RABBIT RAMBLINGS: Culture and history collide in wartime family drama

MATTERS OF THE HEART — Lakin Valdez* (Benjamin Montaño), Christina Chu (Hana Yamaguchi), Melanie Arii Mah* (Thelma "Teruko" Yamaguchi), Rafael Toribio (Kurogo), Anthony Chan (Calvin Sakamoto), and Ryan Takemiya (Joe "Yoshi" Yamaguchi) in the World Premiere of VALLEY OF THE HEART presented in partnership by San Jose Stage Company and El Teatro Campesino. photo by David Murakami

MATTERS OF THE HEART — Lakin Valdez* (Benjamin Montaño), Christina Chu (Hana Yamaguchi), Melanie Arii Mah* (Thelma “Teruko” Yamaguchi), Rafael Toribio (Kurogo), Anthony Chan (Calvin Sakamoto), and Ryan Takemiya (Joe “Yoshi” Yamaguchi) in the World Premiere of VALLEY OF THE HEART presented in partnership by San Jose Stage Company and El Teatro Campesino. photo by David Murakami

bioline_Chizu Omori“I have been thinking about this subject for a long time,” said Luis Valdez in a phone conversation. Valdez, who is a world renown playwright and writer, was referring to his new play, “Valley of the Heart,” which he calls a “kabuki (classical Japanese dance and drama) corrido.” First performed in San Juan Bautista, Calif. in 2013 in an El Teatro Campesino production, Valdez’s own production company, it recently had a run in San Jose, where it was produced in collaboration with the San Jose Stage Company.

Valdez says he had also thought about including the story of the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans in his major hit of 1978, “Zoot Suit,” but he couldn’t fit it in. He eventually came up with “Valley.”

This drama is the story of two families, the Montanos and the Yamaguchis. One is of Mexican descent, the other, Nikkei. It reflects the ethnic diversity that exists in California, and the relationship between Mexicans and Japanese is certainly one of long-standing. The Japanese have been farmers in California since the late-1800s and part of an economic chain that grows and ships vast amounts of produce all over the country and the world. They have done this with help from Mexican labor, and so their destinies have been intertwined from the beginning. This relationship has always had some strain because of the continuing problems over immigration between Mexico and the U.S.

But Valdez is very sensitive to all parts of this history, since his own family took over a farm vacated by its Japanese American owners during World War II at the time when Japanese Americans were forced inland to concentration camps. By making it a love story between Benjamin Montano, the son of the Mexican family and Thelma Teruko Yamaguchi, the daughter in the Japanese family, and based on a true story, Valdez manages to weave the various strands of culture and history into what is essentially a family drama. Benjamin and Teruko marry, but are separated when she goes off, first, to an assembly center and then to Heart Mountain, Wyo., one of the 10 camps built to house some 120,000 inmates of Japanese descent in desolate areas in the interior. Benjamin goes to visit Teruko in these places and to see his baby son, born during these dark days.

This production is a marvel of mixtures of the ancient and the modern. Borrowing from Japanese theatre tradition of kabuki, there are black clad figures, kurogo, that move scenery around, taking care of stage business and also playing roles from time to time. The corrido bits incorporate songs and choreographed scenes of harvesting and packing broccoli. Shoji screens are artfully used for projections of various scenes of valley history, setting mood and establishing the historical moment.

And in all this, “Valley” manages to get in a great deal of historical detail. I asked Valdez where he had picked up so much information, and he said he had studied the period very closely and also talked to many former wartime inmates, finding the material that he uses in addressing large issues, but also as these issues impacted the lives of the Montano and Yamaguchi families.

Valdez also learned about Japanese theater on a trip sponsored by the Japan Foundation, where he was introduced to all forms of theater from the very old, kabuki and bunraku, and to more modern forms. Impressed by these ancient plays that were still being performed and staged with so much beauty and craft, Valdez had his ideas about theater greatly expanded and possibilities opened up.

Valdez’s work is never strictly dramatic, but always incorporates political and economic themes. As a campaigner for César Chávez in organizational work among farm workers, he was beaten and jailed. He came up with the idea for a Chicano theater group, and El Teatro Campesino was born in 1965, a venue for expressing the stories and lives of Mexicans in America. Still going strong under Valdez’s leadership, it celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. Some original members are still active, for instance, Rosa Maria Escalante, who plays the Mexican mother Paula in “Valley,” and has been associated with El Teatro Campesino for more than 40 years.

With this production, Valdez and company deal with the relations between Mexicans and Japanese. In this joining through marriage, the two groups come together, but questions of immigration and labor are still very relevant. “Santa Clara,” Valdez says, “is today one-third Latino, one-third Asian, and one-third Anglo.” So, we live in a very multicultural, multiethnic society, reflecting many parts of our state, and such diversity makes for a very rich cultural life, one of the best in the world, he says. Not to ignore the troubled history of race relations in California, and in “Valley,” Valdez deals with a specific part of it, but there is also a large factor of strong families that Valdez says is so important.

His own family has become part of El Teatro Campesino. His wife Lupe is the costume designer for the company. Son Lakin, who has become a professional actor, is the lead in “Valley,” and another son, Kinan, has become very active in El Teatro Campesino. He also teaches theater in various schools and is now working on “Popul Vuh,” a production using big puppets to tell a Mayan creation myth. This will be coming the San Francisco in May.

El Teatro Campesino is also planning a production of “Valley” in Los Angeles and many Angelenos should also find it compelling, a story they can relate to in profound ways. Audience members in San Jose came from all parts of the surrounding area, and reactions have been strongly positive. “We need memory plays as powerful as this one…a quintessentially California play, written by a master of the genre,” says the Los Angeles Times.

Though the play is overly long and could use some tightening, it is refreshing to see this exploration of ethnic interactions. Valdez has a very good understanding of the humans who are caught up in history’s currents and he has the theatrical background to deal with their lives artfully and dramatically. His work is of deep value to all of us who inhabit this multicultural society.

Chizu Omori, of Oakland, is co-producer of the award-winning film “Rabbit in the Moon.” She can be reached at chizuomori@gmail.com. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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