Why I Wrote “Tea,” Why I Write Anything

Tea is not quiet, but turbulent. Tremblings. So fine you can’t see them. So dense it seems to be standing still.

We Japanese women drink a lot of it. Become it. Swallow the tempest.

And nobody knows. The storm inside. Ever.

We remain… Peaceful. Contained. The eye of the hurricane.

But if you can taste the tea. If it can roll over your tongue in one swallow.

Then the rest will come to you.

When the tea leaves are left behind in the bottom of a cup.

When we are long gone and forgotten. [1]

I am writing about the creation of my play “Tea” because I have received inquiries from many interesting individuals around the world about that question. In all sincerity, I have thought about the question many times, but the inquiries made me consider it more directly and as unequivocally as I can, in this moment. I am motivated by the curiosity of a new generation of readers and/or viewers of “Tea,” and also by the fact that so many more people of mixed race Japanese ancestry are coming into being in this world. Their searching honors my own and I am grateful to them.

I wrote “Tea” because I had to. When I wrote it, I never thought that it would still be produced regularly forty years later. Long before issues concerning Japanese female culture, non-binary ethnic identities, and immigration became topical in the media beyond the white gaze, “Tea” explored those matters with profundity. In addition, it did so through a female Japanese and Japanese poly-ethnic gaze.

When the Los Angeles Times wrote about “Tea” this year (“Why Velina Hasu Houston’s timely play ‘Tea’ continues to be staged around the world” [2]), it also generated further meditation about the play. The actress Hua Lee discussed the play’s relevancy to experiences that plague global societies today, particularly in the United States. The timelessness to which she referred was not a specific objective, but I believe that when we investigate matters of the conscience, a boundlessness can arise that can buttress humanity.

Growing up in Junction City, Kansas, I received an education from many women that I would not fully value until I was a young adult starting college. That education was given to me organically via the lives of women from around the globe who shared their food, stories, and hearts with me when I visited their homes or they visited ours. While most of them came from Japan, they also were from Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, France, England, Austria, Italy, and Germany.

The main source, of course, was Setsuko Takechi, my mother. Over the years, she proved to be not only my mother, but also my muse, mentor, nurse, counselor, and friend. She departed this plane of existence in June, 2022, and it was a transformative moment for me. It continues to be so.

With regard to “Tea” specifically, however, she was the central muse. Sometimes during afterschool hours, she invited a few Japanese women over for tea. No, I do not mean tea ceremony as in chanoyu, but another kind of ritualistic tea. Like chanoyu, the kind of tea time enjoyed by my mother and her friends was an experience elevated from their everyday lives in a small Kansas town. Like chanoyu, it was a way of tea, if you will, that allowed the Japanese female immigrants to weave a sense of community with each other in a safe place that was separate from their daily lives as mothers and wives.

They appreciated the food, the Japanese bowls and plates, the chopsticks, and the tea and rice that tasted so much better than what the military grocery store provided. My mother’s tea time was not merely serving tea to guests, but an event – a table adorned with tiny, beautiful Japanese dishes filled with Japanese foods; delicious rice and tea sent from Japan by my Haruko Obasan (Aunt Haruko), and chopsticks inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My mother liked such chopsticks. The pair she gave me and taught me to use when I was four are rose pink inlaid with mother-of-pearl. I have kept them all of my life and they now rest in my mother’s butsudan.

Before I share (as best as I can) the perceptions and impressions that took me from my mother’s tea table to the writing of my play, “Tea,” I need to make a certain distinction. The reason I need to make this distinction is because, too often, I encounter Japanese and non-Japanese people who think that the Japanese international brides of World War II (often called “war brides” by the general public) are the same as Japanese Americans. Once in a live San Francisco morning television program, a white male broadcaster was incredulous about the idea of a Japanese woman marrying a black man and asked how my parents met on a battle field during World War II. Not only was the remark a senseless and disrespectful thing to say, but it also was painfully obvious that he had not acted professionally and read his advance copy. Despite his cluelessness and incivility, the producers of my play expected me to ignore it, and offer a plastic smile that I could not and would not muster.   

There is another brand of people who feel that being Japanese, being “American,” or being a host of other ethnicities are defined by what nation’s passport or citizenship one holds. First of all, Japanese people and Japanese American people are two distinct cultures. The latter are Americans of Japanese descent (as they steadfastly proved by majority loyalty during World War II). Secondly, ethnicity is not determined by the country you live in or who gives you a passport or what government grants you citizenship, but by the biology of your birth. (In the United States, people born in the state of Hawai’i often call themselves Hawaiian. Hawaiian ethnicity, however, is a distinct entity. Here, for example, is a photograph of a Native Hawaiian [most people thought of as “Hawaiian” today may have no Native Hawaiian heritage]): [3]

My ethnicity is not Californian. When people, as they often do, ask me, “What are you?” if I answered “Californian,” their inquisitiveness would be unfulfilled. 

Concerning “Tea,” let me share some interesting history. Before “Tea” was published, a certain author and her agent vigorously approached me and my representatives in their desire to obtain a copy of the play. Eventually, we sent them the manuscript. A few years later, that author published a book about another group of Asian women. While the stories were different, the ideology of a community of Asian immigrant women had been inspired by “Tea.” It did not matter to me – as it is said, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery – but later such stereotypes about Asian stories did matter to me. A white film producer said, “Why ‘Tea’ is nothing but a copy of –.” In the film industry, there couldn’t be two films about a group of Asian women, right? How could one group of Asian women experience anything that was different from another group of Asian women? That was the attitude the film industry reflected.

 “Tea,” in fact, had existed long before the other creation, hence its inspiring potency. While my Meiji approach to the situation allowed me to put it in the past, it percolated again when I met the certain author and she pretended as if she didn’t know who I was and then prevaricated about the vigorous attempt to obtain a copy of my play. Suddenly, the film producer’s attitude about Asians took on a more universal sheen. Anybody could be unpleasant and discourteous. But I think we all know that. Another writer perhaps seeking to dampen the immigrant writing experience or any other writing experience that was not his own kept battering me with the question, “When are you going to write something important?” “Tea” was and is important to me. The best resolution for me is to cut a wide swath around these kinds of toxicity.

Let me address the perceptions and impressions that led to the writing of “Tea.”

My world was my mother and her Japanese friends. I served as their tea-runner, making sure that the old tea leaves were thrown away and that a fresh pot of tea was made as soon as the last drop was poured. Fascinated by what they had to share and by the fact that they were amazed I was fascinated, I listened to their every word. I knew them as so-and-so’s mother or the woman who lived on such-and-such street, but I had never known them as individuals.

When I began college, my many observations of those Japanese women remained etched in my mind. I decided I would travel around the state of Kansas and interview Japanese female immigrants. When I told my mother about my plan, she was skeptical. She believed that most Japanese women would not divulge their stories to me for two reasons: they didn’t know me and I also was a mixed-race Japanese person of African descent. (I am Japanese, African American, Native American, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, and Korean; but I get mis-raced often – Are you Filipina? Are you Sri Lankan? Are you Polynesian? Are you a Spanish girl? [and because of the binary of black-white race that makes anything not white be labeled as black] Are you black?) Despite the fact that I was culturally Meiji, Taishō, and early Shōwa Japanese, they would see me as black and, due to anti-blackness, not want to engage with me. That happens a lot and I have ceased to care about it, but I cared then because I wanted those interviews.

Still, I scheduled the interviews over the phone and resolved to drive around the nearly 53,000 acres of Kansas to talk with women who had come from all over Japan to a small town in the middle of that state.

I should add that these women are the source of heinous stereotypes that seem to have spread globally. Many people use the term “war bride” as if they are saying the “n” word to a black person. The stereotype is that Japanese women who married Americans at the end of World War II were whores and bar girls. The physical and spiritual devastation of Japan at the end of World War II wounded national pride. The women who left and married foreigners were considered traitors, and incurred the wrath of Japanese society. In the U.S., the stereotypes persisted, particularly among Asian Americans because of their anathema towards interracial marriage and their anti-blackness, which I personally experience all the time.

Years ago, I visited a northwestern U.S. city with an Okinawan and Japanese American friend (no, Okinawan culture and Japanese culture are not the same, and deserve the distinction of their unique heritages). After being told that my mother was Japanese, the Okinawan American father (who identified himself as being Japanese American) looked at me and said, “So, your mother is a prostitute.” While his daughter was embarrassed and shocked by his statement, I was not surprised by its abusive and prejudiced violence. I simply smiled, but later I told the man that, given the fact that he concealed his Okinawan heritage, he was the last person who ought to be casting aspersions on anybody else.

My mother came from an affluent family in Matsuyama, Japan, and had a maid until her late teens when the maid left to marry. I am ashamed to say that my grandfather, as the owner of an estate, managed tenant farmers, which, to me, is enslavement. For me, there is irony in that because my African ancestors were enslaved while my Japanese ancestors were enslavers. Once my mother came to the U.S., her class status shifted to being a Japanese immigrant in a provincial Kansas town who was married to a black man. But she was no more a whore than anybody else’s mother or father.

