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Skilled in the Art of Rearranging

A Japanese flower class inspired Velina Hasu Houston to revisit the story that became "Ikebana."

September 17, 2000|SCARLET CHENG | Scarlet Cheng is a regular contributor to Calendar

A few years ago, playwright Velina Hasu Houston wrote a play based on a story her mother had brought to her attention a decade ago. The story was a news account of a real-life crime of passion in Japan in which a maid, thwarted in her love for her boss, a doctor, tried to poison him with a dessert she made.

That play, "Cultivated Lives," was produced at the San Diego Asian American Repertory Theatre last year, and met with good critical reception. But Houston was never happy with the results. Something was missing. "The characters still lingered with me," she said, "as well as the issues of hope and desire and the human condition that are strong themes in a lot of my work."

Last summer, during four months in Kyoto on a Japan Foundation grant, she took a class in ikebana, the art of Japanese flower arrangement. "As I began to study the philosophy of the arrangement," she says, "something just organically began to rise in me, and the characters were in the room with me sometimes--I found my way into the play.

"It had to do with the placement of stems, and types of stems chosen," she continues, "the structure of trying to reach a balance with all of that--something that really got to the heart of the five lives that I'd been tussling with."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday September 19, 2000 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Theater number--An incorrect phone number for "Ikebana (Living Flowers)" at the Pasadena Playhouse was listed with a story in Sunday's Calendar. The correct number is (800) 233-3123.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 24, 2000 Home Edition Calendar Page 2 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Theater number--An incorrect phone number for "Ikebana (Living Flowers)" at the Pasadena Playhouse was listed with a story in the Sept. 17 edition of Sunday Calendar. The correct number is (800) 233-3123.

Furthermore, she realized that she wanted to address not chemical poison, but the poison of obsession in a new play. "It freed me to write about it in a style that's much more akin to most of my writing," she says. "It moved from being a naturalistic story to something more magical and more surreal."

When she returned from Japan to Los Angeles, she was asked by Sheldon Epps, artistic director of the Pasadena Playhouse, to finish the play. Epps assigned veteran director Shirley Jo Finney to work with her. "Ikebana (Living Flowers)" opens today at the playhouse, the result of nine months of reshaping the story after that revelation in an ikebana class.


Nearly all of Houston's plays have East-West themes, perhaps not surprising since she is half Japanese and half African American. Her parents met in postwar Kobe, Japan, where her American serviceman father was stationed, and her mother was studying dressmaking. After a long--and sometimes long-distance--courtship, they married in 1954, and Lemo Houston brought his bride, Setsuko, to Fort Riley, Kan.

"My mother always said, 'I raised my daughters the only way I knew how,' which was to raise them as Japanese daughters," Houston, 40, recalls. "So I grew up on Japanese children's stories, folk tales and legends, which I think has really informed a great part of my work in terms of the magical realism that I write."

She knew she wanted to be a writer since childhood. "My mother says that when I was 5 years old, I told her that I was going to be a writer," says Houston, a petite woman with a relaxed, straightforward manner. "Her answer to me was that a daughter of an immigrant can't be an artist."

But young Velina began to write anyway--a play in elementary school, poetry that won prizes in middle school. "I was working out my writing muscles in my teenage years," she said. "I spent a lot of time with books and pen and paper." She went on to study playwriting and screenwriting at UCLA, and earned a doctorate in critical studies in cinema and television at USC.

A single parent with two children, Houston is an associate professor and director of the playwriting program at USC. Her plays have been produced across the country at such theatrical venues as the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York, the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego and the Smithsonian Institution, as well as on radio and in Japan.

Her works reflect a certain distilled autobiography. "Asa Ga Kimashita" was set in 1946 Japan and is based on her family. "American Dreams" was a sequel to that, telling of an African American man who brings his Japanese wife back to the U.S. "only to find that the American melting pot is a myth," she says. "Tea," her signature play, is set in Kansas and deals with Japanese immigrants to this country.


While "Ikebana" is not autobiographical, it reflects themes of racial and cultural displacement. The work takes place in a house on the outskirts of Tokyo in 1957, and the action is set in motion when Hanako (played by Lina Patel), a beautiful young woman of mixed-race origin, comes to the Itamura household to begin life as the new housekeeper.

Hanako is painfully aware she is an outsider, as well as an exotic, in a society with narrow guidelines for what is acceptable. "I'm a freak in a society where having the wrong hairstyle can have you labeled certifiable," she says.

The dynamics quickly become clear. Ayame (June Angela), the old-maid daughter whose mother recently passed away, wants to befriend her; Ayame's elderly father (Dana Lee) wants to bed her; and Kitayama (Francisco Viana) and Nakamura (Gedde Watanabe), who are supposed to be Ayame's suitors, become enchanted by her.

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