THE NISEI WIDOWS CLUB: How Tomi Got Her Groove Back

The Japanese-American Golden Girls who call themselves The Nisei Widows are back at East West Players, and if those who caught the first installment Nisei Widows Club in 2003 can ignore the knee-jerk reaction, “Never again!”, this return visit ten years later, while still pure sitcom, proves considerably more entertaining, and ultimately quite touching once (as the play’s title gives away) Tomi’s got her groove back.

KA4U0077 Written by Tim Dang, Marilyn Tokuda, and Denise Iketani under the pseudonym Betty Tokudani, The Nisei Widows Club: How Tomi Got Her Groove Back reunites four of the original seven widows and the quartet of seasoned pros who brought them first to life.

We rejoin the now 60/70somethings just as former beauty queen Tomi (Jeanne Sakata) has said a bereaved mother’s farewell to her 45-year-old policeman son, the victim of a heart attack surely hastened by too much of Mom’s Spam musubi and assorted salty, fatty foods prepared by his doting, devoted, and now grieving mom.

A week of Tomi crashing at the home of longtime friend Sumi (Takayo Fischer) has left Sumi at her wit’s end, and insisting that fellow Nisei Widows Hana (Emily Kuroda) and Betty (June Kyoko Lu) do their fair share by signing up for one-week shifts looking after their sister Nisei Widow.

The ladies toss around various ways Tomi might go about getting her groove back and come up with one they can all say yes to, albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm. What better way than a yoga class to find serenity and stay strong and youthful?

KA4U0097 Naturally, it’s the “stay youthful” part that most appeals to Tomi, and before you can say “Namaste,” the Nisei Widows find themselves being coached by hunky New Age yogi Patrick (Tui Asau)—and under his spell as well.

When Patrick suggests a trip to Hawaii, where he just so happens to have family, the Nisei Widows are off to the islands and taking hula lessons from Patrick-lookalike Kimo (Asau again), who has them every bit as spellbound as his stateside cousin.

Hula lessons not only limber up the four best friends of a certain age, the Dance Of The Islands exerts its cathartic healing spell on Tomi, and before you know it, you-know-who has got her you-know-what back!

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Substitute Miami for Gardena and Dorothy, Blanche, Rose, and Sophia for our four Nisei Widows and you’d have The Golden Girls: Japanese-American Style, and if “Tokudani”’s script remains resolutely at sitcom level, as any Golden Girls fan can tell you, there’s nothing wrong with sitcom humor when you’re spending time with women as fabulous as these.

Under Amy Hill’s sprightly direction, The Nisei Widows Club: How Tomi Got Her Groove Back mines as many laughs as possible from Tomi’s conviction that she looks decades younger than her years, from Hana’s way with the latest high-tech gizmos, and from Betty’s and Sumi’s assorted quirks, and though a number of in-jokes may whoosh over the heads of anyone unfamiliar with Japanese-American life in Gardena or Little Tokyo, the laughs do indeed come rapid-fire, thanks in large part to a couldn’t-be-better cast.

KA4U0066 Fischer, Kuroda, Lu, and Sakata may have had classier scripts to work off than their latest, but they’ve probably never had more fun onstage, and the friendship these four Asian-American treasures have built over the years is palpable. Supporting them is the delicious Asau, who could easily convince audience members who haven’t read their programs that Patrick and Kimo are being played by two very different actors. The Nisei Widows Club: How Tomi Got Her Groove Back may not be a dream script, but it is brought to life by what can only be called a dream cast.

Not surprisingly, East West Players’ latest looks absolutely terrific. Scenic designer Tesshi Nakagawa surrounds the production’s four very different sets with black-and-white photos of the Nisei Widows’ families and forbears, with one particularly stunning scene change earning spontaneous applause. Prop master Ken Takemoto dresses Nakagawa’s set with an endless array of Japanese and Hawaiian knickknacks. Dori Quan’s splendid costumes range from widows’ weeds to yoga wear to Hawaiian garb, each outfit reflecting the personality of its wearer. Jason Bieber’s lighting deserves high marks as well as does Dennis Yen’s sound design. As for choreographer Keali’i Ceballos’ hula moves, they couldn’t be more spellbinding. Maya Rodgers is stage manager.

I went into The Nisei Widows Club: How Tomi Got Her Groove Back with low expectations and came out more than pleasantly surprised. The phrase “It ain’t Shakespeare” may never have been more apt than it is here, but I can think of a lot less pleasant ways to spend a couple of hours than with these four fabulous female friends.

East West Players, David Henry Hwang Theatre, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
November 13, 2013
Photos: Michael Lamont

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