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Luis Valdez's 'Valley of the Heart': It ought to play L.A.

Valdez drew on his own childhood to write the play, a quintessentially California production that opened and closed with little fanfare. That's too bad.

October 27, 2013|By Miriam Pawel

"Valley of the Heart" is a quintessentially California play, written by a master of the genre. It is a history lesson wrapped in a love story, with themes that could not be more contemporary: struggling immigrants, xenophobia and racism, cultural confusion and identity.

Luis Valdez has drawn on his own childhood to craft what he calls a "memory play": A Mexican American sharecropper family takes over a ranch whose Japanese American owners are interned in 1942, just as Valdez's parents took over a Japanese grower's farm when he was 2 years old. The play showcases Valdez's gift for making people care about experiences far outside their own ambit. Humor defuses tension; moral outrage provokes tears. Simple motions convey complex emotions.

I wish you could see the play, so you could smile at the broccoli-picking dance, cry as the Yamaguchis are taken to Heart Mountain internment camp, laugh at the cross-cultural jokes. But "Valley of the Heart" premiered in the tiny mission town of San Juan Bautista, 300 miles north of L.A., ran for four weeks to sold-out crowds, and then closed.

Drawn by word of mouth, theatergoers from Los Angeles, Sacramento, Fresno and San Francisco, 100 miles to the north, filled the old packing shed that is home to Valdez's theater company, El Teatro Campesino. But no major daily or weekly paper reviewed the first play in 13 years written by the father of Chicano theater.

Los Angeles would seem the logical city to embrace a Luis Valdez play that probes injustice against Japanese Americans, viewed through Chicano eyes, on a ranch in the Valley of Heart's Delight (better known today as Silicon Valley). As the lead character tells the audience at the end of the play: "California is now half Latino and Asian, and there's not a damn thing anybody can do about it."

But the odds of "Valley of the Heart" playing nearby seem slim. Valdez has had preliminary discussions with the San Diego Rep, a longtime collaborator with the Teatro Campesino, but there have been no overtures in the major theater centers of Los Angeles and San Francisco.

We need memory plays as powerful as this one, in venues up and down the state. Too many people have forgotten, or never knew, that tens of thousands of Americans were rounded up, interrogated and sent to camps for no crime other than their Japanese ancestry. In an era of secret terrorism courts, widespread government surveillance and Minuteman patrols, we need to be confronted with the realities of 1942 — the acts of bravery, the gestures of kindness, the humanity as well as the tragedy.

Memories seem particularly short in the theater world, especially in the shadow of Hollywood, land of the meteoric rise and fall. Valdez's early successes are ancient history: "Zoot Suit," the fictionalized account of Mexican American youths falsely imprisoned amid anti-immigrant fever in the 1940s, broke box office records at the Mark Taper Forum in 1978. "La Bamba," the Ritchie Valens biopic that Valdez wrote and directed, was nominated for a Golden Globe in 1988. Most of Valdez's contemporaries, the generation who championed his work, are retired. Yet, at 73, Valdez is trying to return to the spotlight.

The mountains and fields outside Salinas anchor Valdez to the people and land so central to his work. He sees the Teatro's upcoming 50th anniversary as a defiant validation of his choice to remain in San Juan Bautista, a celebration "not only of creativity but of survival." He began on the picket lines with Cesar Chavez in 1965, teaching farm workers to perform plays on the back of a flatbed truck. "We are a people's theater, part of the working class," Valdez says. "We've held on. We come from the dirt, literally.… We're not in L.A., we're not in the city, yet we're still vibrant. We're still moving."

Those roots are what make his plays resonate for an audience that does not typically go see theater. The Teatro's longevity should be celebrated across California, and the 50th anniversary should remind those with short memories — and those too young to remember — why Valdez's work is so important and holds such widespread appeal. "Zoot Suit" was an improbable hit, a story of Mexican American pachucos that struck universal chords to achieve cross-cultural success. Thirty-five years later, "Valley of the Heart" deserves a chance to make the same leap.

Miriam Pawel's latest book, "The Crusades of Cesar Chavez: A Biography," is due to be published in March.

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