By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
A Japanese American woman and a Mexican American man all in love on the farm that their families share during the Great Depression, but are forced apart by the outbreak of war with Japan and the mass incarceration that follows.
The story is fictional but it rings true for Melanie Arii Mah, lead actress in “Valley of the Heart,” which is running through Dec. 9 at the Mark Taper Forum.
Mah, who first played Thelma Teruko Yamaguchi four years ago in Northern California, is excited to bring the play to Southern California and feels it is more relevant than ever in today’s political climate. This also marks her Center Theatre Group debut.
On the Yamaguchi family farm in Santa Clara Valley, located in what is now Silicon Valley, Thelma lives with her Issei parents, Ichiro and Hana (Randall Nakano and Joy Osmanski). Her love interest, Benjamin Montaño (Lakin Valdez), works on the farm with his parents, Cayetano and Paula (Daniel Valdez and Rose Portillo), and siblings, Maruca (Christy Sandoval) and Ernesto (Moises Castro). But Thelma’s parents have arranged for her to marry their friends’ son Calvin Sakamoto (Scott Keiji Takeda).
When Pearl Harbor is attacked, Ichiro is arrested by the FBI, and his family is later sent to Santa Anita and then Heart Mountain in Wyoming. Thelma is pregnant with Benjamin’s child, who is named Benjirou. Benjamin tries to visit her in camp as often as possible but is also responsible for running the farm. Meanwhile, Thelma’s brother Joe (Justin Chien) joins the Army to prove his loyalty while Calvin becomes a draft resister.
Written and directed by Luis Valdez (“Zoot Suit,” “La Bamba”), “Valley of the Heart” had a workshop production at El Teatro Campesino, Valdez’s theater company in San Juan Bautista, in 2013-14 and had its world premiere at the San Jose Stage Company in 2016
Mah was born and raised in San Francisco to a Japanese American mother and a Chinese American father, attended a French Catholic middle school and Lick-Wilmerding High School, and received her BFA from the Boston University School of Theater.
“My late parents met as undergraduate students at UC Berkeley in the 1970s,” she said. “My father’s parents escaped the Cultural Revolution in China at different points in their lives but met in San Francisco and were quickly married. My mother’s parents were both born in California to Japanese immigrants and met at the Gila River, Ariz. concentration camp when they were teenagers.”
There are “astounding” similarities between the Yamaguchis’ story and her own family history, Mah said. “My Japanese American grandfather and grandmother were born in Martinez, Calif. and Winters, Calif., respectively. They were American citizens who were sent to a concentration camp like Thelma and Joe Yamaguchi. My grandfather (Staff Sgt. Mamoru ‘Mum’ Arii, Easy Company) fought with the 442 Regimental Combat Team and received a Congressional Medal of Honor before he passed away in 2013.
“When my grandparents were released from camp, they married and settled in Cupertino, where the Yamaguchi ranch is set. We still own that house, which is coincidentally one block away from Apple’s new headquarters.”
Mah started studying Nihon buyo (Japanese classical dance) at age 3 but never thought she would be a professional performer. “I was Wendy in ‘Peter Pan’ in my eighth-grade musical, which I thoroughly enjoyed, but I did not think that I would have a career in the arts. During my sophomore year in high school, I did not make the volleyball team and our acting teacher told me to audition for the fall play. I couldn’t fathom auditioning for or performing in a theatrical play but I was cast and continued to pursue theater for the next two years with the strong support of my parents.
“That same acting teacher, Cliff Mayotte, encouraged me to audition for collegiate BFA programs, which led me to the Boston University School of Theater.”
Her other stage credits include “4,000 Miles” at Lincoln Center Theater and several plays at Boston University Theatre, London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, and Adirondack Shakespeare Company. She is also trained in ballet and singing.
Mah was living in New York when her aunt Joyce Iwasaki told her that the second production of “Valley of the Heart” was recasting the role of Thelma.
“Once she mentioned that Luis Valdez had written a new play about Japanese and Mexican Americans in Northern California during WWII, I immediately sent in my headshot and resume,” she recalled. “I had studied Luis and the Teatro in college and jumped at the opportunity. I was on a plane the next weekend to audition and booked the show.
