Based on Jamie Ford’s beloved and very popular book Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Book-It does a very good adaptation, although a little long for Don at 2.5 hours. Adapted and directed by Annie Lareau, Hotel is a charming production of a sentimental favorite.
Set in the present and 1941-2 after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, the story flashes back and forth between the past and the present as it explores the relationship between Chinese Henry Lee and his father (Stephen Sumida), between Henry and Keiko Okabe (Stephanie Kim), a Japanese girl enrolled along with Henry in an all white prrivate school and between Henry, Keiko and the school bullies and between them and their adult friends, swing jazz musicians Sheldon (Marcel Davis) and Oscar (Shawn Vines).
Two excellent actors play Henry Lee: Jose Abaoag as a child and Stan Asis as an adult.
Henry is a retired widower when he hears that the Panama Hotel, newly bought and opened since being closed in 1950, has the personal effects of many Japanese families “evacuated” by executive order after the Pearl Harbor bombing. Henry is hoping that Keiko Okabe’s family’s things may be stored there as well. He decides to investigate. Henry looks to see if a favorite record of his and Keiko’s is there. It was made by Henry’s friend, Sheldon (Marcel Davis), who plays sax on a street corner, and Sheldon’s jazz idol piano player Oscar (Shawn Vines). Every day when Henry is on his way to school, he gives his lunch to Sheldon, takes a nickel from his instrument case, which he uses to buy his mother a flower, and gets advice about his relationships.
Henry is 12 as the production opens, as is Keiko. They work in the school lunchroom, serving their white fellow-students, clap erasers and clean up to help pay for their scholarships. The other students are not welcoming, lead by bullies Chaz Preston (Matt Fulbright) with his buddy in intimidation, Denny (William Poole). Mrs. Beatty, the lunchroom lady, is played by the incomparable Marianne Owen. She’s gruff and seemingly indifferent to their plight; however, she gives the bullies the bum’s rush when they hassle Henry in the lunchroom. Henry and Keiko bond over a shared can of pears and their isolation.
Henry’s father is all wrapped up in the Sino-Japan War. He raises money for relief efforts in his home province in China, plans on sending Henry to China to get a Chinese education, and makes his son wear an “I am Chinese” button to keep him from getting beat up when the Pacific war campaign begins. He and Henry’s mother (Kathy Hsieh) speak only Chinese. That’s why they insisted that Henry attend the white school, to learn English and to be an American.
Keiko’s mother (Mariko Kita) and father (David Hsieh) are different from Henry’s. They listen to swing jazz and go to night clubs to hear it and dance. They speak English as well as a native, in fact, Keiko considers herself to be American, not Japanese-American.
Ultimately Keiko and her family are sent first to the Puyallup Fairgrounds, remodeled with barbed wire and guard towers. Henry helps Mrs. Beatty cook for the internees and gets to see Keiko a few more times. Ultimately, the Japanese are sent to Idaho and Henry writes but never hears from her.
As a translator between his father and Chaz’s war profiteer father, Henry crosses his father in a sale to Chaz’s father, who wants to buy up all the Japanese owned property from under them.
The costumes are very period savvy and the sets are minimal, as is Book-It’s tradition. Pieces of furniture are moved around for the different locations. Mrs. Beatty’s rattle trap pick up that takes them to Puyallup is actually a love seat set on plywood on casters. The barbed wire fence at the Fairgrounds is shown as a board frame with the wire stretched across it in rows. The only problem I had with the sets was the incessant noise Mrs. Beatty's truck and the barbed wire fence made when being brought in or out.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet has been extended through October 28. For Book-It Repertory Theatre tickets and information, call the box office at 206-216-0833.