The forty-nine women I interviewed also illustrated a variety of class backgrounds, professions, demeanors, and attitudes that defied all kinds of stereotypes about “war brides,” about women, and about Asians. I packed my car and prepared to drive to the first town for the first interview. My mother came out of the house with a small suitcase and said she was going with me. She declared that she had to protect me from small-minded people, whatever their racial background. It was one of those things that did not have to be explained. We set off for Abilene, Kansas, the site of our first interview. I interviewed women who were the sole non-white presence in their town, who had never seen a Japanese person since leaving Japan. I interviewed women who lived in places where there were a few Japanese female immigrants, but not many. The longest interview was eight hours with two bathroom breaks. That woman at first said not to write anything down or to tape her, but then she asked me to write everything down, then she said we should tape the interview for utmost accuracy. Sometimes, an interviewee’s teenage children would join us. They often were astounded by the stories they heard; never before had their mothers talked about their lives. The experiences were truly altering for all concerned.

In the years since, I’ve read many books and articles about mixed race people. The ones about Japanese interracial couples invariably explore white-Japanese American couples, not Japanese immigrant women who married black or brown men. When they ask me or someone else what they think, they often are asked to go back and interview some Japanese women who didn’t marry white men. I suppose because I am a mixed-race Japanese of African descent and because I have seen that a sense of community is sometimes possible among Japanese female immigrants who marry across color lines, I always embraced all hues of interracial marriages. But then it was the 1960s and it was a small Kansas town…

After I completed the interviews, I sat down and wrote the first draft of “Tea” in two weeks. The play poured out of me. That was 1979. From 1979-1982, I refined the play and the first “real” draft I was willing to show anybody was in 1982. The play had a Rockefeller Foundation workshop production in San Francisco at the Asian American Theatre Company and then opened for its professional world premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club in New York in 1987. Since that time, the play has been produced continuously around the globe. This last year, it was produced in Los Angeles by Hero Theatre, and also in Wisconsin and Princeton. It is studied globally; in middle schools, high schools, and universities. Dramatists Play Service published it some time ago. I adapted it into a musical, then a novel, now a film treatment and opera.

In 2011, I adapted the play into a musical. While it was nominated for a key award for best book of a musical and I enjoyed composer Nathan Wang’s music, the artistic creation was gratifying for me, but I felt the genre was not the right one for the material. Shortly thereafter, I adapted it into a novel, which was a provocative adventure. Now, I am completing a film adaptation of the play, an endeavor I didn’t engage in before because of the barriers imposed against Asian women’s stories in U.S. cinema. My final cultivation of my mother’s tea and the interviews will be an opera, a notion suggested to me by a colleague, composer and musician Carla Lucero, and viable given the nature of the medium and the long association I have with Los Angeles Opera.

I wrote “Tea” because the journey of those women – marginalized figures through whose veins ran a bygone Japanese culture — is core to my worldview. Because I treasured their grace, courage, and internal fortitude, their stories flowed from my soul onto the page. That perspective – of the stranger in a new place that is not their home – remains vital to my storytelling. The life my mother and those women shared with me was like a rich carpet and the rest of the world was cold tile.

When my son was four, I came home from rehearsing “Tea” at the Old Globe and his child care provider showed me what he had written: a short play called “Milk.” Inspired by “Tea,” he created a play about a group of mixed race young boys who gather for reasons important to their circle. I consider that the first non-Velina artistic creation that “Tea” inspired. The life around me makes impressions upon me out of which grow perceptions that feed, enrich, and expand my worldview. From that, stories are cultivated that become artistic creations. Artistic license, fiction, imagination, and inspiration all become part of the enigmatically inexplicable process of cultivation.

I am green tea, sometimes gyokuro, sometimes sencha, sometimes genmaicha; it depends on the day. Sometimes I even feel like kukicha. Moreover, some days, I am “Ceylon” tea — or a blend of them all. A green tea girl in orange pekoe country. Yes, I know in the present climate most people don’t know what “orange pekoe” means. It’s a grade of non-green tea and, in the world in which I existed when I was growing up in Kansas, it was either Japanese tea or orange pekoe (in our case, dark brown American tea). In our family’s home, it was green tea, no sugar please, no additives whatsoever.

My maternal Meiji, Taishō, and early Shōwa Japanese culture is fading away. Even the emerging mixed race Japanese are primarily either Heisei mixtures or American Japanese mixtures. Perhaps that is why my life has been filled with many older Japanese and American Japanese embodied with native Japanese cultures preceding the Heisei era. I don’t know. I only know that I miss having my mother on this plane of existence, but that I am deeply grateful for the culture and traditions she passed on to me. While contemporary and generational influences imprint upon my children as they have upon me, I pass on my mother’s traditions to them and they hold them closely. For this, I also am grateful.

Why did I write “Tea”? Why do I write anything?

Because I must.

[1] Houston, Velina Hasu. “Tea.” From the author’s personal documents. Also available at Dramatists Play Service, 440 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10016, dpsinfo@broadwaylicensing.com. Photograph: the author’s mother, 1953.

[2] Cheng, Scarlet. “Why Velina Hasu Houston’s timely play ‘Tea’ continues to be staged around the world,” 4 May, 2022, Los Angeles Times. Downloaded on December 2, 2022 @


[3] Public domain. Walery (Stanislaw Julian Ostrorog). 1 Jan, 1887. Hawai’i State Archives. Call Number: PPWD-16-4.014. Hawai’i State Archives. Call Number: PPWD-16-4-014. The last queen of Hawai’i, Queen Lili’uokalani as Crown Princess Lili’uokalani of Hawai’i, photographed during Queen Victoria of England’s Golden Jubilee.


Re-visiting a 2019 Poem: “Demolition”


Posted on April 25, 2019 by matchabookwriter

There are those who do not give

a second thought to aging buildings.

They only see the flaws:

wrong essence, outmoded style,

decay, rust, and the wear and tear

of simply staying alive.

They cannot appreciate the original design

that speaks of the beauty of the bygone,

different materials, different construction;

it is an eyesore to them, an obstacle

to the shiny, new, impersonal thing that

they have ordered, next-day delivery.

It is abominable that mothers must die,

the whole art of unconditional love

having to be re-invented each time.

I love every crack in your walls,

every line that others see as fissures,

your closed windows stuck for years,

your aching bones that tell a story.

I am listening.

I have told many of this love,

but they do not believe in it.

Like literature, they dismiss it.

If it isn’t on television, it isn’t relatable.

All they want to do is tear you down

to build something else that

cannot weather the storms that come.

I stand outside the fence, teeth clenched,

hands fisted in helplessness.

Your stones come tumbling down,

the facade revealing the inner spaces

that I only glimpsed in dreams,

but I knew were so very there.

Many things happened here yet

slowly they disintegrate into dust.

I must tell someone how wonderful

you are.

Can they ever understand?

A Poem Written for Setsuko Takechi on September 11, 2011

When I look at you,

I see a map of history –

the Silk Road, Japan,

your genes a love song

to the riddle of human discord.

I see you as a girl hiding amid

persimmon trees as war loomed

in your father’s heart

and in the heart of your country.

I see you running from fire bombs

cascading over Shikoku

in a war that was not of your making,

your friends dying in the river,

the world you knew splintering.

I see you falling in love

with a man formerly your enemy,

wondering what the future held

for you and for your country,

a nation gasping for its breath,

the world watching with anticipation.

I see you in Kansas,

all the years of caring for children,

the struggles, the joys, the fears,

spoken and unspoken,

wondering if anybody heard you.

The long nights worrying

about the impact of war

on the soul of a husband lost to drink,

the questioning years of children

growing to leave and fight their own wars,

the living in a country

you had come to accept

but was never really a part of.

You were too different,

your husband too different,

your children too different

for the conceit of the times.

Let me sit with you and have tea.

We will contemplate

the blue, cloudless sky

and the clear green tea

that soaks into us like medicine.

You are my mother

and I am your daughter,

and we will carry on.

We will be resilient and endure.

Setsuko Takechi Perry as a teenager and as an elder.

Re-visiting Okaasan: Life, Death, and Chrysanthemums

My mother passed away on June 20, 2022, with her children and grandchildren surrounding her as a Buddhist priest read death rites and I read a poem written by a Zen monk at his death many centuries ago.

In celebration of her life, I am re-visiting an essay I wrote in her voice a few years ago.


Posted on 

I am thirteen years old.  I like to read books, climb trees, eat cold noodles in the summer and hot noodles in the winter, and have pet cats that have stripes or spots.  I like to look at photographs of other parts of the world and imagine what they must be like.  I take classical dance and sometimes perform.  I attend an all girls’ school, and wear a uniform that has a dark, long skirt and a long-sleeved dark top with white trim.  My hair is cut short during the summers because it is very hot and humid where I live.  “Short” means that it brushes my shoulders; anything shorter than that is defined as unfeminine by my mother. 

While studying my face and body, my mother calmly announces that I am going through puberty.  It is not calm to me. Inside, I feel my hormones wrestling with the decorum that my mother demands of me.  In addition, I am confronted with my own blood every month. My menses.  It is not as simple as the word may sound.  It involves rolling strips of clean cotton into a pad that I must strap to hold securely between my legs to capture blood from my womb.  When it is soiled, I have to wash the material, hang it to dry, and repeat the process with new cotton strips.  I do this five to seven times a day.  I am not allowed to discuss it with anybody.