“I have had the privilege to play Thelma during the two previous productions of this show and have grown into the role with the help of Luis and my cast. Thelma continues to develop over time and given my family’s history during WWII, I have been able to incorporate their experiences into the thread of her character and her story.”
At the Teatro in 2014, Mah did five shows a week followed by a weekend of shows at CSU Monterey Bay. In San Jose in 2016, she did six shows a week. Both runs lasted for about two months.
For the cast and audiences alike, doing the show has been a learning experience, Mah said. “We have all discussed how we are taught the bare minimum about Japanese American incarceration during WWII, and how our history books gave us about a paragraph describing these injustices. We live in the world of this play six days a week and are constantly learning about and living in the ugly truths of this dark period in our country’s history. There are constant discoveries and conversations happening among the cast members and production team about the past and present state of our country’s moral compass.
“So far, we have been blessed to have had audiences who have been invested in our story from the moment the curtain goes up, or more specifically, when the shoji screens part. Many continue to tell us how much they learn from ‘Valley of the Heart’ in terms of the Japanese and Mexican Americans during WWII and they are ashamed that this is happening again in 2018.
“We have all realized that Ben and Thelma’s story is prevalent for many families who survived the WWII era. Throughout California’s history, the Latino and Japanese communities have been allies. We look out into the audience and see so many ethnicities; there are Asian, Latino, Caucasian, African American and many other beautiful cultures taking in our production and it encourages us to tell this important story of the unique growth and progress in California.”
Asked how the play has evolved over the years, Mah answered, “As expected with any production that grows and/or moves to other cities or theaters, this production at the Center Theatre Group differs from our previous productions in San Juan Bautista and San Jose. Elements such as the cast, sets, theater and administrative and production staff can change over time and it is our job as actors to adjust and work together to create a piece of incredible art. It is important to stress that despite these changes, the story of the play and our drive to share Luis Valdez’s work has never faltered or been forgotten.”
At the end of the play, an elderly Benjamin celebrates his birthday with Thelma, Maruca and a grown-up Benjirou (Takeda). This scene takes place the day before the 9/11 attacks.
“This show reflects the cycle of humanity in both its beauty and its repugnance,” Mah explained. “We cannot have peace without war or good without evil. There will always be horrifying and inhumane events occurring around the world and we have yet to learn how to handle those events with decency and an awareness of past mistakes.
“9/11 caused us to persecute anyone who resembled an inhabitant of a Middle Eastern country in the same way that the attack on Pearl Harbor resulted in the imprisonment of anyone with a drop of Japanese blood. I would love for audiences to understand that we have a habit of discriminating against different cultural groups when we are fearful, and it is happening again in 2018.
“We cannot forget that we are a country of refugees and immigrants who sacrifice to create better lives for future generations, and we are stronger together than apart.”
The Mark Taper Forum is located at 135 N. Grand Ave. in Downtown Los Angeles. Remaining showtimes: Sunday, Nov. 18 and 25, Dec. 2 and 9, at 1 and 6:30 p.m.; Monday, Nov. 19, at 8 p.m.; Tuesday, Nov. 20 and 27, Dec. 4, at 8 p.m.; Wednesday, Nov. 21 and 28, Dec. 5, at 8 p.m.; Thursday, Nov. 29 and Dec. 6, at 8 p.m.; Friday, Nov. 23 and 30, Dec. 7, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, Nov. 17 and 24, Dec. 1 and 8, at 2:30 and 8 p.m.
Stage Talks after performances on Nov. 20, Dec. 2 (matinee) and Dec. 4. A Community Conversation titled “Dignity Amidst Injustice: From Japanese American Internment to Today” will be held Nov. 28 at 6 p.m. at the Music Center Annex, 601 W. Temple St. RSVP required.
Performance length is 2 hours, 45 minutes, with one intermission. Recommended for ages 10 and up; children 6 and under not admitted. Tickets range from $30 to $99. To purchase, visit the Center Theatre Group Box Office at the Ahmanson Theatre (adjacent to the Mark Taper Forum), call (213) 628-2772, or go to http://CenterTheatreGroup.org.