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Tea, With Music -- Interview with Yumi Iwama

In Tea, With Music, actress Yumi Iwama plays Setsuko Banks, a Japanese war bride. This role was a particularly compelling and unique one for her, as the character and the story was not far from links to her own family’s experiences. Iwama discusses acting, identity, and facing adversity in her career.

YI (Yumi Iwama): Both of my parents grew up in Japan during the war years, and were the same age as Setsuko was during the war. So many of the experiences my character had in Japan are reminiscent of the stories I have heard from my parents. My parents came to the U.S. about the same time as Setsuko as well. My father had the 51st student visa granted to a Japanese by the U.S. government after the war. Like Setsuko, he was turned away from housing in the U.S. because of his nationality.

Q: What were the challenges you faced with playing your character?

YI: The biggest challenge for me is knowing that I am playing the character [inspired by]…playwright Velina Hasu Houston’s mother. So I want my interpretation to be authentic and truthful.

Q: Is there any part of TEA that resonates with you as an actor, or personally, in terms of the story and/or music?

YI: In Rumson, NJ, where I was raised, there was only one other Japanese family. I can relate to incidents of racial bias and not feeling fully accepted. I also struggle with identity—the American and Japanese parts of me don’t always agree.

Q: What made you want to pursue acting?

YI: As a child, there was nothing that excited me more than watching the Wizard of Oz, the Sound of Music, or Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella each year on television. I spent many afternoons acting out parts and singing songs from these movies. When I was in high school, I finally had the chance to perform on stage and was hooked.

Q: Have you ever faced adversity in your career, and if so, how?

YI: I think anyone who chooses a career in the arts has faced adversity. We are a group that is more often than not, looking for our next job. The situation now is that many theaters in this country are suffering from lack of government funding and donations because of the economy. As far as television and film goes, the trend is to use stars even in smaller roles that in the past went to “blue collar” actors, meaning those without recognizable names. You have to be a bit crazy to want to be an actor these days.

Q: What do you enjoy the most and least about acting?

What I enjoy most is relating to others through new characters. If an audience member learns something about themselves or others through the play, or just has an enjoyable time, I feel I have done my job. What I like least is the anxiety I feel before the start of every show!

Q: What distinguishes this production or role you have compared to other characters you’ve played in the past?

I had a more visceral response to Setsuko than I have had to other roles. I believe that your parents’ experiences have a strong impact on you, whether or not they are shared out loud. Setsuko suggests that army wives “married” the war. I think in some ways they also give birth to it.


Book and Lyrics by Velina Hasu Houston
Music by Nathan Wang

Now playing through December 9, 2012

East West Players
120 Judge John Aiso St.
Little Tokyo

Wednesday through Saturday: 8 p.m.
Sunday: 2 p.m.


*Japanese American National Museum Members get $10 off ticket price.

© 2012 Melissa Kim

acting actress east west players EWP identity musical performing arts play Tea with Music theatre velina hasu houston war bride Yumi Iwama