If this were not bothersome enough, outside of me war rages as well.  My puberty is being experienced through the prism of international hostilities because my country is at war with several powerful nations.  In truth, I don’t know why this war is being fought.  I believe that it has something to do with the leader of my country and its top military men flexing their muscles.  One thing is for sure, it has nothing to do with me.  I think war is senseless and wasteful.  So many people have died, and women and children are dying who were not part of the country’s decision to go to war.  I have two older sisters who I have not seen for some time because they have been living in a colony far away.  One of them was sent there because she became pregnant at sixteen and was unmarried.  The baby was sent to us; my nephew entered our family as my “brother.”  I have two brothers now.  My real brother comes home wounded from the war.  His arm and spirit broken, he wanders the family land like a ghost, but he always wears his army cap, perhaps as a reminder of his belief in his country and what he could have saved if it ever truly existed in the way that so many young men imagined it did.  My mother tells me that my sisters have been forced to flee back to our country with literally the clothes on their backs.  They had been wealthy and proud; now they were bereft and on the run.  In the provinces where my family lives, my sister close in age to me and my family are safe.  My brother, wearing his army cap even when he is in his pajamas, says he believes in our country’s cause.  I ask him what this cause is and he says, “Power.”  Befuddled by the urgency and determination with which he states this response, I wonder why power is so important to him and exactly what it means to him, but I know it is not my place to ask.  Power to me means being able to live without bombing alerts, and bombings and shrapnel; and being able to climb trees and have pet cats with stripes or spots.  I do not have power.  My only power is my mother and her love for me, and my dog, a Shiba named Taki.

Under my father’s guidance, we build an underground cavern that will serve as a bomb shelter.  He says we must do whatever we can to protect ourselves from the fire and shrapnel from enemy bombs and gunfire.  I ask him why the enemy would want to kill my mother, sister, and me; and he says that, in war, it doesn’t matter; anybody one sees as the enemy must die.  He says this adamantly, perhaps because the army would not accept him as a soldier.  A teenage leg injury left him with a limp that disqualified him, although I believe they should have been more concerned about his quick temper and alcoholism. Every day for four days in a row, we dig into the earth with shovels creating a dark, small cavern that perhaps will allow us to escape death.  Air raids come frequently; never does a week go by when the siren doesn’t wail and the warnings don’t emanate from loud speakers for citizens to rush to their shelters.

I think every day will be my last.  I am surprised when I wake up each morning.  Looking up at a blue sky, I wonder if bullets will rain down from that same blue sky at any moment.  At thirteen, my thoughts are not filled with boys, clothing, magazines, and the unkindness of classmates, but life and death.

photo setsuko in middle school in japan 1942


The worst air raid I ever experienced comes one afternoon when I am walking between the two cities in which my family lives.  A river runs through the countryside near my school. The picture above is from my middle school years; a few years later, most of these girls would be dead from enemy bombings. When the bombs begin to rain fire and the enemy aircraft looms overhead like vultures, I see my schoolmates running, their dark uniforms ablaze with burning cotton and flesh, their screams and cries a chorus of pain that make me feel as if my head might explode. Unbearably hot from the bombs’ impact, they leap into the river.  The river, however, also has been hit by bombs and is scorching.  As the girls leap into its water that they think will soothe their burns, instead they are greeted by water so scalding that the steam boils off their flesh and silences their cries forever. Horrified, I watch the steam rise from the river like the mist over a perfectly brewed cup of tea.  These were my classmates.  I had sat across the aisle from them in small rooms.  We had taken tests together, worked together during recess, laughed together, and eaten lunches together.  I am mystified and mortified at the same time.  I also realize that I am not on fire.  I realize this with relief – and guilt.

Suddenly, I am swept up in a wet blanket and hoisted on a strong back.  My savior thuds across the terrain taking me to safety.  It is my father; it is the first time we have ever touched.  I ride on his back smothered by the wet blanket as he makes his way back to our family’s shelter.  It is cold and dark inside of it. Worms slither in the earthen walls.  The women and children look sad; the injured soldiers sent home in a disgrace manufactured by their masculinity, the men who didn’t qualify for military service, and the men too old to qualify look resigned.  I try to imagine a time before war and I wonder if I will ever know a time after war.  Every time I hear an air raid alarm, tension fills my muscles and I clench my teeth.  This is no different.  Purposefully, I try to unclench my teeth and relax my muscles, but everything is stuck.  I wonder if this will be my last thought.

 It, however, is not.  I go back to school and learn and wonder.  My older sisters settle on the mainland of our country.  My brother, at only nineteen years of age, steps on a rusty nail and dies.  There are only potatoes and wild grasses left to eat; the protein sources are entirely gone.  We roast locusts on sticks and eat them as if they are chicken morsels.  They are crunchy and, in fact, do taste like chicken thigh meat that has been overcooked. As I try to pull Taki from the arms of soldiers, he is taken away to be cooked for military meat.  I have no power.

Across the small inland sea, a new kind of bomb is dropped on two different cities and there is a crippling sense among my family members that our way of life is no more.  Truth is, it hasn’t been the same since the war started, so what we actually are facing is that life will never go back to being what it used to be.  The leader of our land makes a radio address – the first ever in my country of a man of his rank.  The sound of his voice tells us that the war is over, that we have surrendered.  It also tells us that he is not divine and, for me, it makes me question the core beliefs of my society.  If we believed first and foremost in the leader’s divinity and we know for certain now that he is not divine, what then?  I feel at an impasse, but then the walls start to close in even more.  My nephew-brother is playing with old wood and accidentally injures my mother.  The injury becomes infected and she dies.  I hold her in my arms, hoping against hope that she will not die that, in fact, she will live forever, be with me forever, but that cannot be.  She dies. In that moment, I understand that life is finite, that the journey of life is short and those left behind to carry on must simply learn to endure.  I am not certain that I can rise to that task.  I feel as if I cannot stand up.  I feel as if I cannot stop crying.  I feel incredibly sad and empty.  She has been my best friend and perhaps the only person who loved me unconditionally.  Now she is gone.  The loss of my brother, mother, and the war are all my father can stand.  He takes his own life; I find his body.  I wonder if all this loss is worse than death.


Whenever the anniversary of the end of World War II and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki occur, I reflect upon what it must have been like for my mother as an adolescent to face the indignities of war, monumental societal change, and overwhelming personal loss.  Moreover, she added to this weighty profusion an international marriage to a man who was a citizen of the enemy nation, the United States; immigration to that country, and becoming mother to children who are both Japanese and American, and who will always see the world from both of those perspectives.  When we came to this country, we came as Japanese immigrants; my mother was not welcomed by Japanese American society.  She pointed out the difference between being Japanese and being Japanese American.  Japanese had been the U.S. enemy while Japanese Americans were U.S. citizens.  The latter had been mistreated by their own country when the U.S. forced them into incarceration camps during WWII; the former had been on the Axis Power side of the war and were despised in the U.S. as symbols of the defeated enemy.  Being of both nations only fortified me. My Japanese culture meant not having to eliminate any Japanese cultural artifacts, speaking Japanese publicly without apology, cooking and eating Japanese foods without apology, and being proud of being Japanese.  In post-WWII U.S., such behaviors were not only unacceptable, but frowned upon by most U.S. Americans (perhaps that has not changed that much today).  As a child in Kansas, I was proud to be a mixed race Japanese.  The distinctions of my genuine multiculturalism only grow clearer and more treasured as I get older.

photo setsuko as teen and setsuko 2016 2016-06-16 at 4.51.54 PM


The girl from Matsuyama who came to Kobe for one week to care for a sick relative had her life changed because of that favor.  There are so few days in a life.  That she shares hers with me is a blessing that I will count until I rest my pen, which will probably be when I absolutely must.  Recently, I viewed the film, In This Corner of the World, directed by Sunao Katabuchi.  As when I watch the film Grave of the Fireflies, directed by Isao Takahata, I reflect upon what it must have been like for a child to live in a country ravaged by war.  In particular, I think about what it must have been like for my mother and the impact that it must have had on how she has journeyed through life.  The post-traumatic stress from that experience coupled with the challenges of being in an international, interracial marriage must have made her journey more rigorous than I can imagine.  While I imagine it here in Matchabook, I extend that effort in my play Tea; in the musical adapted from the play, Tea, With Music, with composer Nathan Wang, lyrics and book by me; and now in a novel, also called Tea, which is adapted from the play and will emerge this year.  So often with regard to wars, we as a society engage in discourse about the PTSD of former active-duty servicepersons, something that I know from my father, who was a veteran of two wars, is a painful, very real syndrome (it was not considered so when he was suffering).  There, however, is another dimension to PTSD: the women and children of war who struggle to keep “home” (and hope) alive while the wars of power are waged.  In my new musical project Aloha ‘Oe, also with Nathan Wang, I quote the last reigning monarch of Hawaii, Queen Lili’uokalani; her remarks make sense here as well: “Shakespeare has said it is excellent to have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant.”  My mother has a giant’s strength, but wields it like a chrysanthemum.

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Photography Credits:
1 – Middle School Photo of the Class of Setsuko Okazaki Takechi, 1942.  Property of Setsuko Okazaki Takechi, H. Rika Houston, and Velina Hasu Houston.
2 – Photographs of Setsuko Okazaki Takechi at age fifteen, property of Setsuko Okazaki Takechi, H. Rika Houston, and Velina Hasu Houston; and at age eighty-seven property of Velina Hasu Houston.
3 – Japanese Chrysanthemum.  Web.  www.kimonoya-japan.net.  Retrieved on August 12, 2017 @ http://www.kimonoya-japan.net/product/11610.

