Dukesbay delivers enriching production of Gotanda’s ‘Yohen’

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Malcolm J. West (left) and Aya Hashiguchi (right) play James and Sumi Washington in the Dukesbay Theater production of Philip Kan Gotanda’s rich play about marriage and midlife. The play runs through Nov. 4. Photo courtesy of Dukesbay Productions.

If Socrates’ maxim that the unexamined life is not worth living is true, might we also say the same of marriage – the union of two lives? Is the unexamined marriage worth keeping? Philip Kan Gotanda’s play “Yohen,” a production of which is currently being performed by Tacoma’s wonderful Dukesbay Productions, is an excursion into one couple’s examination of their own decades-old marriage. The play is directed by Randy Clark.

The couple are not the ordinary American bride and groom. James and Sumi Washington (played by Malcolm J. West and Aya Hashiguchi) are an African American man and a Japanese woman. The two met in post-WWII, U.S. occupied Japan where James was a member of the United States Army.

During the course of the play, the two revisit their own complex backgrounds as well as episodes of their long time spent as a married couple. We first encounter the couple on the cusp of their golden years. On Sumi’s insistence, the two have separated and James is told to come and date her again, as if they are meeting for the first time. It becomes apparent that Sumi is not content to follow the well-worn path to old age: to simply live a life of comfortable habit and let inertia take hold until one slides almost imperceptibly into oblivion.

Sumi resists the deadly danger of habit and resignation and wants to find a more enriched way of living.

James proves to be equally remarkable. He is a thoughtful man who ruminates over the issues that Sumi brings up and is willing to engage with her. Too often, people in a marriage simply disregard the concerns of their partners, not taking them seriously. James has enough love for and trust in Sumi that he is willing to meditate upon what she says. In attempting to understand what is going on with Sumi, he examines his own life, his feelings and his perceptions.

The dialogues between the two reveal a rich and multifaceted relationship that is intertwined with a complex of socio-cultural issues: The Japanese conquest and domination of Manchuria, a Japanese mother’s shame over the divorce of a daughter, the feeling of freedom of African American soldiers when relieved of the weight of American racism while serving abroad, the judgement of African American women toward an African American man who marries outside of his race and the status of Japanese war brides among one another. Also exposed are status differences that result in measures of self-pride. Sumi came from a line of Samurai, whereas James is the descendent of slaves. (It turns out, however, that James has his own brand of pride in himself and in his family.)

In this play with only two actors, there is no room for a weak performance. It is testament to the brilliant acting of both West and Hashiguchi that members of the audience become swept up with these two lives and fall in love with both characters. Both, in their own way, are insightful and insistent on being true to themselves and, ultimately, to one another.

The play title, “Yohen,” is instructive. The word comes from the world of Japanese ceramics and refers to a type of pottery in which the forces in the making or the firing of the pot introduce unintended consequences. Usually, the result is that the pot is ugly and not worth keeping. Sometimes, however, a Yohen pot is a thing that has great interest and becomes something of a rare and precious treasure. In the play, Sumi is a potter and there are a couple of her pots that are deemed “yohen.” Sumi and James try to decide whether or not they like these pots – whether or not they are worth keeping.

This is a well-crafted and well-acted play that draws its audience in, holding audience interest and yielding a bundle of riches. Every performance of the opening weekend was met with a standing ovation. Treat yourself to this theatrical delight.

“Yohen” runs through Nov. 4 at Dukesbay Theater, at 508 6th Ave., on the second floor of the Merlino Building. The mission of Dukesbay Productions is to promote independent theater in Tacoma and to give a voice to artists of all ethnicities. Proceeds for “Yohen” go to benefit Tacoma’s Bryant Neighborhood Center, the groundbreaking of which is scheduled to take place in spring of next year.

For scheduling, tickets and additional information, visit dukesbay.org.

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