Love story at the center of ‘Valley of the Heart’

LOVE AND WAR ­— Randall Nakano, Andres Ortiz and Melanie Arii Mah in “Valley of the Heart.”  photo by Robert Eliason

LOVE AND WAR ­— Randall Nakano, Andres Ortiz and Melanie Arii Mah in “Valley of the Heart.” photo by Robert Eliason

SAN JUAN BAUTISTA, Calif. — The new play “Valley of the Heart” is a powerful love story set against the historical backdrop of World War II and the American concentration camps. The play — which explores themes such as racism, identity, dignity and loyalty — drew a near-capacity crowd to the El Teatro Campesino Playhouse in San Juan Bautista on a recent September afternoon. Written and directed by Luis Valdez, the story primarily focuses on the tragedy of the 120,000 persons of Japanese descent who were sent to American concentration camps during World War II, solely based on their race.

The play, which unfolds in the winter of 1941 prior to the start of World War II, concentrates on the relationship between two immigrant farming families in the Santa Clara Valley, also called the “Valley of the Heart’s Delight.” A Japanese American family, the Yamaguchis, operate a farm in Cupertino where they grow spinach, broccoli and strawberries. Their neighbors, the Montaños, are a Mexican American family who live on the Yamaguchis’ ranch and work as sharecroppers.

Ichiro Yamaguchi (Randall Nakano), the patriarch of the Yamaguchi family, is an Issei whose wife Hana (Christina Chu) is a picture bride. Cayetano Montaño (Gustavo Mellado) is a first-generation immigrant who traveled from Jalisco, Mexico. Following the Great Depression, both the Montaños and the Yamaguchis are focused on raising their U.S.-born children.

The families’ oldest children, Ben (Andres Ortiz) and Teruko “Thelma” (Melanie Arii Mah) become romantically involved in a star-crossed relationship against her parents’ wishes. Thelma is already engaged to be married to another man, a churly Japanese American named Calvin Sakamoto (Scott Keiji Takeda), through an arranged marriage.

After Ben finds out that Thelma is engaged, he becomes upset. He tells her that while he may not be rich or educated, he has loved her since the day that he first saw her on the ranch.

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Ben and Thelma’s love is tested and both families’ lives are thrown into turmoil. After President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs Executive Order 9066, the government raids the homes of Japanese Americans for “contraband” or any items that demonstrate a strong connection to their home country. 

As a result, the Yamaguchis burn their Japanese newspapers, photos of relatives, and books written in kanji. In addition, Ichiro asks Thelma to hide a samurai sword that he brought over from Japan.

A despondent Ichiro says, “The homeland is now the enemy. We’re at war with our own flesh and blood.”

Subsequently, Ichiro is moved to a federal detention center for those who are deemed disruptive and a possible security risk. Meanwhile, Thelma, her brother Yoshi “Joe” (Intae Kim), and her mother are sent to the Pomona Assembly Center. At the racetrack, they must live in horse stalls. After the family is transported by bus to the racetrack, they receive straw sacks for their belongings. They end up staying in Pomona for four months.

After the Yamaguchis are removed from their home by the government, the Montaños take over their farm and strive to keep it going. 

In the winter of 1942, Thelma, her mother and brother, as well as Calvin Sakamoto, are moved to a concentration camp in Heart Mountain, Wyo. They arrive in Wyoming in the middle of a snowstorm amid freezing temperatures with only a pot belly stove to keep them warm.

They are forced to endure squalid and cramped living conditions in a camp surrounded by barbed wire fence. Their new home consists of shoddily barracks which are covered in tar paper and which lack plumbing. Moreover, they find long 

lines for the bathroom and a scarcity of toilet paper. 

In the brilliant “Valley of the Heart,” Valdez offers an unflinching look at the unjust treatment of Japanese Americans following World War II and the difficult conditions they faced in the concentration camps. Featuring a top-notch cast, the play is at its heart a testament to the Japanese Americans who demonstrated strength in the face of adversity.

In addition to the play, El Teatro Campesino features an exhibit of personal belongings from Japanese Americans who lived in the Heart Mountain concentration camp and other camps. The various items on display include daruma dolls, photos, diaries, and small Buddhist shrines.

“Valley of Heart” has special meaning for some of its cast members. Arii Mah says that portraying Teruko was personally fulfilling. “This play means a lot to me and my family, and it is a story that needs to be told.”

“Valley of the Heart” will run through Sunday, Oct. 12. Performances are on Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. El Teatro Campesino is located at 705 Fourth Street in San Juan Bautista. Tickets are $12 to $20 for children; $20 to $27 for adults; and $15 to $25 for seniors. For more information, visit www.valleyoftheheart.com.

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