Luis Valdez, renowned author of Zoot Suit and a hero of the Latino theatre movement—Zoot Suit was the first Chicano play to reach Broadway—has a new work at the Mark Taper Forum, which is also set in the World War II period. Valley of the Heart is a panoramic, epic social commentary that brings out in sharp relief the contrast between American ideals and actions. Whereas Zoot Suit had an urban setting (L.A.), the new play is set in California’s Central Valley, home to Mexican-American farmworkers and, beginning in the early 20th century, also a place where Japanese immigrants could settle down, grow commercial farm products, and become Americanized. The cast is equally divided between Latino and Japanese-American roles.
Valley of the Heart is a panoramic, epic social commentary that brings out in sharp relief the contrast between American ideals and actions.
Valdez, a veteran of El Teatro Campesino, the 1960s farmworkers’ agitprop division which helped the workers and the general public to understand the life-and-death issues in the fields, offered the Taper the opportunity to present Valley of the Heart in association with the Teatro, reaffirming the historical roots of this form of drama. The play was originally workshopped and performed at the Teatro’s home theatre in the California town of San Juan Bautista. I attended opening night at the Taper, Nov. 7; the audience had numerous representation from the Latino and Japanese-American communities. Among the celebrity attendees was the legendary farmworker organizer Dolores Huerta. Valdez also directed.
The Taper pulled out all the stops to make this production sing with authenticity. The kitchens of both homes appear on stage simultaneously (set design by John Iacovelli). Each family struggles to hold onto their dignity on this shared, and sometimes contested land amongst the fertile fields of Cupertino in northern California. Those fields are gone now. They have been replaced by the gleaming corporate headquarters of Apple and other Silicon Valley companies. Projected images onto a shoji screen—owing much of their technology to those very industries—relate the vast human saga that once breathed life here.
Basing himself on his own childhood recollections, Valdez unspools the story of two immigrant families, the Montaños and the Yamaguchis, as the first generation adapts and the next generation, American-born, strives to achieve an equal footing in the United States. We first meet the families at the end of the Great Depression, when prices for farm goods are low, and wages cannot cover family expenses. The disequilibrium between the families is established early on when Cayetano, head of the Montaño clan (Daniel Valdez), asks for an advance on his pay from Ichiro Yamaguchi (Randall Nakano). The Montaños are sharecroppers on the Yamaguchi farm.
Interestingly, both family names are variants of the word “mountain,” symbolizing the mountains that each family must climb.
The play has something of a rustic Romeo and Juliet quality insofar as the son Benjamin Montaño (Lakin Valdez) and daughter Thelma “Teruko” Yamaguchi (Melanie Arii Mah) fall in love. That relationship will become the central, driving theme of the play. This couple was modeled on an interracial couple that Valdez actually knew as a child. All might have evolved smoothly, once the family objections were overcome, were it not for an unfortunate stroke of history: Pearl Harbor.
After the Yamaguchis are interned along with thousands of other Japanese Americans, new unanticipated questions arise. What allegiance do the Japanese Americans claim? What makes this one a war hero and that one a militant civil rights resister? How are Ben and Thelma to remain loyal to their families, their country and one another? This subject matter is also treated in the musical Allegiance that starred George Takei. The song “White Christmas” played on the camp radio never sounded so white until now.
At the same time that life has become a living hell for the detainees, war production ironically opens up other opportunities for the Mexican Americans. The story is framed by Ben, in a wheelchair now and aging gracefully, recalling the characters and events he lived through.
The struggle to become tolerated in America, and to become equal citizens, is almost in itself the story of our country. Theatregoers will instantly recognize situations and predicaments that parallel contemporary struggles over immigration, acceptance, detention, rights and duties. In the last part of the play, when the future of these characters is told, we see much interracial marriage, and further immigration, and the nativist backlash to it. “It’s too late,” says Ben and Thelma’s son. “California is half Latino and Asians and there’s not a damn thing they can do about it.” (Audience applause.)
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As Valdez paints a broad picture, he sometimes leaves poetry behind and obliges his characters to deliver certain historical details in textbook language that sounds like exposition—explaining, not showing. In most of these cases the information conveyed is material we already know or at least has been hinted at.
Music is a unifying element throughout the play, and there is as much Japanese as Mexican, some of it live, and some recorded. As with the intersectional families we meet, the music, too, melds into something new and fresh-sounding (sound design by Philip G. Allen, music consultant Daniel Valdez). What would American music be—indeed, what would America be—without its stunning, colorful diversity?
Another evidence of the blended emerging culture in America is the presence of two masked “Kurogos,” black-uniformed spirits as in kabuki plays, who move furniture, wheel people on and off stage, and generally makes themselves useful. These athletic parts are played by Mariela Arteaga and Michael Naydoe Pinedo. Valdez as director has done fine work integrating many disparate elements to a quick-paced tale.
“I feel a sense of basic responsibility as a playwright born and raised in California,” Valdez says, “to reflect our reality to the rest of the world, to say, ‘Look we’re all the same. We’ve all had our common struggles.’ I use the theater not just to enlighten but to touch the hearts of people. If we can touch the heart, maybe we can do something to bring justice to our lives.”
The show ends with a hearty rendition of the popular “Canción Mixteca,” by Oaxacan songwriter José López Alavez in 1915 when he was in Mexico City and homesick for his native state. “Qué lejos estoy del suelo, donde he nacido! Inmensa nostalgia invade mi pensamiento.” (How far I am from the soil where I was born! Immense nostalgia invades my thought.) In the play, the song is performed by the whole cast, and also in Japanese translation. Members of the audience could be heard singing along.
Additional characters in a play that demands fast-paced ensemble coordination include Moises Castro as second son Ernesto “Tito” Montaño, Christy Sandoval as daughter Maruca Montaño, Rose Portillo as the matriarch Paula Montaño; and Justin Chien as the son Joe “Yoshi” Yamaguchi, Joy Osmanski as the Japanese mother Hana Yamaguchi, and Scott Keiji Takeda as Thelma’s rejected suitor Calvin Sakamoto and as the grown Benjirou, son of Thelma and Ben.
Costume design is by Lupe Valdez, lighting design by Pablo Santiago, and projection design by David Murakami.
As part of the Center Theatre Group’s public outreach, a Community Conversation will take place on Weds., Nov. 28 from 6 to 7:30 pm, titled “Dignity Amidst Injustice: From the Japanese American Internment to Today.” The conversation will discuss how the Japanese-American internment was not a singular, isolated incident, but part of a centuries-long history of exclusionary legislation that continues today. It will also examine how Japanese Americans maintained their dignity—for some through resistance, for others through enlistment and for many through solidarity, strength and the preservation of culture and tradition. This conversation, moderated by Leslie Ishii, will take place at The Music Center Annex building, 601 W. Temple St., Los Angeles, in Rehearsal Room A.
Valley of the Heart runs through Dec. 9 at the Mark Taper Forum at The Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown L.A. Tickets are available online at CenterTheatreGroup.org, by calling (213) 628-2772, or in person at the Center Theatre Group Box Office (at the Ahmanson Theatre at The Music Center).
Eric A. Gordon