November 11, 2018 | By Bruce R. Feldman
"Valley of the Heart," Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles, Oct. 30 - Dec. 9, 2018
In Brief: The very soul of California – the churning multi-cultural stew that makes us the expansive, compassionate, human community that we are – is what Luis Valdez aims to celebrate in his tender new play.
Valley of the Heart is a multi-generational chronicle of two striving immigrant families, whose destinies intertwine, for better or worse, over a 60-year period, starting in 1941.
The Yamaguchis – Japanese-born parents, Ichiro and Thelma, and their two American-born children, Joe and Hana – operate a modest truck farm in Northern California. The Montaños – Cayetano, Paula, and their three kids, Ernesto, Benjamin, and Maruca – are tenant farmers there.
The Montaños and Yamaguchis share intertwining fates in "Valley of the Heart" (Photo: Craig Schwartz)
Valdez presents them as two loving, hard working households, both alike in dignity and dreams of a better future for their children, two families who rely on each other to survive and progress.
The narrative at first alternates between the Yamaguchi and Montaño homes. Valdez lays out in short order the usual conflicts between parents and children and the inevitable tensions that arise when the traditional values of the parents clash with the looser mores and desires of their Americanized kids.
Nothing too consequential here until Benjamin, now foreman of the Yamaguchi ranch, and Hana fall in love. They keep it a secret until Hana becomes pregnant just as Japanese bombs fall on Pearl Harbor. Roosevelt’s draconian internment of Japanese aliens and Japanese-American citizens soon separates both the lovers and the two families.
Hana’s pregnancy, her forced removal to a camp in Wyoming, and the heart-breaking tragedies the war inflicts on both the Yamaguchis and Montaños both deepen and strain the relationship between the lovers and two families.
As the Montaños remain in California, vowing to take good care of the business for the Yamaguchis, Benjamin is hard hit with having to choose between joining Hana at the distant camp or staying behind to ensure that the farm continues to thrive.
Valdez concentrates most of the plays's action on the World War II period from 1941-1945, with flash-forward interludes at the outset and final scene set in 2001 as the old, blind Benjamin Montaño (an outstanding Lakin Valdez) recalls his story.
In Valley of the Heart, Valdez has a few other things on his mind apart from the beleaguered lovers and their struggling families. Racial animus, the appalling injustice of detaining 120,000 Japanese-Americans (about two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens), the harsh living conditions at the government-run camps, and the meaning of patriotism and loyalty to country – these all loom large in the playwright's sights.
Daniel Valdez, Rose Portillo, Melanie Arii Mah and Lakin Valdez in Luis Valdez’s “Valley of the Heart” (Photo: Craig Schwartz)
That’s to be expected, and welcomed, from the venerable Valdez, champion of farm workers’ rights, founder of El Teatro Campesino in the 1960s, and author of the musical Zoot Suit, another uncompromising but supremely entertaining tale of prejudice, injustice, and police misconduct against Latinos in the 1940s.
Valdez, who capably directed as well as wrote this production, doesn’t hit us over the head with his message. He approaches the material in a straightforward manner, more earnest than theatrical in presenting the tragedies, conflicts, and, finally, good fortune that his characters experience. This isn’t flashy writing, but it is affecting, sincere, and gratifying – more like comforting home cooking rather than a night out at a fancy restaurant.
While essentially a drama, there’s a lot of good-natured, gentle humor throughout, especially the many references to the story’s rural Santa Clara Valley setting, once sleepy farmland and now the gentrified, bustling site of Silicon Valley. That's irony, and Cupertino, for you, Valdez tell us.
Valley of the Heart is an important work, a deeply nourishing experience to be treasured for its kind spirit and timely reminder that we’re all in this together – and that we still have a lot of work to do to make our world a better place.
The production ends on an uplifting note with the entire cast on stage, emerging from the shadows, to sing a beautiful ballad in Spanish and Japanese – a corrido of sorts, fusing Mexican and Japanese melodies and recalling the hope, humanity and glory of Valdez’s early work with El Teatro Campesino.
Far away from the land of my birth
Intense nostalgia invades my thoughts
To see myself so alone, a sad leaf in the wind
I could cry, I could die, from the emotion
"Valley of the Heart," Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, 213.628.2772, www.centertheatregroup.org