Throughout this month, Seattle Public Theater presents the West Coast premiere of new play “Hometown Boy” by Keiko Green. I celebrate the growing, vibrant Asian American theater scene in Seattle and welcome this play about a Japanese American family to the conversation. Opening night of “Hometown Boy” felt like a gathering of many Asian and Asian American faces from the Seattle theater community, but unsurprisingly so: Members of this community show up for each other.
Green presents that concept of “showing up” as a pillar of conflict between her six characters as James (Michael Wu)reunites with his somewhat absent father, Walter (Stephen Sumida), who lives alone in what was once his whole family’s home in a small town in Georgia. Sumida’s acting was an overall highlight performance for me; he completely lived in the playing space and visibly embodied even the smallest reaction to every change in Walter’s world. Upon James’ initial inspection, Walter’s house is a mess, his car is broken down outside and his isolation is immediately concerning to James and his New York City girlfriend Becks (Rachel Guyer-Mafune). Meanwhile, James turns a cold shoulder to memories of his childhood, telling Becks that he hasn’t returned since he left in a hurry 10 years prior.
Guyer-Mafune’s sharp, sustained vocal approach to Becks confronts Sumida’s subdued but meticuluous attention to every word spoken. Under this difference of character that deepens the divide between city and country attitudes, James scrambles to be the fulcrum between them. Even though James has spent less than half of his life away from his hometown, he strongly adopts the identity of being a New Yorker, mentioning that pride before even touching the topic of his Japanese heritage.
Walter, who was put in a Japanese concentration camp during World War II and ended up all the way across the country from where he started, embodies a contradiction; while his life story is inextricable from the impact of Japanese internment, he announces in a huff, “I don’t give a shit about Japanese people!” Green establishes Walter, set in his ways in an old house, as wholly unable to move on from the trauma of internment and James as instead set free to move forward where Walter cannot.
While the program for “Hometown Boy” includes “sex with minors” and “discussion of sexual assault” as two separate content warnings for the same discussion, it would have been prudent to simply list “rape” for the fullest understanding of James and his trauma. Nonetheless, it takes nearly the entire play for anyone to name the situation as what it is.
Leading up to this, James demonstrates a severe discomfort with sex and intimacy, including a surge of post-traumatic anxiety that is somehow completely skipped by the otherwise psychoanalytic Becks. In fact, James’ sensitivity is met exclusively with surprising coldness.
James’ experience is juxtaposed to that of his rapist, Sam (Jennifer Ewing), whose guilt and insecurity society meets with compassion and unconditional love. Perhaps it was the magnetic performance by Tim Gouran and resulting intimacy between him and Ewing both, but, by the end of “Hometown Boy,” I felt that most of the discussion of trauma and understanding was spent on James’ rapist rather than on James himself.
In their only scene together, James is left nearly paralyzed staring into his drink while Sam decorates a cake in a simple and highly effective display of how her life is going on while his stands still. Furthermore, when all is said and done, Sam is the only character whose trajectory at the end of the play isn’t left open ended. While I interpret the emphasis on Sam bouncing back from her actions as a tactic to explain how James is stuck living in his traumatic past, I couldn’t help but feel pushed to sympathize with Sam in a way that detracted from what I perceive as the intentions of the script. Green’s theme of moving forward (or being unable to) is paralleled in the traumatic reason why James left town, a secret that unravels out of his control within days of his visit.
After the confrontation between James and Sam, “Hometown Boy” was a blur. Sam’s father, Phil (Tim Hyland), takes up a multilayered friendship with Walter, Becks breaks up with James after learning the real reason he wouldn’t have sex with her (during an argument that takes place exclusively behind a couch so that half of their bodies are hidden from any seat in the house) and the smell of the house is identified in what could have been a very touching and poignant moment of vulnerability from Walter — if not for the barrage of reveals and betrayals going on.
Then, the play ends.
Systemic pressures and biases still greatly impact Asians and Asian Americans in the theater industry, and every play made by, for and about us is a victory of visibility. Green highlights perspectives of Japanese American lives in the South that are lush with complexity and writes James’ PTSD management in ways well-rounded to his character and circumstances; through these themes, “Hometown Boy” excels.
Despite my concerns about the script, “Hometown Boy” is a chapter in the growing library of Asian American plays that I greatly enjoyed. Simultaneously, the textual and directorial management of James’ sexual trauma feels muddy, and I emerged dazed. There are ways this play is “for” me, as an Asian American person in the process of confronting ingrained biases about the South, and ways that it isn’t, as a Seattleite who isn’t Japanese in any way. I expect everyone can take something different from “Hometown Boy,” and I encourage a watch to be informed by one’s individual positionality. Whether or not a play hits every mark, new theater is to be encouraged, watched and discussed. I hope that Seattle Public Theater continues taking on challenging and premiere work into the future.
W. Barnett Marcus is an actor in Seattle.
Read more of the May 10-16, 2023 issue.