Matcha Do About Whiteness: NoMads Art Collective's 'Mr. Kotomoto is Definitely Not White'
Updated: Oct 4, 2019
Mr. Kotomoto Is Definitely Not White. Except that he is. And unless you’re White too, that gag gets old remarkably fast.
NoMads Art Collective’s Mr. Kotomoto Is Definitely Not White by Ben Claus takes place in your everyday tea shop à la Teavana or The Coffee & Tea Exchange, but the action isn’t focused there. Instead, it follows the friendship (or close co-workership) of Josie (Shea Lee) and Reed (Shea Petersen), two feisty cogs in the chain-store machine. Josie, a queer, 20-something, Asian American woman, has been working at Kotomoto’s Teas for about a year. Endearingly anxious, 20-something White guy, Reed, has just been promoted to assistant manager after six months of working there. The story unfolds over the seemingly obvious discrimination and tokenizing of Josie’s presence in the shop by their manager, Bruce (Ryan Leonard). Spoiler alert: Reed and Josie’s friendship doesn’t survive the adversity.
Upon arrival at Strawdog Theatre, it became clear that the company’s mission for Kotomoto was lost to its racial undertones (sorry, overtones). This is unsurprising when an overwhelmingly White company works on a show about race written by a White person. Scott Jackoway’s director’s note highlights this as he discusses the main theme of the play in the inescapable horrors of capitalism:
In order to survive, it is expected to work a job that you probably hate. Maybe you’re at a desk job where you work as a tiny cog in an endless, unfathomable machine. Maybe you work a job that pays the unlivable minimum wage. Maybe your boss is a racist. These untenable conditions are expected to be suffered with grace, and usually are. Millennials, however, have begun to argue that the problem runs deeper, and must be addressed at its source. This play does not present an answer to this problem, just options: reform, revolution, stagnation, or maybe just a dream.
While this idealization of Kotomoto is all well and good, it comes from a place of inherent Whiteness. Jackoway fails to address the blaring issue with the play itself: Josie, the one character of color, is used as a mouthpiece to prove the play’s self-awareness. Her ethnicity provides contrast and conflict for Reed’s growth. Her sexuality deepens co-worker Beatrice’s (Bethany Arrington) perspectives and experiences. Her general demeanor serves as convenient comedic relief for the audience. Yes, Bruce is traumatically problematic, but putting Josie in this situation to prove a point is worse. Her sole purpose is to single-handedly teach Reed and Beatrice about basic equity, queerness, and discrimination, and hopefully even cause the audience to forget about the intensely privileged position of the playwright.
The final scene of Act I is the only part that is undoubtedly about capitalism. Mr. Kotomoto is revealed to be a giant, White, amorphous blob-puppet with a booming voice and an extremely colonial understanding of race. The audience learns that he changed his last name to Kotomoto through marriage, which hilariously complicates his character. Admittedly, I found the Mr. Kotomoto scene as enough comedic relief to forgive sidetracking the Josie - Reed - Bruce conflict for an emotional, functional, and literally inflated character.
Tea is sipped, spit, and spilled all throughout Act I. Most notably, there’s a real-time matcha tutorial when the audience gets to see Beatrice in action for the first time. The tea has to be kept at a strict 175°F so as not to burn the matcha leaves. The real tea, however, is boiling hot: Mr. Kotomoto uses POC figures without regard for the people behind their exploited narratives. The play is steeped in traumatizing, in-your-face examples of racism to the point of bitterness.
By Act II, I found it completely inconsumable. Bruce sends a mass email to the employees regarding a robbery that happened while Beatrice—portrayed as the resident ditz—was left at the register. He dedicates at least two full paragraphs to insisting that shoplifters are always black men citing, “After 20 years of experience, it’s not a coincidence. It’s a pattern.” While the audience had previously experienced Bruce’s micro-aggressions toward the employees (particularly Josie who he insists he simply doesn’t mix well with, “Like oil and water”), this level of blatant, active racism doesn't seem justified.
Kotomoto deals with many issues of hierarchy in the workplace: race, gender, orientation, and age. There’s no reason to throw a new wrench like Bruce’s incredible racism into the already overloaded machine. Its value seemed to lie purely in shock, which landed for the White audience members I was surrounded by while completely taking me out of the world of the play. Painting Bruce as a monster, hyper-racist man in power distracts from the problem at hand and serves to let White audiences off the hook. It lets them believe that as long as they aren’t spewing racial slurs or sending mass emails attacking Black men as an entire group, they don’t need to be held accountable for their racism. In reality, racism is still racism even if it’s palatable.
It’s not everyday I walk into the theater and see a play that has a character that reminds me of myself: 20-something, queer, outspoken, Asian. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a character so strikingly me-like on stage. Which made the cut so much deeper when Josie was used, tokenized, and discarded for the sake of teaching White people about racism. My vision went blurry and my jaw clenched when she entered the stage in a Kimono and a full face of Geisha-esque makeup, while the White guy sitting behind me exclaimed, “Aw, she’s so cute!” I cringed when she had to explain why it didn’t make sense for the company to insinuate she’s Japanese by wearing the Kimono because she isn’t even Japanese, only for Bruce to respond, “But you’re Asian.” That tea was so hot it burned. Why am I the one scorched by a play that claims to champion the people its hurting?
Ironically, I was asked to write this review for the same reasons that I’d like to assume the playwright wrote the character of Josie—inclusivity and diversity of voices in theater. Unfortunately, all it feels like is that like Josie, I’m serving as a palatable mouthpiece for problems that extend far beyond me. In discussing Kotomoto, we aren’t really discussing Kotomoto at all; we’re critiquing an entire system that’s been imposed to harm and disadvantage. A Bruce is never just a Bruce, he represents a world of Bruces. Everyone is trying to do good work and expose the resilience of a generation fighting back. As proven by Reed and Josie, however, brewing psychedelic tea isn’t nearly potent enough.
Madie Doppelt is currently an undergraduate Playwriting and English Literature double major at DePaul University. She is heavily involved in Chicago's circus community, coaching, performing, and training circus arts all around the city. Keep an eye out for her work!