Two immigrant families, one Mexican and one Japanese-American, have lived peacefully as neighbors on a ranch in the Santa Clara Valley for years, working together in the fields. The oldest children from each family have even fallen in love with each other—and then Pearl Harbor happens, and soon World War II, and their lives will never be the same. This is the premise of Valley of the Heart, written and directed by Luis Valdez, which opened last night at Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.
The Yamaguchis have lived in the United States for decades—the parents, Ichiro (Randall Nakano) and Hana (Joy Osmanski) emigrated young, and their children, Thelma (Melanie Arii Mah) and Joe (Justin Chien) were born here. They live a quiet life and employ the men of the Montaño family as sharecroppers. Cayetano (Daniel Valdez) and Paula (Rose Portillo) have three children, Benji (Lakin Valdez), Tito (Moises Castro), and Maruca (Christy Sandoval). Thelma is engaged to be married to Calvin Sakamoto (Scott Keiji Takeda) because her parents, who met because of an arranged marriage themselves, have decided this, but she has secretly fallen for Benji.
She is trying to figure out how to resolve this love triangle situation when Pearl Harbor is attacked, and soon all Japanese and Japanese-American people are being rounded up and moved to internment camps. The Yamaguchis are forced to move to the Heart Mountain Relocation Camp in Wyoming, leaving behind their home and all they have worked for. Benji, recently made a foreman by Ichiro, promises to take care of the farm, and the two families say goodbye, communicating primarily via letters over the next couple of years. Both the Yamaguchis and the Montaños face heartbreak and tragedy as a result of the war, and at his lowest point, Benji even wonders how he can love someone who belongs to a culture that has brought so much devastation to his family.
The action unfolds on a set by John Iacovelli that is elevated by David Murakami’s intricate projection designs. This production taking place in Los Angeles feels apt, as this story is largely one about the history of California—the land that is home to the Yamaguchis’ farm is known today as Silicon Valley. Valdez’s direction is inspired—two masked figures (Mariela Arteaga and Michael Naydoe Pinedo), inspired by the “kuroko” stagehands in traditional Japanese theater, float in and out of scenes, not only assisting with props and set changes but adding mystery and flavor to the proceedings.
Ultimately, many of the twists and turns feel predictable. While the subject matter is certainly relevant, moving, and timely today, this specific story is full of melodrama. This feeling largely comes across due to many of the performances, which are very soap-operatic and over-the-top. Lakin Valdez’s Benji feels the most grounded of the characters, but he is often a bit unlikable, frequently getting irrationally jealous of Calvin, whom Thelma has never had a romantic feeling towards. Act two flounders when many of the characters are separated for so long. Thelma and Benji reading letters to one another causes the story to lose momentum, which is noticeable with a running time of over two and a half hours. The play’s final scene, which takes place years in the future—noticeably on September 10, 2001, just before another world-altering event much like the one that set this story in motion—only adds to the melodramatic tone, at times undermining the genuine emotions at play.
That being said, particularly in the week of the election, this story serves as an important reminder of the horrors immigrants to this country have been put through in the past, horrors that still exist today. The terrible conditions the Yamaguchis experience in the internment camp are not far off from what was seen in immigrant detention centers earlier this very year. While this may be a World War II story, it is in many ways a reminder of how far we still have to go. Thelma and her brother Joe were born in the United States and yet were forced to give up their home and possessions to live in barracks for years, receiving only 25 dollars and a train ticket home as an apology at the end of the war. The Japanese internment camps are often glossed over in the retelling of American history in an attempt to forget the somewhat unfathomable immorality and cruelty. It is important that stories like Valley of the Heart exist to remind us of difficult times, because remembering them is the only way to hopefully ensure they do not happen again.
Valley of the Heart runs at Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum through December 9th. The running time is 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission. Tickets start at $30 and can be purchased here.