By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
This is not your parents’ (or grandparents’) “Little Women.”
Playwright Velina Hasu Houston has transformed the 19th-century Louisa May Alcott novel — which has been adapted for stage, screen and TV dozens of times — into “Little Women (a Multicultural Transposition),” currently being presented by Playwrights’ Arena through Nov. 20 at the Chromolume Theater.
Instead of the Civil War, the setting is Los Angeles after World War II, when Japanese Americans were returning from the camps. The story focuses on the Mayeda family — sisters Jo (Nina Harada), Beth (Jacqueline Misaye), Meg (Jennifer Chang) and Amy (Rosie Narasaki); their parents, Marmee (Sharon Omi) and Makoto (Ken Narasaki); and Auntie Ming (Karen Huie).
We also meet their African American neighbors, Mr. Laurence (Rif Hutton) and his grandson Laurie (Kevin Ivy); Laurie’s Indian American tutor, Mr. Bhat (Jeremiah Caleb); and a Mexican American professor, Briones (Peter Pasco).
“I first read the novel ‘Little Women’ when I was in the fourth grade,” said Houston, who may be best known for her play “Tea.” “I think I was a teenager when I saw the 1949 version of the film. I saw another film adaptation, the 1994 version, about 20 years ago. Whenever I read Alcott’s novel, I was taken with the story of four sisters developing into young women for several reasons.
“My mother is one of four sisters and her favorite film, Kon Ichikawa’s ‘Sasameyuki’ or, in English, ‘The Makioka Sisters,’ also features four sisters like my relatives whose lives are sent in different directions because of World War II. The film is based on a Jun’ichirō Tanizaki novel of the same name.
“I also was drawn to the novel because of the character of Josephine March; I identified with a young woman who dreamed of becoming a writer. The novel and subsequent film adaptations, however, were in some ways out of my reach because I am a multicultural being who is Japanese, African American, Native American Indian, and Cuban.”
Houston explained, “Attention to memory is what brought me to write my play … attention to the history of the United States, California, Los Angeles, and the Asian American and African American communities as well as Mexican American, Indian American, and mixed-race American communities. I wanted to focus on an area of U.S. history – and Los Angeles history – that was particular to certain cultural communities, and especially to explore the shared history of Japanese Americans and African Americans in Los Angeles.
“Today, Japanese American discourse includes – as it well should – concern for how Muslim Americans may be viewed by mainstream U.S. culture. That discourse often seems to sidestep the important aligned history of Japanese Americans and African Americans. The Japanese American community owes a debt to the African American communities that welcomed them back into Los Angeles. That alliance was an organic meeting of the minds of two distinct communities – equity and inclusion long before our society started considering it.
“When I first came to Los Angeles, there were several institutions that illuminated the history of Japanese Americans in the Crenshaw District and Leimert Park; most now are gone. An example of this was the Holiday Bowl, where Japanese, Japanese Americans, and African Americans congregated.”
Regarding the fact that all of the characters are people of color, Houston said, “My primary objective was to transpose the novel into a multicultural landscape … My point is that the story can be anybody and everybody’s story.”
Interracial/intercultural relationships are explored as both Laurie (who is half Italian) and Briones are interested in Jo, who has no plans to get married, while Meg and Mr. Bhat fall in love. Marmee is a Chinese American who accompanied her Nisei husband and their daughters to camp.
While the playwright did not base the latter element on an actual family, “I do know that non-Japanese American spouses did go to the forced incarceration camps with Japanese American spouses, and that babies of mixed Japanese heritage who were living in orphanages were also removed from those orphanages to be taken to camps.”
As for the message of the play, she said, “It is my hope that women and other audience members simply go on a journey with several characters who are part of the tapestry of the United States, and perhaps reflect upon the illuminations that they experience.”
Houston has worked with the director of “Little Women,” Playwrights’ Arena Artistic Director Jon Lawrence Rivera, before. For the 25th anniversary of “Tea,” which is about Japanese war brides adjusting to life in America, he inspired her to adapt the play into a musical version, “Tea, with Music,” with composer Nathan Wang at East West Players.
“We also collaborated on another musical, also with Nathan Wang, called ‘Cinnamon Girl,’ which was produced by Playwrights’ Arena in Los Angeles and also in China,” Houston said. “Playwrights’ Arena also produced ‘The Hotel Play,’ a site-specific drama last year, that was penned by several playwrights; I was one of them.”
She has worked before with members of the cast as well. Omi originated the role of Himiko in “Tea” in the Rockefeller Fellowship workshop production at Asian American Theatre Company in San Francisco in the early ’80s, and performed in the same play at International City Theatre in 2005.
Houston has known actors and fellow playwrights Huie and Ken Narasaki, Omi’s husband, for a long time. “Having Sharon, Ken, and their daughter Rosie in the play is an honor.”
Chang, who is also a director, was in the workshop of “Little Women” at The Pasadena Playhouse last year along with Rosie Narasaki, Huie, Misaye and Harada, who has appeared in some of Houston’s other plays.
“I have enjoyed getting to know the new actors on the project, some of whom I have known from other avenues of life in the past,” Houston added.
