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‘Zoot Suit’ Creator Luis Valdez Plants New Seeds at the Taper with ‘Valley of the Heart’

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L-R: Associate director Kinan Valdez, cast member Daniel Valdez, writer/director Luis Valdez, costume designer Lupe Valdez, and cast member Lakin Valdez.

Photo by Craig Schwartz.

It’s hard to imagine that less than a generation ago, Cupertino, California was an agricultural town. Today, it is home to Apple Inc.’s headquarters—a vast, ring-shaped structure made of glass and steel—and one of the wealthiest cities in the country. Yet for playwright, director, and El Teatro Campesino founder Luis Valdez, Cupertino will always be known for the rich land that once grew an abundance of crops and fruit trees.

I remember it as the ‘Valley of the Heart’s Delight,’ said Valdez, who lived in the area shortly after World War II. Back in the ’40s, no one knew it was going to become Silicon Valley.

As a child of Mexican farmworkers who had immigrated to California, Valdez grew up around intersecting cultures, which inevitably inspired his stories about America’s cultural diversity. His landmark play Zoot Suit reimagined Los Angeles’ 1942 Sleepy Lagoon trial—which unjustly convicted a group of young Latino men of murder—and the racially charged riots that followed. Zoot Suit made its World premiere at the Mark Taper Forum in 1978, just a few decades after the events it portrayed had taken place, and went on to become Broadway’s first Chicano play.

I feel a sense of basic responsibility as a playwright born and raised in California to reflect [our] reality to the rest of the world, Valdez said, to say, ‘Look we’re all the same. We’ve all had our common struggles.’ I use the theatre not just to enlighten but to touch the hearts of people. If we can touch the heart, maybe we can do something to bring justice to our lives.

Valdez’s broad and highly celebrated body of work—which also encompasses films such as La Bamba and the screen adaptation of Zoot Suit—has not only contributed to greater representation of Latinos in entertainment but spurred a theatre movement, with a new generation of Latino theatre groups springing up on college campuses and in communities throughout the country since the 1970s. In honor of his accomplishments and historic cultural influence, Valdez has been awarded the Governor’s Award from the California Arts Council, the George Peabody Award for excellence in television, and the National Medal of the Arts from President Obama.

The cultural fusion we see in L.A. is the wave of the future. It’s a place where you see people being accepted for who they are and being allowed to contribute what they can give from their souls.

Like Zoot Suit, his latest play, Valley of the Heart, uses California history as a jumping-off point to tell an important story. Its roots also lie in Valdez’s personal history, from his memories of growing up on ranches and farms in the Central Valley. His father had worked for a Japanese American farmer until the attack on Pearl Harbor. After President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, the Japanese American farmer and his family were forcibly relocated to one of 10 internment camps in the Western states.

With unoccupied farmlands on their hands in the midst of a major war effort, the Farm Security Administration encouraged and supported remaining farmworkers—like Valdez’s father—to tend the farms in the Japanese American owners’ absence. Although Valdez’s family prospered with this opportunity, it all came to a halt when the war ended. Valdez was a child at the time, and he hadn’t realized that the farm belonged to another family.

I still feel a sense of guilt, a sense of disappointment, about the fact that it wasn’t our farm, he said. All of the [Army] support fell apart; the whole agribusiness fell apart. My dad’s lease was out, and we couldn’t afford to buy the place.

By 1946, the Valdez family found themselves in a worn-out pick up truck traveling up and down California, working as migrants. At one point while they were living in a small Central Valley town near Delano, another family of migrant farmworkers moved down the street from them. Valdez befriended the son, Esteban, whose mother was a Japanese American woman named Thelma. Esteban’s father, Benjamin, was Mexican American. Later, this couple would inspire the star-crossed lovers in Valley of the Heart.

I never forgot Thelma and Benjamin and my friend Esteban, said Valdez. At the same time, the story of Valley of the Heart is really universal in the sense that it is common to all the Japanese American families during that period.

As a homegrown product of El Teatro Campesino—which was founded in 1965 as a “farm workers’ theatre” with the support of Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers—the play has come full circle. Valley of the Heart was workshopped and performed at El Teatro Campesino’s theatre in Northern California’s San Juan Bautista in 2013 and moved to the San Jose Stage Company in 2016 for its World premiere. Some of the original company and creative team members followed the production to reprise their roles for the Taper stage, including many of Valdez’s family members. Luis Valdez’s brother, Daniel Valdez—who wrote music for Zoot Suit and appeared in both the original production and last year’s revival—is one of them. Rose Portillo, who also appeared in both productions of Zoot Suit, is also back.

The Taper was my introduction to the whole professional theatre world, where I went from arts activism among farmworkers to the more commercial aspect of theatre, said Valdez. L.A. is where my audience is. I’m talking not just about Latinos but about people who are conscious of this changing world. The cultural fusion we see in L.A. is the wave of the future. It’s a place where you see people being accepted for who they are and being allowed to contribute what they can give from their souls. In that sense I’m overjoyed to be coming back to the Taper with a new play, and to continue to reflect our commonalities and our experiences as Americans.

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