out in two weeks. I felt as though I was channeling the women’s history. In the early 1980s, I received a Rockefeller Foundation grant to develop the play and there was a workshop production at the Asian American Theatre Company, San Francisco. In 1987, Manhattan Theatre Club presented the professional world premiere of the play Off-Broadway in New York.

Seeing the play now is an evolved experience. When I was a baby playwright, I largely reflected upon my mother’s history and that of my family. As an older playwright, I look at the past, present, and future of ethnic intersectionality. I also grow nostalgic about the portraits of women in their youth, women whose sources are either now dead or in their nineties. As a character in “Tea” says, “No one will ever remember that there were Japanese in Kansas.”

A couple of years ago, a producer in Japan, a woman in her thirties, contacted me about Japanese war brides. She noted that about 50,000 women left Japan when World War II ended. Never before had such a large group of Japanese women (or any Japanese for that matter) left Japan and it has never happened again either. She characterized this as the seeds of feminism in Japan, stating that the exodus of so many Japanese women illuminates for contemporary women in Japan the reality that they have the freedom to make their own choices about their lives and that their choices need not be constrained by convention.

When Vice President Kamala Harris was elected, I read a few articles about Asian and Black identity, most of them asking why it was so difficult to understand such a blend in the year 2020. It always has been a difficult equation for the populace to comprehend. For me, understanding it and embodying it has been a beautiful, tough, and meaningful journey that I would not trade for anything. A reporter once called it a “hard adventure.” Perhaps so, but an adventure nonetheless.

Now, “Tea” is its own entity. It has brought many kinds of love into my life and I long ago released it to live its life. I hope it lives far beyond my time on this earth. I am deeply grateful to the theatres and universities who continue to produce the play and provide cultural illumination. Today my thoughts consider Hero Theatre and theatre-makers such as Elisa, Gabe Figueroa, Rebecca Wear, Ashley Busenlener, Ashley Weaver, Audrey Forman, Dean Harada, Carlo Maghirang, Maggie Dick, Marvin Hidalgo, Azra King-Abadi, and all the actresses noted above.  “It’s time for tea,” Himiko says in the play.  Itadakimasu.

The playwright’s parents, Kamakura, Japan, 1954.

At my sister’s behest, I took a DNA test and reviewed the breakdown: Japanese, African, Spanish, Native American, Portuguese, and a tiny bit Korean and Chinese. Interesting. Most of that I knew about. None of it bothered me. All of it intrigues me. Some people tell me nowadays that I don’t have the right to write about anything unless I am that thing (ethnically). Sigh. I have spent my life being told that I don’t have the right to write about this or that; sometimes it’s because I’m female, often I’m not Asian enough or Black enough. Sometimes it’s because I don’t live a life of Latinidad; sometimes I’m not Native American enough. I don’t have to live a monoracial life or culture. I am many ethnicities; I am polycultural and polyethnic. Something to celebrate and be thankful for.

I am intersectionality in motion, an organic intersectionality that has blazed a trail on this planet from the late 1950s and will continue to do so until the flame goes out.

I am listening.

I pray that you listen, too.

“Tea,” 1992, A Contemporary Theatre, Seattle, Photo by Chris Bennion. Marilyn Tokuda as Himiko, held by Sherryl Ray as Setsuko.

[i] Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries. Web. Downloaded on April 24, 2022 @,a%20classic%20movie%2F%E2%80%8Bwork. Merriam-Webster dictionary. Web. Downloaded on April 24, 2022 @

(1) Mavromichalis, Harry. A still from the film Olympia. Olympia Dukakis, a celebrity grand marshal, Pride Parade, San Francisco, 26 June, 2011. Created 12 Apr, 2021. License CC BY-SA 4.0. Web. Downloaded on April 29, 2022 @,_from_film_Olympia_by_Harry_Marvomichalis.jpg.

(2) “Tea” 2021. Wallace Theater, Princeton University. Lewis Center Princeton Arts. Another new-generation production. Web. Downloaded April 24, 2022


(3) Esa, Jessica. “9 Japanese Ghost and Mystery Books To Read This Summer: Get ready for a spine-chilling reading afternoon.” Published 19 Aug, 2020; updated 26 Apr, 2021.  Tokyo Weekender.  Web. Downloaded on April 29, 2022 @


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