By Samantha Pak
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Growing up in Seattle’s Chinatown–International District during World War II, Henry Lee has experienced his fair share of problems.
An American-born son of Chinese immigrants, he attended the all-white Rainier School on scholarship, was bullied by his new classmates, and was disdained by almost everyone he encountered because he shared features with America’s enemies, the Japanese.
Then he met Keiko Okabe, a new scholarship student at Rainier. Keiko’s arrival makes things both better and worse for Henry — better, because he now has an ally at school; worse, because she is Japanese American and is viewed as evil by everyone else, including his Chinese-nationalist father.
Book-It Repertory Theatre’s production of “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” begins 40 years later in the 1980s with a grown-up Henry, played by Stan Asis, outside the Panama Hotel in Seattle’s Japantown. The hotel’s new owner is telling reporters about the dozens of steamer trunks she has discovered in the basement, filled with the heirlooms and artifacts left by the Japanese American families that were forced to leave their homes and interned at various camps throughout the country during. Hearing this announcement, Henry is reminded that one of those trunks belongs to Keiko’s family.
The play, directed and adapted by Annie Lareau from Jamie Ford’s novel of the same name, jumps between the 1940s and 1980s, as Henry sets about searching for the Okabe family trunk and reflects on his childhood and relationship with Keiko, who he lost track of after the war.
Despite the odds stacked against them, the young Henry and Keiko, played by Jose Abaoag and Stephanie Kim, spark a friendship and form a strong bond which stands up to all their obstacles.
This relationship blossoms into a romance, which Abaoag and Kim perform with an innocent sweetness and just enough insecure awkwardness befitting a first childhood crush. Kim’s bubbly and outgoing Keiko, who remains upbeat despite the animosity she faces as a Japanese American, balances Abaoag’s strong yet cautious Henry. The scenes in which the two sixth-graders get to know each other and try to figure out their feelings offers a light-hearted break from the play’s darker moments.
While the focus of the play is Henry and Keiko’s relationship, “Hotel” also features Henry’s relationship with his parents, played by Stephen Sumida and Kathy Hsieh, as well as a street musician he befriends named Sheldon, played by Marcel Davis. We also see Henry’s relationship with his son Marty, played by Moses Yim, and daughter-in-law-to-be Samantha, played by Sydney Andrews, who join him on his search in the Panama Hotel’s basement.
All of the actors offer a strong performance that will have audiences laughing and crying (I recommend bringing a tissue), as they learn about a dark time in Seattle’s history.
In addition, the play’s sets of Chinatown and the International District from the past will be a treat for Seattlites who want to see and compare how neighborhoods have changed.
With strong actors and a solid script, “Hotel” doesn’t disappoint. The play offers a little bit of everything: romance featuring star-crossed lovers, family drama, cultural clashes, and even a healthy dose of history. What more could you ask for? (end)
“Hotel” is playing at the Center Theatre at the Armory in the Seattle Center through Oct. 28. Performances are Wednesday through Sunday evenings with matinee shows on the weekends. Tickets range from $23-$42 and can be purchased at www.book-it.org or by calling (206) 216-0833.
Samantha Pak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.