Thursday, November 8, 2018

Douglas Messerli | "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" (on Luis Valdez's Valley of the Heart)

let us now praise famous men
by Douglas Messerli

Luis Valdez Valley of the Heart / Los Angeles, Mark Taper Forum / the performance I attended was on November 7, 2018

Let me begin by saying the obvious: playwright Luis Valdez—a major force in American theater and the very heart of California Chicano theater, a man who, working in the fields with Cesar Chavez in the mid-1960s, taught migrant workers how to perform plays we wrote for them, produced on a flatbed truck—has never been a subtle playwright. As in his beloved Zoot Suit, perhaps the longest running play in Los Angeles history and recently revived at the Mark Taper Forum (see My Year 2017), Valdez’s talents lay in how he makes history come alive, infusing his works into a political context and a sense of emotional feeling. The families he portrays, often with the generational tensions between the Mexican-born or, in this instance Japanese-born, elders who must come to terms with their US-born children and vice-versa. Even in their assimilation with their world, the younger generation must also pay homage and learn from their elders. He represents the kind generational pulls that are at the center of almost every immigrant family.

There is almost a dance of these generational tensions in Valdez’s retellings of historical events, and in his newest play, the first in nearly 13 years, the field workers, both Chicano and Japanese, literally dance in patterns as they make their way up and down the broccoli fields of the Central Valley, in this instance the pre-World War II Valley of Heart’s Delight, now known as Silicon Valley.
     Valdez’s newest play, first performed in 2013 in the little mission community of San Juan Bautista, now having finally reached its core audience in Los Angeles, is also a kind of “Romeo and Juliet” story, without that work’s tragic family consequences. Well, that’s not quite true; there are certainly tragic consequences that result from the immediate love that overwhelms Benjamin Montaño (Lakin Valdez), the son of hard-working Cayetano (Daniel Valdez) and Paula (the always resplendent Rose Portillo). Benjamin’s younger brother, Ernesto (“Tito”) (Moises Castro) and sister Maruca (Christy Sandoval) also get swept up in the tragic events, on both a personal and national level.

      Yet, in this later-life play (Valdez is now 78), the author shifts his focus to another ethnic group, people who may own the land on which the Montaños work, but suddenly are far more vulnerable that the migrants who work the fields. The Yamaguchi family are only slightly better off than the laborers; they have a great wood-heated stove, an in-house bathroom, and a large wooden sauna. But immediately after Pearl Harbor they are in even greater danger than their faithful workers, as, Valdez emphatically reminds us, they are gradually rounded up, men before wives, children soon after, to be taken away to nearly insufferable Japanese detention camps, where they are forced to live in inhuman conditions, sometimes in California race-horse barns and, finally, in this case, the Heart Mountain Relocation Camp in Wyoming, where the dust and snow (depending upon the seasons) are nearly endless.
      By the time that Thelma (“Teruko”) (Melanie Arii Mah), her parents Ichiro (Randall Nakano) and Hana (Joy Osmanski), along with Thelma’s younger brother Joe (“Yoshi”) (Justin Chien) are forced into detention, Thelma and Benjamin have been secretly married and she is pregnant with Benjamin’s baby.
     Although her mother is aware of her daughter’s nearly insufferable “transgression,” her father is clueless, having already been sent away from his family to another detention camp in Louisiana. What can you do? You simply try to survive, the young farm foreman, Benjamin, promising to keep the farm until their return, while still attempting the impossible visits to her mother and the woman he loves—all made more complex by the fact that the man her family had wanted Thelma to marry, Calvin Sakamoto (Scott Keiji Takeda), is interned in the very same camp.

The far more assimilated and culturally dismissive Calvin mostly serves as comic relief, proving himself again and again as someone totally unsuitable for the caring and thoughtful Thelma—that is until, refusing to sign the terrible “loyalty oath” demanded from a government in which many of internees had thought of representing their own country, he is imprisoned. The Yamaguchi family became “yes-yes”-ers as opposed to Calvin’s alignment with the “no-nos.” Thelma’s brother Joe even agrees to serve in the military.
      Meanwhile, Benjamin and his family, having moved into the former Yamaguchi house find that they love the small improvements in their lives, and Benjamin becomes increasingly torn between his commitment to his now almost always drunken father and his wife’s family and their condition. The farm succeeds, he selling many of its now extensive fruits, squashes, and other vegetables to the American military. His brother, as well, signs up for service, and his sister, joins the WACS.
      A visit he makes to Wyoming to see his wife and son, Benjirou, ends badly when the re-united father orders him to leave, the now suffering elderly man unable to accept the marriage between him and his daughter. Both families suffer tragedies when Ernesto is killed in battle and Joe is killed in Europe, both awarded purple hearts. And even after the war, which also ends in the death in camp of Thelma’s father, she must remain with her mother who is in danger of being returned to Japan.
      I know this history well. I edited and published Violet Kazue de Cristoforo’s ground-breaking memoir of the camps and anthology of Concentration Camp Kaiko Haiku, May Sky: There Is Always Tomorrow on my Sun and Moon Press in 1997 (see my obituary comments on her in My Year 2007), but it is also clear that many younger and even older Americans don’t recall when American citizens were arrested and imprisoned simply because of their race.
      And, in this year of 2018, when another American president threatens the same fate upon the future Chicanos of our world, perhaps there could not be a more appropriate play; for despite all their impossible differences, Thelma and Benjamin did survive as a couple; their Romeo and Juliet relationship produced Benjirou (who, played by the same actor who acted as the young Calvin, is told by the now ancient Benjamin, that he looks too much like Calvin, producing guffaws in the audience) and his several children, some gay, some straight. Benjamin’s younger sister is also clearly now a lesbian.
       I told you Valdez is not a subtle writer, and he gives his audience what they (we) want to hear when, late in the play, one of his central characters states: "California is now half Latino and Asian, and there's not a damn thing anybody can do about it." When the lights went down and came up again, the audience, made up of some of the old-time subscribers, but also, amazingly, of a audience of Japanese men and women and Chicano couples, some even dressed in their native attire, hollered out with screams and hoots for their complete appreciation of Valdez’s work. His is truly a theater of the people, something perhaps we need in these terribly divisive times. Valdez’s play is about bringing communities together, and it works. Let us now praise famous men.
     And I should remind my readers of the wonderful sets of Japanese-like sliding screens by John Iacovelli, the projections by David Murakami.

Los Angeles, November 8, 2018
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (November 2018).

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