.Stage: Hearts and Spades

'Valley of the Heart' explores love, war, multiculturalism and the migrant experience.

Intro | Classical | Stage | Film | Literature | Visual Art | Visual Art 2

STAR CROSSED FARMERS: A migrant sharecropper falls for the farmer’s daughter in Luis Valdez’s new play, ‘Valley of the Heart,’ set in the Santa Clara Valley during WWII.Photo by Dave Lepori.

A story of forbidden love in a tumultuous and rapidly changing world, Valley of the Heart tells the tale of a young Mexican-American sharecropper who falls for the Japanese-American daughter of the farmer who owns the land, which his family relies upon for both sustenance and salary.

Written by Luis Valdez—often recognized as the father of Chicano theater—the play is set against the agrarian backdrop of 1940s Santa Clara Valley during the height of WWII. For Valdez, the man behind Zoot Suit, La Bamba and El Teatro Campesino, Valley of the Heart is quite personal.

The story is “something I’ve been carrying for a long time,” Valdez says. Born in 1940, the playwright spent the war years believing his family owned the ranch they worked on—but came to learn that it actually belonged to a Japanese-American family; the federal government had confiscated it following Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor. After the war, his family resumed life as migrant farmworkers. Around age seven, Valdez made friends with a boy from a migrant family unlike any he had previously known. His new friend had a Japanese-American mother, Thelma, and a Mexican-American father, Benjamin.

“I was really amazed that my friend had a Japanese mother,” he says recalling his youth. “Some nights she would cook Mexican, sometimes Japanese, and I hung around for dinner.” Though he knew the family for only a few months, Valdez says he never forgot them.

“That couple became really an eye-opener for me,” he says of the multicultural family. When he finally set out to write Valley of the Heart, he named the lovers in his story Thelma and Benjamin.

Valdez says his play is about “the meeting of two cultures,” but also about the culture they share as Americans. While the script features “some Spanglish, some Japanese,” it’s a quintessentially American story, he adds, noting that Japanese- and Mexican-Americans have a long shared history in the Bay Area.

“There was contact that was made just living life, but that led to a lot of interracial marriages,” he says. “It’s part of the multicultural fabric of California. It’s important to know that background and history and better understand where we are today.”

Valley of the Heart also connects in a very personal way with Melanie Mah, who stars as Teruko “Thelma” Yamaguchi. Her Japanese-American mother was born in Cupertino, where Mah’s grandmother still lives, a block from Apple headquarters. Her grandparents were imprisoned in internment camps during the war, much like what happens to her character’s family in the play.

“My grandparents and mother were adamant that my brother and I knew about our family’s history and our country’s history,” she says. “When I heard about this show, it tugged at the heartstrings. I’m really grateful to have this opportunity to tell their story.”

In telling the story on stage, Mah was able to learn a bit more about the struggle her grandparents and mother faced by reading their reactions. “(My grandmother is) proud that I’m pursuing what I love, and that I have an opportunity to tell a poignant story,” Mah says, “but I think it was painful for her to sit through it and be reminded of everything. You do see that generation come to see the show, and they’re very emotional and grateful their story is being told in 2016.”

Valdez has been workshopping the show with his San Juan Bautista company, Teatro Campesino, since 2013. The play has generated a buzz all over the state.

“There’s a lot of excitement to bring it to San Jose,” he says. The production marks the play’s world premiere. The cast is a mix of Teatro Campesino veterans, including one of his sons, and newcomers.

Both Valdez and Mah hope that, in addition to being entertained by local history and the love story at its heart, audiences will come away from the show with a better understanding of the mistakes of the past and more hope for the future.

“The play is really much more about the future than it is about the past,” Valdez says. “I think these kinds of interracial relationships are growing, in every way. People from all over the world are meeting and falling in love and having kids, creating another version of the American people.”

Mah agrees that the issues covered in the play are still relevant today.

“Right now, more than ever, there are a lot of controversies about race and religion,” she says. “America is supposedly this melting pot, and at the same time is still discriminating against people. We need to continue to reflect on not only how we treat people who are different, but how we view them. I just hope that this show makes people leave the theater thinking a little bit differently about our society.”

Valley of the Heart
Feb 10-Mar 13, $30-$35
San Jose Stage Company

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