Playwright Philip Ken Gotanda has fashioned a cathartic and revealing survey of the 30-plus year marriage of James (Danny Glover), a rough-hewn African American retired serviceman, and his cultured but delicate Japanese bride, Sumi (Nobu McCarthy). Under Ann Bowen’s deeply insightful staging, Glover and McCarthy offer complex and rewarding portrayals of two loving but profoundly unhappy individuals who gradually come to terms with the years of disappointment and miscommunication that have finally driven them apart.
“Yohen” is a Japanese term for the occasional accident that causes a clay object to come out slightly misshapen when pottery is fired in a kiln. It is up to the individual viewing the object to decide whether the end result is ugly or more beautiful because of the imperfection. Gotanda uses the term as a metaphor for James and Sumi’s marriage.
And, director Bowen understands every nuance of Gotanda’s emotionally shifting text, constantly guiding Glover and McCarthy, fusing them into a couple that quite believably has been together for more than 30 years.
The play is set in the Gardena home of the aging pair in 1986, when the diminutive Sumi declares to her mas-sive, physically imposing spouse, “I want to start at the beginning.” Sumi tells James he is being kicked out of the house and now must visit her as if they were on a date. The imposed separation causes James and Sumi to evolve as individuals, giving each the insight to confront the other about the dysfunction of their relationship. The result is an often funny, occasionally bitter, but ultimately sad war of remembrances.
Glover creates an awe-inspiring presence as the uneducated man who bears the emotional scars of having been a low-level career soldier for all of his adult life, but who pins his self worth on the boxing skills that almost carried him to the Olympics. Finally forced to do for himself, Glover’s James blossoms into the confident nurturer he was meant to be and also comes to fully realize what has been missing in his marriage to Sumi.
McCarthy is perfect as the inherently humorous and aristocratic Sumi, who is determined to emerge from un-der the oppressive yoke of trying to function as an American housewife. It is hilarious to watch Sumi stare up at James’ hulking presence, shouting, “When are you going to grow up? Everything you do bugs the hell out of me.” McCarthy reaches a riveting level of emotional intensity when Sumi and James finally confront each other over why they never had children.
The production is aided immensely by the designs of Edward E. Haynes Jr. (set) and Joyce Kim Lee (costumes). Haynes creates a telling living environment wherein the overstuffed living room is obviously James’ domain and the delicate, finely crafted dining room setting is Sumi’s home-within-a-home. Lee’s costumes reflect perfectly the evolving social and emotional relationship between James and Sumi.
“Yohen” is a worthy first-time collaboration by two Los Angeles-area repertory companies: the Asian Pacific American-based East West Players and the African American-based Robey Theatre Co.