Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

In the Tsunami Theatre Company’s latest production, the exiled scion of a prominent Japanese pottery family condemns wooden bowls: Peasants favor them, he says, because they won’t shatter when shoved to the floor during a round of tabletop lovemaking. Set in Hawaii in 1919, Ballad of Yachiyo highlights conflicts between old and new values, high and low culture. The play centers on 16-year-old Yachiyo (Judy Chen), who pores over the Montgomery Ward catalog in her spare moments. She knows that life has more to offer, but other than a desire to wear the latest fashions, she has little concrete ambition. At the urging of her parents—mostly her mother—she travels far from home to live with potter Hiro (Tatsuya Aoyagi) and his wife, Sumiko (Jennifer Knight). It’s a chance for Sumiko to repay a debt—Yachiyo’s father once saved the life of Sumiko’s father—and for Yachiyo to learn more about traditional Japanese culture. Sumiko teaches her tea-ceremony etiquette; Hiro puts her to work in his studio. At first, Hiro resents Yachiyo’s intrusion and Sumiko welcomes the company; but as time passes, allegiances shift, with tragic results. Tsunami’s production, directed by Naoko Maeshiba, spruces up a bare room at the Bethesda Writer’s Center with David Raphael Israel’s projection of videos and stills onto a scrim, supplementary action by a pair of traditional Japanese dolls, and a blaze superbly conjured out of red lights for a kiln-fire scene. The set, designed by Kim Deane and David C. Ghatan, is a series of wooden platforms flanked on two sides by the audience; it doesn’t always offer the best sightlines, but the discrete areas of action effectively underscore Yachiyo’s distance from the life she left behind. Particularly touching is an early scene in which her parents sit silent and sad as their daughter, a few yards and many miles away, settles into her new home. The acting is mostly fine, with Chen carrying the title role well through nearly every scene and Frank Britton blending resignation and contentment in the role of her father. Philip Gotanda’s script, based on the life of a mysterious aunt, is a story of wealth, family, class, and aspirations, of which there are plenty: Yachiyo’s father once dreamed of becoming a silk tycoon, even as his children fed his silkworms to birds; Yachiyo’s hometown boyfriend, Willie Higa (Steve Lee), gains prominence for his role in a union uprising; and Hiro yearns to create ceramic designs worthy of his heritage. Through it all, the past permeates the action: Though he died before the events of the play and makes no appearances, not even in ghost or flashback form, Sumiko’s father is arguably one of the most important characters. His life (and his wealth) touches most of the characters, directly or indirectly. —Joe Dempsey