Review: "Valley of the Heart" at the Mark Taper Forum

 Melanie Arii Mah as Thelma Yamaguchi in a scene from Luis Valdez' 'Valley of the Heart' at the Mark Taper Forum. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Melanie Arii Mah as Thelma Yamaguchi in a scene from Luis Valdez' 'Valley of the Heart' at the Mark Taper Forum. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Jill Weinlein

  • Chief Los Angeles Critic

As the front doors opened at the Mark Taper Forum, three Japanese style drummers led the audience into the theatre to see Luis Valdez’s newest stage production Valley of the Heart.

Sitting in my seat, I looked down admiring John Iacovelli’s exquisite wood floor stage displaying rays of sun, and a mesmerizing thin blue line serpentining across the stage representing a long irrigation canal. Below the canal was a patchwork of agricultural fields, representing a fertile California agricultural valley.

In the center of the stage was an empty wheelchair and floor-to-ceiling white Japanese-style shoji screen. These sliding screens are a canvas for projection designer David Murakami's visual storytelling of immigrant farmers, President Roosevelt declaring war on Japan, and horrific internment camps in California and Wyoming.

Valdez is a legendary storyteller in Latino theater, as the founder of the Obie-Award winning El Teatro Campesino (The Farm Workers’ Theater), with credits including the award winning “Zoot Suit,” “La Bamba,”and “The Cisco Kid.”

This is a family affair for playwright and director Luis Valdez. His brother Daniel Valdez plays the patriarch Cayetano of the Montano family, and Cayetano’s son Benjamin is Luis Valdez’ talented son Takin Valdez.

It begins with Benjamin as an elderly man, telling the audience his life story about hard working immigrants from Japan and Mexico working side by side if the fields. We meet the Montano family, sharecroppers living on the Yamaguchi farm in Cupertino, CA, long before this area became the headquarters for Apple Inc. Cupertino's primary economic activity was once agriculture before it became known as the Silicon Valley.  

This beautifully written love story focuses on young Benjamin falling in love with Thelma “Teruko” (Melanie Mah) Yamaguchi right before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The choreography of their forbidden love is witnessed while these two harvest broccoli in the fields, and is silhouetted in the upstairs window inside the Yamaguchi home.  

Thelma’s immigrant father Ichiro Yamaguchi (Randall Nakano) promotes Benjamin as foreman of the farm, after President Franklin Roosevelt executes his Executive Order and declares war on Japan in 1942. We sadly watch the Yamaguchi family burn and bury everything they own representing their Japanese heritage. When Ichiro turns himself in to protect his family and the farm, I heard nearby audience members sob, as these scenes brought back painful personal memories.

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness disappears overnight to hundred of thousands of people of Japanese ancestry, as they were forced to report to relocation centers near their homes. Many lived in horse stalls in a San Jose racetrack or the Los Angeles’ Fairgrounds in Pomona until transferred to more permanent wartime internment camps in California, Arizona, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota and Wyoming.

Soon Thelma, pregnant with child, and her family are forced out of their house, and Benjamin and his family promise to maintain and protect the farm.

Christy Sandoval as Benjamin’s sister Maruca Montano provides comic relief while enjoying life in the Yamaguchi’s more modern ranch house, demonstrating how the Montano’s life improved, while the Yamaguchi’s life tragically changes.

This emotionally powered production slows down in movement after intermission, as the audience watches a recitation of letters between Thelma and Benjamin. About 15 minutes could be shaved from the length of the play here, yet the lighting by Pablo Santiago, sound by Philip G. Allen and multi-media visual display on the back screens enhance these scenes.

One walks away reflecting on the injustice today’s immigrants are facing as they struggle to provide a future for their American-born children. It’s eerily a repeat of history as our current administration pulls apart families and separates them into relocation camps.

The cast of “Valley of the Heart” includes, Mariela Arteaga, Moises Castro, Justin Chien, Melanie Arii Mah, Randall Nakano, Michael Naydoe Pinedo, Joy Osmanski, Rose Portillo, Christy Sandoval, Scott Keiji Takeda, Daniel Valdez and Lakin Valdez.

The creative team includes set design by John Iacovelli, costume design by Lupe Valdez, lighting design by Pablo Santiago, projection design by David Murakami and sound design by Philip G. Allen. The production stage manager is David S. Franklin.

The play runs through December 9, 2018. Tuesday through Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2:30 and 8 p.m., Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m. No Monday performances. Exceptions: No public performances on Tuesday, November 13 and Wednesday, November 14. Added 8 p.m. performance on Monday, November 19. No 8 p.m. performance on Thanksgiving, November 22.

Tickets are available online at CenterTheatreGroup.org, by calling Audience Services at (213) 628-2772 or in person at the Center Theatre Group Box Office (at the Ahmanson Theatre at The Music Center in Downtown Los Angeles). Tickets range from $30 – $99 (ticket prices are subject to change). The Mark Taper Forum is located at The Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown L.A. 90012.