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 (http://www.herotheatre.org/tea.html), 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. www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com. Downloaded on April 24, 2022 @ https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/us/definition/english/classic_1#:~:text=Classic%20describes%20something%20that%20is,a%20classic%20movie%2F%E2%80%8Bwork. Merriam-Webster dictionary. Web. www.merriam-webster.com. Downloaded on April 24, 2022 @ https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/classic.

(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. www.enwikipedia.org. Downloaded on April 29, 2022 @ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olympia_Dukakis#/media/File:Olympia_Dukakis_still_at_Pride_Parade,_from_film_Olympia_by_Harry_Marvomichalis.jpg.

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

@ https://arts.princeton.edu/events/tea-by-velina-hasu-houston/2021-12-04/.

(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. www.tokyoweekender.com. Downloaded on April 29, 2022 @ https://www.tokyoweekender.com/2020/08/9-japanese-ghost-and-mystery-books-to-read-this-summer/.

There’s Something About Marlene Forte: An Artist Who Brings Light Into Our Lives

There are times in life when you see an actor at work, and her power and ethereal earthiness confirms for you what you already know: that organic talent in living color doesn’t always find its way to leading articles in mainstream media or to global celebrity. Even when it sorely deserves to.

Marlene Forte today

When an artist is a person of color and a female carving out her career in a period of time in the United States when gender and racial bias (and marginalization) create overwhelming challenges, the fact the artist can rise above conventional male vanilla hurdles, and have the opportunity to be seen and heard is miraculous.

How often have you stated the name of an artist of color and had a White person say, “Why didn’t she try to be like Meryl Streep?” You know while there may be many other reasons at play in the vagaries of such an equation, one of the issues is that mainstream arts and entertainment hasn’t made much space for actors, directors, or narratives about women and/or about people of color.  Historically, it hasn’t been a part of the vocabulary.  It’s getting lip service now and hopefully those lips are gateways to true social change. So, this is the name I state in this moment: Marlene Forte.

Marlene with middle sister Ivette, and twin cousins Elizabeth and William

She is a standout actress.

She is an intelligent, no-nonsense, spirited human being.

She is a wonderful mother and wife.

She is female.

She is Cuban American.

She is a good human being.

Watching her work is like drinking a truly good cup of tea.

Born in Santiago De Las Vegas (near Havana), Cuba, Marlene was raised right outside of New York City in West New York, New Jersey.

Lightheartedly calling herself a true “bridge and tunnel gal,” Marlene is a creature of the urban landscape.

“I have never been interested in living in the country or too far away from a city,” she mused.  She grew up on the Hudson River with the New York skyline beckoning and “never yearned for the chirping of the birds, even though Jersey is The Garden State.”  Blithely referring to herself as a “river rat,” she mentioned two urban landscapes that are home to her – New York and the city to which she moved, Los Angeles.

“I watched the World Trade Center go up and witnessed in horror its destruction from Los Angeles decades later,” she said.  She now lives in Los Angeles with her husband, playwright and professor Oliver Mayer.  Like many actors, she thought about working on Broadway, but instead found greater flexibility and opportunity in arts and entertainment in Los Angeles.  Her first television credit was on the show, “Judging Amy.”

As an infant, Marlene arrived in the United States from Cuba with her parents.

“My parents packed a paper bag and headed to the USA,” she said.  For her, there was a bit of luck in her immigration because she has no memory of that day – a day when her parents were separated at the airport by Cuban authorities when her mother was denied exit from Cuba.

“My mom had not properly resigned her teaching post in Havana, so she was denied exit,” Marlene explained.  “The authorities told my dad he could leave and I could leave with him, but my mom needed to stay and properly resign her claim to her country.”  The fact that she hadn’t done so caused her officially to be labeled as a “deserter of the revolution… a traitor to her home.”

That day, Marlene stayed with her mother because her father was “scared to leave with a nine-month infant who was barely walking.”  Two weeks later, her mother was given permission to leave, and both she and her mother were labeled “qusanos” – worms, she remembered.

“That’s what we got called us as we left the island never to return,” Marlene said.  She noted that, at the time, they were not allowed to return, so departure was “quite final.”

Marlene in high school years, and two photographs with middle sister Ivette

Eighteen years later, Marlene’s life experienced another forever kind of change when she gave birth to her daughter, Giselle.  She married her high-school sweetheart, her first husband.

“Truth be told, I was way too young to be in love and way too sheltered to know what becoming a mom would require,” she declared.

Marlene on the occasion of her first wedding and then with daughter Giselle

This important moment in her life was linked to another significant step – attending college.  When her daughter was born, she was finishing her first semester of college at Rutgers University while also commuting because the university didn’t have housing for married undergraduate students.  Morning sickness and commuting aren’t a good mix (note, the term “morning” sickness must have been created by someone who never experienced pregnancy or they might have called it “all-day” sickness).

“I have a very vivid and visceral memory of driving down the New Jersey turnpike towards New Brunswick in the middle of a huge snow storm,” Marlene recalled, “and I vomited twice… right on the side of the icy shoulder lane. There were very few cars on the road that day, but I had an exam and needed to get to class.”  She laughed and added that “this was way before Zoom.”  Noting that she had a terrible trimester, Marlene gave birth to Giselle just before her final exams. Unable to take them at the time, she returned in early January, completed her exams, and gained a 4.0, something she maintained for two years.

Because she and her then husband only had one car, Marlene transferred from Rutgers University to Fairleigh Dickinson College in Teaneck, New Jersey, a school where her husband was then studying dentistry, the focus for which the school is known.  At the time, the fact that she was the female in the relationship dictated secondary consideration.

“The man’s job was much more important than the woman’s then,” she noted, “and he was the breadwinner so….”  As a wife, she was just expected to “hang my pretty (college) certificate on the wall and continue to have children.” After graduating, her then husband wanted two more children, but something else was stirring in Marlene Forte – the desire to pursue an acting career.

These equally challenging objectives led to big changes in Marlene’s life.  She and her husband divorced and she launched her acting career – starting her own business as an artist.  Her “old-fashioned wonder boy” ex-husband became a cardiac surgeon while Marlene has a thriving acting career, one built against the odds of mainstream hurdles for BIPOC artists and narratives.

“I truly believe I would have never followed my dreams of becoming an actress if I remained married,” Marlene related, “because we were both children and we wanted two very different lives.” In fact, Marlene considers her divorce an important passage in her life. She became a successful independent business person and her ex-husband became a success as a heart surgeon.

The beginning of her acting career wasn’t effortless. A single mother with a three-year-old daughter, Marlene had to be inventive and resourceful. She started a business.

“I loved movies and acting, so I started my very own video rental store… just around the corner from my parents’ home,” she said. Its location was brave because her parents were still mourning her divorce and wanted her to go to law school, not pursue a “crazy and unstable acting career.” However, the fact that she was becoming a business owner pleased them, so they lent her cash that she combined with money from selling her car and started investing in movies. At the same time, she took the first steps towards her acting career, doing extra work.  “I needed to get on a set and really knew NO ONE in the business,” she mused.

A blessing Marlene had that helped her was her ability to speak English and Spanish fluently. Her bilingualism helped her get into the Screen Actors Guild. After taking a commercial acting course, she gained her first commercial agent and was booked on her first commercial, what she calls a roundabout way into acting.

As she built her pre-Blockbuster video store, she also was educating herself in film and becoming what she terms as “the Cuban Tarantino.” She owned the store for seven years and, simultaneously with being a business proprietor, did work as an extra on multiple movies coming out in the 1980s and 1990s.

“I did stand-in work for Talia Shire in ‘New York Stories’ and ‘Vittorio Storaro’ with a light meter in my face for the first time,” Marlene recounted. “I had no idea what stand-in work required, but I said yes. The cash was better than extra work.”

By 1990, a Blockbuster Video store opened up near her successful mom-and-pop video store.

“I saw the writing on the wall,” she mused. Her stock of over 5,000 VHS tapes left her with challenges that led to her getting out of the video business. My stock consisted of VHS’s at the time. Over 5000 titles. I decided to get out of the video business.”

“I would like to think that I really knew what was coming,” she said, “BUT, truth be told, I was just getting older and pushing thirty and I thought, if I don’t jump now, I will never become an actress.” So she jumped.

Theatre caught her.

While living with her parents, she heard about a new acting troupe. She joined the company, which became LAByrinth Theater Company. Her experiences there were the equivalent of a graduate education in acting and then some.

“LAByrinth became my MFA in acting,” Marlene affirmed.  “There were only thirteen of us and we would meet every Wednesday night. I was the first official intern. I had no acting experience except my commercial class and a few plays.  I would take notes and watch all the workshops.”

For a year, Marlene interned and then she was invited on stage. Two major things happened in the life of Marlene Forte.  

“The rest is history,” she said.

Marlene with father Gerardo next to a poster of Nilo Cruz’s “Anna in the Tropics” in which she was
performing at Portland Center Stage and Marlene with actor Pedro Pascal in “Anna in the Tropics,”
Production Photograph by Owen Carey

That “history” includes the birth of a phenomenal acting career and her meeting the man she calls “the love of my life,” her now husband, Oliver, renowned playwright, librettist, essayist, and professor who serves as Associate Dean of Faculty and Associate Dean of Strategic Initiatives at the School of Dramatic Arts, University of Southern California. 

Marlene’s Cuban heritage is another vital dimension of who she is.