“Tea,” for which Houston interviewed almost 50 Japanese female immigrants living in Kansas, remains her most performed play. “I have no idea why it is so popular, particularly throughout Asia or in Europe, but also in regional theaters across the country that do not often produce plays about non-white cultures,” she said.
Why did she recently turn “Tea” into a novel? “I always had wanted to do that because of my travels throughout Japan. Often, Japanese audience members would ask me if there was a novel version because they thought that the history represented in the story should be shared with the entire Japanese population. Of course, the entire Japanese population will not likely read the novel either, but at least it is there available internationally so that the distinct history of Japanese women who entered international marriages and moved around the globe will not be forgotten.”
Despite her international reputation as a writer, Houston said, “I find that, as a mixed-race, multicultural artist, I still encounter roadblocks, not from audiences, but more from observers in society. I believe that this issue grows out of the fact that my mixed race is not white mixed race, but a mixture that includes African heritage.
“Sometimes in Asian American environments, Asian Americans do not accept my native Japanese heritage or do not see me as Asian. Likewise, sometimes in black environments, I am not considered ‘black enough’ because of my Asian heritage. Frankly, I do not let either impediment break my stride. I continue to express myself and will do so until I stop breathing.”
In her everyday life, Houston frequently experiences cases of mistaken identity. “People often attempt to guess the ethnicity of a person that looks different — one whose ethnicity is not immediately discernible … I have had people driving by in cars stare at me at a crosswalk and shout out of their windows, ‘Hey, what country are you from?’ I have had people in elevators or gyms incorrectly guess my ethnicity. Once I was asked if I was Filipina; another time I was asked if I was Micronesian.
“It has happened to me since I was a girl. Because I am a blend of four ethnicities of color, I seem to pique the curiosity of all ethnicities. White, black, Latinx — you name it; people from all of those groups ask me where I am from or what am I, or they second-guess my ethnicity and are always wrong.
“The most peculiar experience that I had in this vein was in a Phoenix conference center. A Tongan woman was rushing to an event, saw me, and took me by the hand. She said we had to hurry or we would be late. I told her that we probably were not headed to the same place, but she was in too much of a hurry to listen. She dragged me into a room full of Tongans immersed in a discussion about spirituality. I asked her if everybody there was Tongan; she nodded, smiled, and squeezed my hand as if to say, ‘It’s all us here.’
”At first I was going to leave quietly, but then I became mesmerized by the phenotypes of the people in the room. Yes, they were all Tongan. Yes, they all looked like they could be my relatives. For a few moments, I gazed at them one by one, absorbed their looks, and then returned to the less colorful, 120-degree world outside.”
Houston has had unique experiences within the Nikkei community as well. “When one is raised by a native Japanese mother, one cannot help but absorb and be guided by those ways. Many of the Hapa people that I meet today have one Asian American parent and one non-Asian American parent. Being raised by a mother who is a U.S. citizen is extremely different than being raised by a mother who is a native of a Far Eastern nation. I often find that my organic cultural knowledge of all things Japanese is so much deeper and broader than Asian American peers.
“However, I also find that, because I am mixed race and look different than someone on a Japan Airlines poster, non-Asian Americans, especially whites, feel that a Japanese American knows more than I do about Japanese culture. This usually is not the case because theirs is a wholly U.S. experience and not a Japan-U.S. experience.
She gave an example: “Once I was on a bus in Little Tokyo … and a white woman was asking all of the Japanese-looking Japanese Americans on the bus what a certain type of Japanese food was. I knew, but I said nothing. The Japanese Americans did not know. The white woman departed the bus at the same stop I did. I stopped her and told her what the food was. Shocked, she looked at me and asked how I knew what it was when all the Japanese Americans did not. As I silently reflected upon the racist views that led her to ask such a stupid question, I just said, ‘I know.’ And smiled internally.”
As “Little Women” draws to a close, Houston is busy developing many other projects:
• A play that explores Japanese immigrants in the U.S. and the U.K., including the impact of gender, class, and ethnicity.
• Another multicultural experiment — transposing Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” into a play centered in Japanese American and Chinese American culture.
• Revising the libretto for “Jonah and the Whale,” an opera composed by Jack Perla, originally commissioned by the Los Angeles Opera and produced there in 2014. It will be produced again in 2018.
• A screenplay for a film short about Japanese poet Ono no Komachi, “Path of Dreams,” produced by Eleven Arts and True Heart Films.
• Preparing her play “Calligraphy” for a possible Chicago production in 2019. It was recently produced by TheatreWorks and Dukesbay.
• A teleplay entitled “Southern Exposure” and a film adaptation of her play “Kokoro.”
“I have two children, now adults, that I have good relationships with; and I enjoy spending time with my mother, my husband, and my two shiba dogs and two cats,” she added. “Life is good.”
Remaining showtimes for “Little Women” are Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 4 p.m., and Monday at 8 p.m. at Chromolume Theatre, 5429 Washington Blvd., Los Angeles. Early arrival recommended to find street parking. Tickets: $25 online, $30 at the door; student, senior and group rates available. For more information, call (800) 838-3006 or go to www.playwrightsarena.org. For more about the playwright, visit www.velinahasuhouston.com.