1953’s The Teahouse of the August Moon is John Patrick’s Tony- and Pulitzer-winning adaptation of Vern Sneider’s novel of the same name.
1946! The United States of America’s occupation forces in Okinawa have grand plans to remake Okinawa and its backward natives in America’s image. The Okinawans are not particularly surprised or alarmed by this. As narrator Sakini explains to the audience, Okinawa has been getting invaded and occupied for eight hundred years. If there’s one thing at which the Okinawans excel, it’s being invaded and occupied.
Ambitious Colonel Purdy dispatches newly arrived Captain Fisby to the distant village of Tobiki to transform it into a proper American town. To assist Fisby, Purdy sends along translator Sakini, who hails from Tobiki. While Fisby has failed at everything at which he has ever tried his hand, the army has provided foolproof Plan B to guide him.
Nothing can go wrong. Nothing does. At least from a certain point of view.
Fisby loses control of the situation as soon as he sets out across Okinawa. Sakini and the other Okinawans are quite adept at manipulating occupiers into doing whatever the Okinawans desire. Fisby has no aptitude for resisting manipulation.
Matters do not improve once he arrives in the village. Plan B was drawn up without knowing much about Okinawa. What America thinks the Okinawans need and what the Okinawans actually want are two very different things. It seems that none of Fisby’s plans can be put into action with the resources available … yet when Fisby accedes to Okinawan desires resources appear out of nowhere. Somehow Fisby acquires a live-in geisha named Lotus Blossom. Fisby discovers that he does not much mind how events are playing out.
Back at HQ, Purdy gets an inkling that something has gone wrong with his man in Tobiki. He dispatches psychiatrist McLean to assess Fisby. McLean finds Fisby dressed in local attire, with no American-style schoolhouse in sight. There’s a teahouse standing on the plot designated “school.”
McLean’s report would not doubt have been utterly damning had McLean not been in his turn seduced by the villagers of Tobiki.
The one sticking point is the local economy, which scarcely exists. Here Fisby has a moment of inspiration. The outside world is largely uninterested in what Tobiki has to offer. There is, however, one local product for which almost infinite demand exists. It is not one listed in Plan B.
It’s inevitable that inflexible, puritanical Purdy will eventually discover on what foundation Tobiki’s new prosperity rests. On that day, Fisby’s military career will end.
While reading, please imagine “but they meant well” inserted liberally throughout the text.
The novel apparently differs in several respects from the play. I’ve never read the novel, so I cannot speak to this authoritatively1. The play, on the other hand, was consistently stocked in the libraries of the schools I attended. I don’t recall that any school I went to ever tried to stage the play. This may be for the best, although I note the technical requirements don’t seem all that challenging.
The play distinguishes between Okinawans and Japanese (which is anthropologically correct). Sneider, the author of the novel, was himself part of the US occupation force in Okinawa. He served in a village called Tobaru; presumably his personal experience coloured the plot.
I should note that while the play does acknowledge that the situation in 1946 was a bit challenging, pertinent facts, such as the death of one-third of the population (caught between Japan and the United States during the Invasion of Okinawa), are not mentioned2. In the context of those deaths Purdy’s resolve that the Okinawans are “gonna learn democracy, if I have to shoot every one of them!” is rather dark.
This is a twist on the popular stories in which cunning country folk easily outwit city slickers. Purdy has an unshakable faith in the American Way being the only right way, but he’s also unable to realize he’s hung his map of Okinawa upside down. Fisby has the benefit of a degree, but while Sakini has picked up enough broken English within a year of the Americans arriving to work as a translator, Fisby never learns the local language (which may have been Okinawan Japaneseor Okinawan), content to trust Sakini’s version of what the people around him are saying. Including the woman with whom he is carrying on the closest thing this play has to a romance3.
I found it interesting that the playwright seems to have had faith in his audience’s willingness to tolerate other languages, not a bet I’d have necessarily made in 1953. Aside from Sakini, the Okinawan characters don’t speak English but they do get lines. There’s an entire scene between Lotus Blossom and a would-be suitor that relies on the actors conveying to their presumably monolingual audiences what’s going on through body language.
The play is obviously meant affectionately. However, standards for portraying non-Americans in plays and films have changed (for the better, most would say) since the 1950s. For one thing, yellowface has fallen out of fashion (provided neither Tilda Swindon nor Scarlett Johansson are available for the roles). This play might have been a marvel of tolerance in the middle of the previous century, but it’s 2019 now.
It would seem that the script for the play is no longer in print, though you could easily find used copies.
1: I’ve seen the film version. Marlon Brando is not the first actor who comes to mind to play an Okinawan, although at least he took the time to learn some Japanese. And it’s arguable that he made a more convincing Okinawan than Eli Wallach.
2: The script barely touches on the Okinawan experience under Japanese rule. On the one hand, Sakini seems confident of Okinawans’ ability to do as they choose, rather than what the latest invaders want. On the other hand, everyone in Okinawa is poor and their customs seem to be those of their second-to-last invader…
3: In the play, the potential romance fizzles in part because Fisby doesn’t think he’d be doing Lotus Blossom a favour by taking her to xenophobic small-town America4. Though it might be that the real reason might be that the playwright was too timid to present audiences with a mixed marriage. I wonder how this is handled in the book?
4: The language barrier could be another issue. Perhaps they could bring Sakini with them.