“Culturally, I have ALWAYS identified as Cuban American, Cuban being the emphasis,” she declared. She noted she grew up in a very Cuban community and that “Cubans huddle together.” Her existence as a Cuban was altered when she went to college.

Much to the chagrin of her Cuban family in Florida, Marlene was transformed into a Democrat at college and also converted her parents to her political beliefs, too.

“My parents did not really understand except that Democrats let Fidel win!” she exclaimed. While non-Democratic perspectives haven’t changed much among her Floridian family, Marlene said she believes that growing up in New Jersey away from the Florida fold allowed for clarity.

 “The rhetoric was not so loud,” she said. “And an education opened my eyes to the manipulation of politics.”  

The fortitude of her Cuban culture is galvanized in part on the fact that the Cuban immigrant story is in her view different from others.  

“We are refugees from a communist country,” she explained. “If we could touch ground, we were mostly welcomed, especially in the 1960s. In my family’s case, we were White Cubans. I grew up among many White and a few Black Cubans, but mostly European White (Cubans). She didn’t experience racism directly until much later in life. She remember the day vividly.

“My parents had moved to their side of Hudson County Park,” she recollected. “We dared to move to the Italian side of town. I was about eight months pregnant. I was pulling out of my parents’ driveway and a man stood behind my car. I almost hit him. He was yelling something at me. My windows were shut tight; it was a cold Jersey day.  When I opened the window I heard him say,  ‘Go back to the other side of the park where you belong.’” She cried all the way home and, “for the first time felt cold and alone in America.” She never told her parents nor husband.  “I just cried,” she said, “I still cry thinking about it.”

When Marlene was starting her acting career, white-washing and gender-washing affected the branding of females and people of color who had what then were perceived to be non-US names. Being marginalized and generic were the rules. Women were not actors, but actresses, and if you had a name like Rodriguez, could you please make it more “American”?

“My name was Marlene Rodriguez at the time I started acting,” she said.  I kept my married name because I didn’t want to have a different name from my daughter… familia.” However, every representative she met wanted her to change her name to something more “generic”.

“GOD I hate GENERIC!,” Marlene exclaimed. “Lol! They wanted to change my name to Marlene Rodrick. Who the hell was Rodrick?! I said, ‘I was born Ana Marlene Forte Machado, pick one!’” And Marlene Forte it became. She noted that when her daughter Giselle Rodriguez started acting seventeen years later, nobody asked her to change her name.

“Thank goodness for Jennifer Lopez and Gina Rodríguez and Sofía Vergara!” she declared. “Our Latin name was no longer frowned upon.”

However, acting roles for the Rodriguez’s and Lopez’s were still limited, with ever-present stereotypes. Stereotypes notwithstanding, Marlene carried on, seeing them as a part of her job. Rather than trying to get rid of them, she sought to give such roles greater dimension and texture.

“I never became a lawyer who fights for the injustices of this world, but I can represent,” she pointed out. “I can educate. I can make a small difference with my portrayal of a character.” She strives to do this by cultivating the humanity of such roles. 

“I will NOT play them one dimensionally,” she stated emphatically.  “… my job [is] to make them whole, to present a human being to the world; a mother, a fighter, a daughter, a survivor, a wife, a lover, and partner who happen to be a whore, or a drug dealer, a maid or Mother Teresa! WHOLE human beings, with no judgment.”

Her love for theatre has enhanced her life in many ways – artistically and also because it connected her with husband Oliver. She said she enjoys the community aspect of creating theatre. Even though she makes her living performing on television, she believes it doesn’t give her the artistic value she finds on stage.

“I married a playwright so my personal life is very much mixed together with [theatre],” she said. “I wish I had more time to see my amazing daughter, but she is an adult now and lives in New York. This pandemic has made it more difficult to see each other BUT I do take advantage of all the media we have at our disposal now.”

Marlene uses virtual communication platforms to talk to her daughter and to her aging parents, noting the platforms make it easier to manage distance.

Today, Marlene lives in Los Angeles where she continues a viable acting career in film, television, and theatre; and shares a dynamic and bright life with husband Oliver. Together, they enjoy a creative partnership that encourages the cultivation of greater expression and feeds their personal relationship in a multitude of ways.

Marlene today with daughter Giselle Rodriguez and husband Oliver Mayer in front of a poster for “Knives Out,” a film in which Marlene acted


All photographs courtesy of Marlene Forte.


Another murder of an unarmed Black person by police officers, who rarely are held accountable for taking the life of a citizen, especially a Black citizen, has happened – again.


As if enslavement of Africans didn’t take enough lives and separate enough families, the nightmare of killings of unarmed Black people continues. Good people everywhere shake their heads and say, “How terrible!” or “I’m not like that.” However, as a White speaker at a recent cultural talk said, “We ARE like that.”

Let’s own up to it and truly do something about violence against non-White people. Too often, we lean on excuses that smack of racism themselves. For example, many have told me that I shouldn’t think of the murders in Atlanta as being anti-Asian. They blame the murders on misogyny, but there were a lot of other kinds of places the murderer could have carried out his violence; he targeted Young’s Asian Massage – not a Black, Latinx, Native American, or White business, but an Asian business.


Yesterday, speaking as a guest of the USC (University of Southern California) Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religions and Cultures, multi-genre writer Ta-Nehisi Coates stated that US citizens too often practice “fair-weather patriotism,” the kind that lets one enjoy the privileges of being a part of a country while foregoing the hard work on which those privileges were established in the first place.

As he pointed out, the notion that “I’m not a part of this” is absurd because we all are. He also mentioned US citizens who say they are not involved because they weren’t in the US when slavery happened. The point is not to run to home base, but to realize that being a US citizen comes with responsibilities. He noted that today US citizens are taxed on treaties made years ago and that we have a collective responsibility as Americans to own the matters that history has wrought.

3 Ta-Nehisi Coates

While it’s challenging to get statistics on police violence from governmental sources, community organizations estimate that, in an eight-month period in 2020, nearly 170 Black people were killed by police. Excavating the roots of that violence in this country goes back to 1619.

As Coates said yesterday, “I am taxed for roads I will never drive on.”

Violence against non-White individuals from the birth of this nation into our future produces a tax that we all must pay, out of our pockets and/or out of our souls.

Now, Daunte Wright is dead. He was twenty years old.

The White woman who murdered him has been charged with second-degree manslaughter. She says she made a mistake.

She’s been a police officer for nearly three decades and is a training officer. Her expertise and the fact that she is training others to be police officers suggests that making a mistake is unlikely in her case (if it is likely, we all ought to worry about what that means for newly trained police officers under the tutelage of others like Wright’s murderer, Kim Potter).

One of the Wright’s family’s attorneys, Benjamin Crump, stated to CNN that the shooting was not an accident.

“This was an intentional, deliberate and unlawful use of force,” Crump’s statement read. “Driving while Black continues to result in a death sentence. A 26-year veteran of the force knows the difference between a Taser and a firearm.” (4)



1 – “racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. By Ta-Nehisi Coates” by Quaries Official is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/. Web. www.creativecommons.org. Downloaded on April 14, 2021 @ https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/4ae97a05-b460-4fbe-a9f8-9b15f605ab70.

2 – “Family Dynamics.” by Neil. Moralee is licensed with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/. Web. www.creativecommons.org. Downloaded on April 14, 2021 @ https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/799d997c-e047-43bb-b543-7eadf0f26ba9.

3 – “coates2” by Oregon State University is licensed with CC BY-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/. Web. www.creativecommons.org. Downloaded on April 14, 2021 @ https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/6479ace7-1550-4f67-a71d-e2ca4d98140c.

4 – Hanna, Jason; Parks, Brad, Holcombe, Madeline. “Officer charged with 2nd-degree manslaughter in Daunte Wright killing.” CNN, 14 Apr 2021. Web. www.cnn.com. Downloaded April 14, 2021 @ https://www.cnn.com/2021/04/14/us/daunte-wright-minnesota-shooting-wednesday/index.html.

5 – “Solidarity” by Marcela McGreal is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/. Web. www.creativecommons.org. Downloaded on April 14, 2021 @ https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/e9bf2023-c619-48b1-a83d-dbdda35897d9.

Integrating the World Through a New York State of Mind

Tamara Ruppart is a director who came into the world looking at it beyond arm’s length.

A native New Yorker (born in Manhattan and raised in Queens), she grew up surrounded by friends of different cultural backgrounds (Kenyan, Japanese, South Asian, etc.) and absorbing their recounting of the multitude of faraway places and histories that had shaped their lives.  In so doing, those experiences, as well as growing up in a highly multicultural metropolitan landscape, shaped Tamara’s perspective as well.

Tamara Ruppart in her pre-teenage years.

The fact that New York was and is a place where “many cultures mix and blend” is just one of the reasons that make Tamara proud of being a native of Manhattan.

That and her observations of similarities in her multicultural friends’ families’ lives ingrained in Tamara the importance of a global perspective that galvanized her interest in directing.

“As a storyteller, I love ‘living’ in other cultures; to learn, explore, and celebrate them,” she said.

I first met Tamara Ruppart face-to-face in the lobby of Los Angeles Theatre Center when my play, Calligraphy, was opening there, but, in the real sense of the word, we had “met” through a creative connectivity – we both were interested in exploring stories of female narratives lost in the hurly-burly of exclusive mainstream thinking, in particular the narratives of Asian and Asian American females. My play, Kokoro (True Heart), is what initially brought us together before we physically had met. 

