Inspired by Louisa May Alcott’s classic American novel published in 1869, the play Little Women (A Multicultural Transposition) features four sisters and their Japanese American family living in post-World War II Los Angeles. Playwright Velina Hasu Houston keeps the names and personalities of the original March sisters—Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy—but in this tale, they are the Mayeda sisters. The novel and play have noticeable parallels, with the March and Mayeda families facing many of the same types of troubles. However, Houston’s transposition adds a dimension of racial prejudice that the March family never had to consider.
The Mayeda sisters and their mother, Marmee, move in with their Aunt Ming after spending time during the war in an American concentration camp in Colorado. Their father, Makoto, is a war hero, but he returned from the war with post-traumatic stress disorder and a drinking problem. In the recently integrated Los Angeles neighborhood to which they return, they find much-appreciated diversity in their African American neighbor, Mr. Lawrence, who is a retired hematologist, and his half-Italian grandson, Laurie. Aunt Ming, however, feels that her “old money” status is above the “new money” status of her new neighbors. Thus, Houston reveals how prejudice is present even among different minorities that have each had injustice wrought upon them.
Completing Houston’s diverse cast are Mr. Bhat, Laurie’s tutor from Calcutta, and Professor Briones from Mexico City, Jo meets on her journey to New York in act two of the play. The supporting male characters in the play including Laurie, Mr. Bhat, and Professor Briones, each take an interest in one of the Mayeda sisters. However, the drama is heightened when Beth, the shyest of the four, has an unfortunate accident, which sends the whole family into a panic. The audience will remain captivated throughout the conflict, climax, and conclusion of the play.
There have been many adaptations of Alcott’s Little Women, but Houston’s depiction of the classic is unlike any other. This time period was significant for Japanese Americans and many others seeking to overcome the racial prejudices of World War II. Houston successfully depicts how the story of Little Women can be any family’s story, and yet in this particular version, there’s much more being said about the simmering social strife that is right beneath the surface.
Houston is a professor of dramatic writing at the University of Southern California School of Dramatic Arts. She is also a well-known writer with many produced commissions, both in theater and opera. She is a Fulbright Scholar, and her current projects are with the Los Angeles Opera, The Pasadena Playhouse, Theatre Works (Palo Alto), Playwrights’ Arena/Center Theatre Group, Now Africa Playwrights’ Festival, and National Public Radio. One of her most famous plays to date is Tea, which is an internationally presented play about the experiences of Japanese women.
See Little Women (A Multicultural Transposition) at JANM on Saturday, December 15 in the Tateuchi Democracy Forum. Members are invited to an exclusive pre-event reception with Velina Hasu Houston. RSVP HERE.