by Victor Cordell
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A Lesson Learned
One of the darkest moments in American history was the unlawful, racist-driven incarceration of Japanese immigrants and even Japanese-American citizens during World War II. Renowned playwright, screen writer (Zoot Suit, Corridos, La Bamba), and activist founder of El Teatro Campesino, Luis Valdez, has written and directed “Valley of the Heart,” a powerful story of love and loss centered on these events. Its world premiere production at San Jose Stage in association with El Teatro Campesino is compelling drama.
Although the central action occurs over just several years before and during World War II and in only two locales, a truck farm in Cupertino, California and the Containment Camp for Japanese in Heart Mountain, Wyoming, the narrative sweeps with an epic brush. A Japanese immigrant prohibited from American citizenship, Ichiro Yamaguchi is a Cupertino farmer who maintains a share cropping arrangement with Cayetano Montaño, a Mexican immigrant. The stage is divided to depict the comfortable farmhouse of the owner on one side and the humble abode of the worker on the other. But one thing that binds the two is the closeness and love within each of their families, and another is a twenty year relationship between the men.
The most complex relationship that evolves is that of Ichiro with Cayetano’s eldest son, Benjamin. Ben is a hard worker and leader. Accordingly, Ichiro makes him foreman, but at the same time, he has harbored concerns about contacts between Ben and his daughter, Thelma. Then, Ichiro arranges for Thelma to marry an appropriate American-born Japanese, Calvin Sakamoto, which will quash any undesired alliance. However, the bombing of Pearl Harbor intercedes. So begins the tragedies of confiscation, separation, deprivation, and loss. Ichiro grants power of attorney to Ben to run the farm during his internment, not knowing that Ben and Thelma have married, a situation that he would find an affront to his ethnic dignity.
Director Valdez assembles all the pieces of the production to great effect. In support of a captivating dramatic arc are rustic sets that reflect the heart of family life. Over the complete backdrop, appealing projections at times reveal broad and changing environments and at others the intimacy of elder portraits and documents. The thoughtful soundtrack appropriately incorporates Mexican and Japanese music, airplanes, chirping crickets, and much more.
The cast is headed by Lakin Valdez who does a fine job playing Ben, displaying a range of emotions and playing the character in old age, as the story operates as a flashback. Melanie Mah does nicely as Thelma, but in a more understated role. Both fathers, Randall Nakano as Ichiro and Gustavo Mellado as Cayetano, have strong moments during times that the characters are impaired. Of the supporting players, Christy Sandoval plays the Montaño daughter, Maruca, with enthusiasm and flair.
Two overarching issues make this drama especially important. One is the dramatization of not just one heinous decision by the U. S. government about the treatment of Japanese in America, but a whole series of callous actions, including the highlighted loyalty oaths that prisoners were expected to sign. The other is portraying an American intercultural story between two minority groups, revealing not only their cultural differences, but, also, the bigotry that can exist in all communities.
This is a play that offers a great deal and should be seen. Hopefully, it will have legs. It does suffer one significant weakness that is a common difficulty with comedy-dramas, which Valdez may not have fully addressed. When mixing the two genres, a somewhat sober and earnest tone is required during dramatic sections. Comedic sections or asides should be clearly defined. In this play, there are some periods when characters emote with a lighter touch than suits the underlying material, triggering untimely laughter in the audience that disrupts the dramatic flow.
“Valley of the Heart” by Luis Valdez continues at San Jose Stage through March 13. For further information click here.
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“Valley of the Heart” by Luis Valdez, a world premiere produced by San Jose Stage Company in partnership with El Teatro Campesino. Director: Luis Valdez. Scenic Design: Joe Cardinalli. Sound Design: Joe Cedillo. Original Music: Roy & P.J. Hirabayashi and Noe Montoya. Lighting Design: Michael Palumbo. Projections Design: David Murakami. Costume Design: Lupe Valdez.
Benjamin Montaño: Lakin Valdez. Kurogos: Rafael (TJ) Toribio and Lee-Ron. Hana Yamaguchi: Christina Chu. Paula Montaño: Rosa Maria Escalante. Ichiro Yamaguchi: Randall Nakano. Maruca Montaño Christy Sandoval. Cayetano Montaño: Gustavo Mellado. Tito Montaño: Andres Ortiz. Joe Yamaguchi: Ryan Takemiya. Thelma Yamaguchi: Melanie Mah. Calvin Sakamoto: Anthony Chan.