Tamara Ruppart today.

Directing the play was Tamara’s first professional theatre job. Seldom on our artistic journeys are we fortunate enough to connect with another artist in a way that goes beyond the work of art itself into a human bond.  That happened via Kokoro and has evolved into many other artistic projects. 

Tamara’s film, Path of Dreams, was penned by me, and garnered numerous international awards and recognition.  Eleven Arts, Inc., now has hired her to direct the feature film adaptation of Kokoro, which begins shooting this year.  Organically linked to Tamara’s interests, the story explores the struggle of a young Japanese immigrant mother adapting to the very foreign culture of the United States. Challenging the audience to empathize with the accused in the face of what is seen by the West as a heinous crime, the play illuminates the degree to which culture and spirituality shape perceptions of truth and morality. 

Tamara’s interest in theatre and film has early roots.  Acting in a play in the eighth grade ignited her path.

“I played a leading role in a play in eighth grade and that was when I really fell in love with theatre,” she stated.  “From rehearsals, to script work and memorization – I couldn’t get enough. I remember the exact moment, before a dress rehearsal, that I realized theatre was a potential career choice.”

That seed of interest grew as Tamara continued her schooling.  Early in her college career, she focused on theatre as a major.  A pre-graduate school experience solidified her commitment, and also enhanced her understanding of the full landscape of theatre and theatrical collaboration.

Tamara Ruppart.

“I was given an amazing, exclusive opportunity to work on Phantom of the Opera on Broadway as an Assistant Stage Manager,” she recounted.  “Seeing how the choreography backstage was just as important as the blocking and choreography onstage was very eye-opening. There were so many moving parts onstage (in the dark), under the stage, up in the rafters, etc., that kept the show moving forward. I am forever grateful for (and inspired by) my experience and education at the Majestic.”

That experience was amplified by a private meeting with the theatrical producer and director of the premiere production of Phantom of the Opera, Hal Prince, instigated by a letter that Tamara wrote to him at the end of her graduate school years.

Months after writing the letter while driving across the US in her move from New York to Los Angeles, she received a phone call to set up a meeting with Prince. 

“So, after arriving in Los Angeles, I flew immediately back to New York to meet Hal Prince in his office at Rockefeller Center,” she recalled.  His warmth and encouragement created a precedent for her appreciation of “those at the top who are nice to those at the bottom.”  “I will never forget that hour of my life with Hal,” she continued.  “As an extension of the cast and crew at Phantom, Hal was wonderfully… exuberant and humble.”

Besides the aesthetic telepathy of Kokoro, I knew little about Tamara before I met her in person.  I thought about her name – Tamara.  I had known a Samara who was South Asian.  What, I wondered, was her cultural background?  When a slender, attractive blonde woman walked towards me in the lobby of LATC, my deliberations merged with the human being before me.  I marveled at how our paths had united given the very different circumstances of our growing up and our life journeys.  However, the more I learned about Tamara’s background growing up and her experiences teaching English in Japan, the more our bond strengthened.

“I was a little towhead blonde girl who was raised in the most diverse neighborhood of the world.,” she noted.  “Growing up in Queens, NY, made me feel like individual variations were a regular part of life. When I was young, I attended my local public school, but moved to a Waldorf school while still in elementary school. Juxtaposing the wonder and natural world of Waldorf education with the gritty streets of New York City exposed me to a wide variety of textures, cultures, colors and stories.”

Tamara Ruppart in her childhood years.

Tamara was never at odds with that diversity and, when she moved to a part of the country that didn’t have that same depth and breadth of diversity, she realized what she had left behind.

“When I attended college in North Carolina, I learned how extraordinary New York City really was,” she said.  Ultimately, she came to realize that diversity exists in many forms.  “… similar skin color didn’t necessarily equate similar culture, life experience, or world view. Just because someone looks like me doesn’t mean that he or she is like me. And just because someone doesn’t look like me doesn’t mean they’re not.”  These observations forged in Tamara the mandate to seek personal connections, both in her work and in her personal life.  “I always remember this in my storytelling, and look for opportunities to build bridges and celebrate cultural understanding,” she emphasized.

One of her favorite excavation sites for cultural understanding and raising of consciousness is the female condition.  Stories about women’s lives help her to grow.  They also have been a source that illuminates what cultures share versus what causes them to collide.

“From reading plays about women from other cultures (both domestically and internationally), I marvel at our core similarities regarding motherhood, romantic love, and inner strength and will (often worthy of a superhero),” Tamara said.  If one is an artist and must live in certain artistic worlds, it’s worth thinking about where you have to live before you move in.  “As a director, you live in the stories you tell for months or even years, and I love to live in stories about women who are different from me,” she explained. “These women teach me about the greater consciousness and character of ‘women’ and for that I am forever grateful.”

Tamara Ruppart on the set of “Path of Dreams” in Japan.

Directing is a beautiful and challenging art.  One is interpreting, through one’s own vision and experience, a world created by a playwright or screenwriter in Tamara’s case.  Every position in the theatre is daring, so it’s interesting that many theatre artists have experience in multiple areas in film, theatre, and television.  For Tamara, her surety in her directing path grew out of other areas of theatre. Often people talk about being bit by the theatre bug; for Tamara, once in the theatre world, there was a click and she had arrived in the place that was right for her.

“I feel so fortunate to be able to be a director,” she shared. “When I was young, I thought I wanted to be an actor. It was really fun to be on stage and play with the other actors. But, when I discovered directing, everything just clicked.”

Her acting roots, as well as what she learned working backstage, has informed her directing.

“I am not an actor, but my years on stages taught me about the craft,” she imparted. “As a result, I very much respect and appreciate actors, their dedication, and their talent. Actors are the keystone to every story.”

Twenty years of playing classical piano also informed her work as a director.  “I very much connect to the musicality and rhythm of each script,” she said.  “I usually find a single piece of music that represents the story (and/or main character) and listen to it repeatedly while working.”

She adds to this education her background in college art studies. 

“… textures and a set color palate on stage are vital for me,” she explained. “Ultimately, directing allows me to use all these tools in my toolbox, and lets me explore and shape each aspect of storytelling. It is both personally and artistically rewarding.”

Tamara Ruppart on the set of “The Kool School.”

Perhaps because of growing up absorbing a multi-faceted world around her and also educating herself in life behind the curtains and behind the camera, Tamara is a director who understands the critical value of technical production in performing arts.

“I live for tech,” she stated. “It’s my favorite part of the rehearsal process.”

She described the collaborative frenzy that excites her.

“The stage manager in me loves getting all the cues perfected, the actor in me gets a thrill out of the costume and make-up debuts, and the director in me delights in seeing all the hard work and planning finally come together,” she related.  “It’s also a time when designers are around to help problem solve, the actors are giddy with opening night approaching, producers talk about house seats and reservations, and the stage manager takes her place as God. It’s a glorious frenzy of creativity and collaboration.”

“Tech” in a theatre environment is something that Tamara compares to tech on a film shoot.  Both are exhilarating, but like the notion of impermanence in the Japanese culture that is a massive dimension of her life, transitory.

“… both are only temporary,” she mused.  “These fleeting thrills are usually few and far between, so I try to enjoy every moment.”

Besides being a busy artist, Tamara also is a busy human being.  Perhaps the other dimensions of her life raise and cultivate her artistry to a depth that single-focused individuals rarely achieve (and may not even be aware of).  She is a director, a mother, and a wife.  Work-life balance is not only key, but essential; and time management becomes an incomparable, fundamentally imperative skill.  All that energy, of course, goes both ways.  As she grows as an artist, it feeds the cultivation of her humanity, too.

“Like every working mother, I’m always working on balance, a notion that is in constant flux,” she pointed out. “With each new project comes a different schedule, which affects life at home.  Rehearsals, meetings, and film shoots don’t have flexibility, but, as all mothers know, it takes a village. Having family/friends/babysitters/a supportive spouse/etc. is paramount and I couldn’t do it alone.”

It may take a village to raise a child, but the hope is the village sustains and nurtures that child beyond just raising the child.  In the same vein, life takes a village and Tamara is an artist who recognizes that, which helps her navigate the vigorous and dynamic waters of life as a female director with character. She knows she can’t do it alone; and engages with family, friends, and other artists to make art and life glow.

[Credits: Photographs of Tamara Ruppart courtesy of Tamara Ruppart; production photographs courtesy of Eleven Arts, Inc., True Heart Films, Minx Pictures, and this author.]

This Is Shay Youngblood: Her Eyes Have Seen and the Seeing Continues to Soar


Shay Youngblood is the epitome of the worldly woman.

She has written multiple books and plays. She is a visual artist. She is a scholar who teaches in academia. Her interdisciplinary art practice includes writing, painting, object making, sound art and video.

She has won numerous award for her writing in multiple genres including a Pushcart Prize for fiction, a Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and NAACP theatre awards (NAACP – National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). She was the recipient of the New York Foundation for the Arts Sustained Achievement Award and of a National Endowment for the Arts sponsored Japan-US Creative Artist Fellowship. 

Along with graduating from high school at the age of sixteen, Shay has a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Brown University, where she studied with Anna Deavere Smith and Paula Vogel; and has taught at New York University, University of Mississippi, Texas A&M University, and Voices of Our Nations (VONA, a multi-genre workshop for writers of color). In Jilin, China, she was an invited participant for its International Literary Writing Program to discuss and write on the subjects of the environment, nature and ecology.

