“I have been thinking about this subject for a long time,” said Luis Valdez in a phone conversation. Valdez, who is a world renowned playwright and writer, was referring to his new play, Valley of the Heart, which he calls a Kabuki Corrido. First performed in San Juan Bautista in 2013 in a production by El Teatro Campesino, Valdez’ own production company, it is now having a run in San Jose where it is being produced in collaboration with the San Jose Stage Company. Valdez says he even thought of including the story of the 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 Mexican, the other, Japanese Americans. It reflects the ethnic diversity that exists in California, and that 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 United States.
But Valdez is sensitive to all parts of this history since his own family took over a farm vacated by its Japanese American owners during WWII at the time when Japanese Americans were forced inland to incarceration 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, based on a true story, Valdez manages to weave the various strands of culture and history into 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, one of the 10 camps built to house 120,000 inmates 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 encorporate 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. He said he had studied the period very closely and also talked to many former incarcerees, 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 theatre on a trip sponsored by the Japan Foundation where he was introduced to all forms of theatre 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 theatre greatly expanded and possibilities opened up.
Valdez’ work is never strictly dramatic but always incorporates political and economic themes. As a campaigner for César Chavez in organizational work among farm workers, he was beaten and jailed, and he came up with the idea for a Chicano theatre group, El Teatro Campesino was born in 1965, a venue for espressing the stories and lives of Mexicans in America. Still going strong under Valdez’ strong 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, has been associated with ETC for over 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 ETC. His wife, Lupe, is the costume designer for the company. His son, Lakin, who has become a professional actor, is the lead in Valley, and another son, Kinan, has become very active in ETC. He also teaches theatre 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 to San Francisco in May. ETC is also planning a production of Valley in Los Angeles.
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,” the Los Angeles Times wrote. Though the play runs 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.
For more information, visit elteatrocampesino.com.