She manages Youngblood Arts, a resource for artists, musicians, writers and readers of all ages and backgrounds, created to promote the literary and visual arts as a vital part of culture. Her organization offers writing workshops in multiple genres, bookmaking workshops for writers and visual artists, workshops for readers, genre-bending literary fitness workshops, manuscript consulting, coaching, and corporate and educational programming. 

Having begun the work of crossing borders at an early age, she accumulated experiential knowledge that has informed her achievements in theatre, literature, and academia; and also contributed to the resilience of spirit that has helped her to meet the challenges of three global crises through which she lived – the fall 1986 Paris bombing, 9/11 New York, and 3/11 Japan; and now the COVID-19 global pandemic that began this year and has not yet run its course.


Shay, a native of Columbus, Georgia, forged her own path in life after the death of her mother when she was only three years old, an experience that, of course, holds significance in her life. Her hometown sits on the border of Alabama and Georgia divided by the Chattahoochee River. In effect, she was in the middle of two time zones; Alabama is in the central time zone and Georgia is in the eastern time zone. She was a time traveler from the outset.

Without her birth mother and raised by older female relatives in several different households, her childhood nevertheless was rich with experiences that fed her humanity and her art, including music and dance.

“The sound I remember most was at night when freight trains rumbled on the tracks in the street in front of the housing projects where I lived, gospel singing on the radio and my young aunts singing popular 1960s’ songs by Aretha Franklin, James Brown and Diana Ross and the Supremes,” Shay recollected. These aunts and an uncle taught her how to dance, and encouraged the shy young Shay toward theatricality. Despite this encouragement, they also demanded a genteel civility that gains little purchase in contemporary society. 

“These women were from a generation that believed children were to be seen and not heard, so I listened and observed,” Shay said. In the process, she became inspired by the stories of their lives. 

“Those stories I heard became the foundation of my early work,” she noted. “I wanted to give those men and women a voice, to tell stories they; and people of their generation, class and limited education could not.”

Shay’s world view has been shaped by her African American, Native American, and Irish American ancestors. The fact that she is female also has had an impact on her pathway.

“Being born a girl, my world was automatically restricted,” Shay observed. “There was the expectation that I would study something lady-like, such as nursing or teaching, and would marry and have a family.”

In fact, the idea of leaving Columbus when Shay was young was rooted in that frayed strategy of a woman finding a man to support her. In Shay’s case, the expected tactic was to marry a military officer and quench the thirst for travel by accompanying him to his postings. 

“Columbus is close to Fort Benning army base and so everyone I know was connected somehow to the military, by a job on the base, or an enlisted, retired or former family member who served,” she explained. Dispassionate early on by the old approach, Shay was drawn to an independent life that allowed her to travel on her own and read books for a living.

That’s the design that has come to fruition for Shay Youngblood.

“As a creative, I’ve explored a number of genres, experimenting with film and theatre, interdisciplinary projects, sound projects and creative non-fiction,” she stated. These creative dimensions have blended with a scholarly dimension that Shay enjoys. “I am grateful to have discovered that my passion and my purpose is teaching,” she imparted. “I think of myself as a facilitator, developing critical thinking and expanding the view of my students by exposing them to art, books, films and plays from many cultures and encouraging them to explore and experiment in genres outside their comfort zone.”

Many children growing up in the US had parents tell them that, if they dug a hole deep enough, they would reach China. Whether or not Shay heard those words, her explorative instincts and desire to see the world sent her in that direction.

“As a child, if I wanted to go to China I would dig a hole in the back yard until I got tired,” she disclosed. “Poking a stick into the hard earth for hours, I wondered if the people and houses and trees would be upside down when I got to the other side. Would the boys and girls be as curious about me as I was about them?”

Growing up in Columbus and too young to go to China or any other country on her own, Shay traveled by reading books.

“When I was nine, all I had to do to travel was go to the children’s section of the Mildred Terry Library and open a yellow book, one in a series about cultures of the world,” she said. “In one of those yellow books, I learned that children my age ate with chopsticks, wore different clothes, ate different food and spoke a different language than I did. Traveling by book to Nigeria, Morocco, Iceland, Japan, India, France and Spain among other countries, my imagination and curiosity continued to be stirred.”


Being an artist is not always kindly looked upon by one’s family until there is economic success, but Shay’s family – blood-related and chosen – always have been supportive of her artistry.

“They believe in the work that I do,” she said. “They support and encourage me so that I can prioritize my art. I have had many jobs that paid the bills, grants that encouraged and supported projects and commercial projects that have carried me for a year or two. The creative work I do is part of who I am.” 

The dancing that relatives encouraged when she was a child grew into a teenage love of dancing. During those years, Shay came to enjoy going out to clubs to dance.

“We would leave the club when it closed at 1 am and race across the bridge to Alabama where we had one more hour to dance before heading home to sleep a few hours before church,” she mused. This notion of crossing borders and its impact on the nature of time fascinated Shay.   It began to influence her creativity in myriad ways as the daydreams of pre-writing manifested in her work, meshing with her desire to tell the stories of those who could not find enough purchase for them (or purchase at all) in mainstream society.

“My family was very religious,” she explained. “Church was very theatrical, physical; and the many hours of service seemed like endless hours until I began to create elaborate fictional scenes in my mind each Sunday to pass the time.” She calls it “a form of daydreaming.,” a useful exploratory tool for the creative mind.

In fact, this daydreaming became dramatized in Shay’s mind.

“The women in the Southern Baptist church of my youth would be filled with the spirit every Sunday,” she recollected. “They’d shout, sing and cry with so much emotion. The greatest impact this had on me was that in midst of all the shouting, preaching and singing I was in my own personal movie theater dancing and singing to soul, R & B and blues music. I kept one ear open in case my grandmother asked me about the sermon.”

It bears relation to the dualities of time that Shay grew up with crossing borders. She was and is a time machine.

“… this early ability to do a kind of time traveling has been useful,” she said. “I can do several things at once and create while the world spins around me.”

Everything that spun before her eyes was an inspiration for further exploration. Growing up in the American South, for example, geographically and with regards to its society, made her look beyond its horizons.

“The biggest impact growing up in the American South had on me was that I developed a deep curiosity about what was on the other side of the invisible restrictions, barriers and borders that society had up for me as a young person of color at the time,” she shared. “Growing up in a place that put so many restrictions on me, I wanted to leave from an early age and explore the world to see if I could have a bigger, more expansive life.”

When Shay was thirteen, she met her birth father for the first time. The journey to meet him further expanded her creative mind. 

“I took a bus from Georgia to Los Angeles to live with him briefly,” she noted. “To see the country at eye level from a Greyhound bus, to have conversations with people from all walks of life, to feel danger and infinite possibility was exhilarating and I wanted to capture those feelings and put them in a bottle.” Since that experience, Shay continuously has maintained a journal.

She wrote her first poem at the age of ten. That and her first visit to Yaddo (a New York-based artists’ retreat) (“… where I became a writer and first said it out loud…”) along with having her first play produced and her first novel published cemented Shay’s artistry and gave it the organic confidence it deserved.


Shay designates her theatre collaborations as her favorite artistic experience.

“…especially in the creation of my first play where I adapted my short stories for the stage,” she said. She spoke of one of her first collaborations with a director. 

“I provided a kind of blue print and the brilliant director Glenda Dickerson, a dramaturg, actors, and costume, light and designers worked together to bring my words to life in a way that took my breath away,” she declared. “They each brought something of themselves to the work and created a community each time it was produced.” It was her first play — Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery — that introduced me to her artistry; I have Sidney Poitier and Cedric Scott to thank for that. They encouraged me to go and see her play when it was in Los Angeles.

Theatre arrived early in Shay’s life; she served as the narrator of plays at her school from the first through sixth grades. That’s when she started middle school – and integration of schools began as well, which altered the landscape.

I took a one-hour bus ride to my high school located in an all-white upper middle class neighborhood,” she shared. “I wanted to continue to be a part of theatre so I signed up to work on the set of a play the school was producing that first fall. I stayed after school one day and got a ride home with the father of one of my classmates. My uncle who I lived with told me that he could not pick me up at school after dark in that neighborhood. I understood that he was fearful of being stopped or harassed because he was black and he might be questioned why he was there. I was upset, but I realized he was trying to protect us both.”

The success of her first play Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery led to a scholarship to attend Brown University where she noted that “some of my deepest creative connections and my most successful experiments were born.”

Books and travel were fountainheads for growth for Shay. As a student, she had a residency in Haiti and was a Peace Corps volunteer in Dominica, Eastern  Caribbean. She said that these experiences politicized her and developed an interest in history.  Over the years, Shay has traveled to and lived in many places, one of them being Japan, which reunited our pathways.

The Japan-US Friendship commission allowed her to experience a five-month residency in Japan. She created a project called Add Architecture, Stir Memory inspired by her own personal search for home.

As noted, she grew up in several households after her birth mother died and became “a child of the entire community,” as she states. Today, she reflects upon whether the idea of “home” is being lost.

“For most of my life I’ve explored the question of how we are impressed by our first memories of home, the physical structures and the more interior psychological and spiritual aspects,” she communicated. 

“In the twenty-first century, home has become virtual, portable, global and in danger of being lost. What is the effect of memory on architecture and how does architecture affect memory?”

These are the questions that galvanized Add Architecture, Stir Memory

“Since the end of 2008, the United States has experienced an economic crisis that has led to the loss of home for over four million Americans,” she pointed out. “A week into my stay in Tokyo on 3/11, Japan experienced the strongest earthquake in recorded history, triggering a tsunami that swept away entire towns and a nuclear disaster that displaced thousands. “Since that time,” she continued, “I have interviewed people from all walks of life, about their earliest memories of home, exploring the relationship to home in another culture. I was especially interested in having conversations with contemporary architects, artists and designers who use traditional materials and concepts in their professional practice.” She expanded her research to include interviewing people from diverse backgrounds, focusing on her core question, “What makes home?”  This question, she noted, is especially significant when one’s original home is only a memory.  


Her beautiful paintings grow out of her love of exploring and embracing across borders. Of her visual art, she says on her website, “As a child, opening a book was like entering another country, a new world filled with possibilities. I could see the world through the eyes of others in a rather transparent way.”

On her website, Shay acknowledges that is known largely as a successful writer of short stories, plays, personal essays and novels. This changed after the events of September 11, 2011.

“After 9/11 I lost words,” she exclaimed. “Words could no longer effectively express my horror, fear, anger and profound sadness.”  As a result, she turned to visual expression.  “I am a mostly self-taught, intuitive painter who began painting as a way to rebuild my relationship with language. My influences include artists whose singular vision and daring, challenge me to create the kind of work that is relevant, timeless and takes risks.”

6 – “Longing,” 2005, Shay Youngblood

The words came back. Let us all be thankful for this voice that speaks without a thread of artifice.

Photograph Credits

All photographs of Ms. Youngblood and have been provided by and used with the permission of Ms. Youngblood.

1  – Shay Youngblood.

2 – Shay Youngblood in her girlhood.

3 – Shay Youngblood.

4 – Shay Youngblood in the early, pre-computer days.

5 – Shay Youngblood with friends.

6 – “Longing” by Shay Youngblood.

Park Your Ethnicity

Park your ethnicity.



I heard a White female professor at a United States university state this concept, more in the vein of, “Can’t we just park our ethnicity for a moment?”  I paraphrase, but that was the gist of her expression, along with the notion that we should stop talking about BIPOC realities and get on with the shared activity of higher education.

The statement was made earlier in the fall, but the phrase often circles back into my mind.  It does so even though several people – White and Black – explained to me that the professor did not mean anything negative by her statement.

I understand that she did not on the surface, but the systemic nature of racism in the US also comes to light.  The phrase does not consider that BIPOCs cannot – ever—park their ethnicity, even if they attempt to.  In my view, they may think they have parked it and saunter through society with the belief that nobody sees them as BIPOC, but that is an illusion.  If you are a BIPOC, one’s ethnicity is either labeled, assumed, presumed, or surmised when one walks through US society regardless of where you parked and how much you paid for that parking.  Often, whatever ethnicity you actually may be assumed to be is way off the mark.




Let’s reflect on what that illuminates in contemporary times in the US.

I picture a parking lot far away from any predominantly White institution or business where BIPOCs who want to survive (dare I say succeed) in the US mainstream “park” their ethnicity.  (Note that this parking lot has not been provided by the mainstream; rather, it was born out of BIPOC aspiration and resignation to US racial convention.)  There is no tram to take the parkers from the outlying lot; one must walk a distance to arrive at the mainstream.  One usually cannot pace one’s walk or you will fall behind (this is akin to the BIPOC parents’ caution that a BIPOC must give 300 percent effort to a White person’s 100 percent effort to succeed in the US mainstream).  One must walk fast, perhaps even run.  Doors of the mainstream close quickly and some never open.  If you perspire, it will be hailed as innately characteristic of some BIPOCs.

Once one arrives at the threshold of the US mainstream, one must slip in without breaking the stride of the many non-BIPOC people who see you as competition, or see you as someone who got in the door simply because of their color and not because of aptitude that has nothing to do with ethnicity.  Of course, the irony is that, given US enslavement of Black people and the systemic racism that remains entrenched in our institutions and businesses today (and the unavoidable fact that many US businesses benefited economically due to years of free enslaved Black labor, benefits that are still enriching the lives of their descendants today), many non-BIPOCs have advanced and succeeded in the US mainstream because of their color, because they do not have BIPOC melanin (unless they are investing time in tanning).

So, the BIPOC is in the door and it is time to give 300 percent.  The BIPOC is challenged by the fact that one must accept things as they are and never raise a question, or the BIPOC will be seen through the view of non-BIPOC expectations and labeled as an angry (not assertive) individual.  This not only will emanate from non-BIPOCs, but also from within the BIPOC community.  For example, a Native American may exert this view against a Black individual or a Black individual may exert this view towards an Asian American (or vice versa).  Moreover, the BIPOC is challenged by the fact that a high sum was paid to park in the outlying lot and the BIPOC may be worrying about how to pay the bills for essential needs (is parking one’s ethnicity essential in today’s US?).  In addition, the BIPOC may consider the fact that, after exhibiting 300 percent, the BIPOC must walk back to that distant lot where ethnicity was parked.  This is the work day that never ends.


I know.  Many non-BIPOCs are thinking: “But it was hard for me to get in the door, too!” and “But I give 300 percent, too!” or “But the parking fees are high for me, too!”  However, just think about how harder it might be if you were visibly a person of color (I say “visibly” because some BIPOCs are White-appearing and, therefore, have an easier time navigating the US mainstream because they are assumed by non-BIPOCs to be White and they get to “park” in the non-BIPOC parking lot, which, even if it is expensive, does not cost the individual as much as it costs the BIPOC who must park their ethnicity in the margins). 

Here is an example of how a Black male is affected by this mentality.  In New York City, I sought to hail a taxi with a Black male friend.  This college-educated, intelligent, and kind man told me that he would conceal himself in the shadowy doorway of a store so that I could hail the taxi alone.  He explained that taxis often to do not stop to pick up Black male customers.  Finding this appalling in any way, but particularly in the twenty-first century, I nevertheless followed his instructions and hailed the taxi alone.  A White male taxi driver pulled over to pick me up and I opened the back door.  However, the minute my friend stepped forward to join me, the taxi driver sped off, nearly taking my arm with him.

In the US mainstream, non-BIPOC businesses and institutions tend to hand-pick a few BIPOCs that they invite as highly marginalized members of the White Privilege Club (WPC) (this seems reminiscent of the house versus the field Blacks during US enslavement of Black people).  Once non-BIPOCs select those few, others often are ignored or considered to be complainers who “play the race card” and who only need to look at the BIPOCs in their WPC to comprehend that, if they tried hard enough or were smart enough, they, too, could be part of the club.

When George Floyd was murdered, many earth citizens noticed (for the first time?) that BIPOC people were relegated to a different parking lot than they.  This realization astounded me because this was so painfully obvious – a massive elephant in the room that could only be unobserved if one chose to do so.  Looking the other way has to be a strategy in such a case.

So, now the US mainstream has provided a tram from the BIPOC parking lot to the US mainstream.  It does not move very fast and the roads it travels are rather bumpy (hence, the continuation of police murder of unarmed Black people), but, for the first time, some earth citizens genuinely are not looking away and wanting to do something.  What that something is or should be creates consternation, stress, and trial and error.  I understand; it is not easy.  However, it is long overdue.

It is my hope that this more broadminded thinking leads to the closure of the outlying lots or even the desire that one needs to park their ethnicity.  It is my hope that it creates an environment in which BIPOCs do not have to park their ethnicity in order to exist in the US mainstream, that they can exist in the mainstream and be able to be who they are – including ethnically – and still participate fully.  For example, why is a vice president not simply a vice president rather than an Asian and Black vice president?  Why is an architect not simply an architect instead of a good Asian American architect?  It is my hope that people will be able to be people instead of being seen as BIPOC first and human beings second.

These are my wishes for the racial pandemic that has slithered and rampaged through US society my entire life.


I fear, however, that this broadmindedness will be short-lived.  This view was affirmed for me when I saw in the recent US presidential election how politically divided the US population is (another unsurprising elephant, right?).

This also has been affirmed by goings-on that I have observed, sometimes firsthand, in US academia.  For example, three university leaders dismissed a prominent professor as an angry ______ (fill in the blank with BIPOCs who are visibly darker than Whites) due to that professor’s questioning of issues related to systemic racism.  One of the leaders defended his Southern upbringing, positioning it as a reason to prove he is not racist.

However, we all are in one way or another.  Denial or dodging of that reality is simply a cry for help.

Let us hope together.


1 – “parking lot 3013-06-27” by Paul-W is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/.  Web. www.creativecommons.org.  D/L November 12, 2020 @ https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/8145efad-f431-4407-98ec-2c133f6e044c.

2 – “parking lot” by Dean Hochman is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/.  Web. www.creativecommons.org.  D/L November 12, 2020 @ https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/4ae88b82-531d-41a8-9e99-eee7b712f4eb.

3 – “Chain Link Fence” by You As A Machine is licensed with CC BY-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/.  Web. www.creativecommons.org.  D/L November 12, 2020 @ https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/02a7e481-3078-481c-9910-dc5653da914c.

4 – “Due to strong winds please close doors sign, Nature Magazine, Camden, London, UK” by gruntzooki is licensed with CC BY-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/.  Web. www.creativecommons.org.  D/L November 12, 2020 @ https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/92282f4e-a153-47f6-be97-283c4711ed68.