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.
This Thursday evening, JANM hosts the latest edition of East West Players’ A Writer’s Gallery Reading, a semi-annual series featuring new work by Asian and Pacific Islander American writers. June is the First Fall, written by Yilong Liu and directed by Jeff Liu, follows a Chinese American gay man who returns home to Hawai‘i after a painful breakup. He must confront his sister, his father, and himself about an unspeakable past that separated them, and a tender family history that held them together.
Born and raised in Chongqing, China, Yilong Liu has an MFA in Playwriting from the University of Hawai‘i and is the recipient of a 2016 playwriting scholarship from East West Players’ David Henry Hwang Writers Institute (DHHWI) in conjunction with Asian Pacific American Friends of the Theatre (APAFT). His work has been produced or developed at Kumu Kahua Theatre, New York International Fringe Festival, New York Indie Theatre One Minute Play Festival, Stella Adler Studio of Acting, and Queens Theatre. We sat down with him via email to talk about his new play, and what it’s like to be a gay Asian writer.
JANM: I’m intrigued that the inspiration for this play is a portrait of Afong Moy, the first Chinese woman to immigrate to America. Moy was “imported” from China by two enterprising traders, who put her on display as a publicity stunt to sell more exotic Chinese goods. The portrait shows her surrounded by said goods. What was it about this portrait that inspired you?
Yilong Liu: The first time I saw this picture, I was taking a seminar on Asian American theatre history in grad school. We were talking about the performative elements of her “exhibition” and how those were founded on exoticism. However, other than her being exploited and objectified, I myself as someone who was born and brought up in China, wondered how she was feeling personally as someone who also came to the US as a young adult, whose worldview had probably been largely shaped already in her home country. Because essentially, the immigration experience for someone who comes here at a younger age and those who are older can be very different. There is much complexity and nuance in the Asian and Pacific Islander identity spectrum that is often lost in the way outsiders look at us. The challenges faced by various APIA and API immigrant groups are not all the same, so it is important and necessary to encourage a deeper understanding.
On the other hand, I also find myself responding to this image on an emotional level. Having worked as a Chinese instructor in Hawai‘i, I was touched by many of my second-generation Chinese American students’ stories. Their fathers, or grandfathers, travelled great distances back to China to get married, then started the long journey of bringing their families to the US, but it would take years and years before they could reunite again. And when they did, unlike the kids, who would continue their education in American schools, the mothers usually stayed at home and weren’t able to speak any English. What was it like for them? What did they do when the rest of the family all went to school or work? What were they thinking, when they were sitting quietly in their rooms, just waiting for the ones who meant the whole world to them to get home? I kept thinking about Afong Moy when I thought about them.
JANM: LGBTQ stories are a major focus of your work. Were you out when you lived in China, and if so, what was that like? How would you compare the LGBTQ scene in China with the experiences you’ve had since you’ve been in the States?
YL: I was out to my friends and some of my cousins back in China. Being in a tight-knit society and a whole generation of only children have definitely complicated the coming out process for LGBTQ youth back home. More often than not, the kids’ coming out of closets are likely to put their parents into “closets” instead. The parents will go through the stages of confusion, anger, and fear, and eventually struggle with whether they should and if so how to “come out” to their own extended family members, friends, and colleagues, because of the way Chinese and most Asian societies function. Therefore, many kids don’t want to inflict the same kind of pain they have gone through on their parents. In June is the First Fall, although coming out is not an issue, we can still feel how the father, influenced by Chinese and American culture at the same time, is dealing with his mixed feelings about his son’s sexuality.
JANM: I read in an article that you have already been made aware of the paucity of representation of Asian and Pacific Islander Americans in American media/arts—for the APIA LGBTQ community, even more so. What kind of reception are you experiencing to your work, which is a very rare foregrounding of issues faced by these communities?
YL: Coming from China, where LGBTQ people as a marginalized group strive for visibility, understanding, and acceptance, I understand the significance of positive representations in arts/media. When I was a teenager, the only gay characters allowed on screens were almost always demonized, exaggerated, cartoonish, and heavily stereotypical. I found that distressing. The lack of representation—and the level of misrepresentation—make it even more difficult for people struggling with their sexuality, and will lead to unavoidable feelings of alienation and self-denial. I can only imagine when the situation is complicated by races, cultures, and politics.
So far, I think audiences have responded well and warmly to what I have to share. Being a bilingual writer, and brought up in the southwest of China, I find it specifically challenging but just as equally fun and rewarding when writing. I feel this urge, this responsibility, and this deep desire to write the stories I am telling, about queer people caught in between worlds, not only because it’s a way of empowerment, or that it’s even more needed in light of the recent political climate, but also because the stories are so beautiful and so heartbreaking that they deserve to be told. I feel audiences really respond to the perspective I bring in and the journey I am going through. They make me feel that my voice, although different and still raw, is appreciated and needed, and for that I am very grateful.
Join us for a reading of June is the First Fall this Thursday, March 23, at 7:30 p.m. Admission is free.
This Sunday, August 21, at 2 p.m., JANM is pleased to host a unique staged reading of Arthur Miller’s iconic drama, “Death of a Salesman.” Directed by Michael Miraula and produced by Tadamori Yagi, the reading will feature a predominantly Asian American cast as it attempts to explore minority relations within the larger context of mainstream white America in the late 1950s.
To learn more about this production, we conducted the following interview with Yagi, an LA–based actor who, in addition to producing this reading, also plays the role of Biff, Willy Loman’s son.
JANM: How did this production of “Death of a Salesman” come about?
Tadamori Yagi: I really wanted to work on this play; specifically, I wanted to act the role of Biff. When considering how best to go about this, I immediately realized two things: 1) Willy’s family would have to be cast as Asian American, and 2) I’d probably have to produce it myself.
It all seemed like a huge, impossible undertaking. But then I found an article about a group of students at the Stanford Asian American Theater Project who produced their own version of “Death of a Salesman” in 2013. After reading it, I said to myself, “I should at least do something!” Since I didn’t have the experience or resources to do a full production of the play, I decided to go with a staged reading instead.
JANM: Tell us about the structure of the play. Who will be playing what roles, and how does the casting work with the existing narrative?
TY: The play consists of two acts centering around the life of a traveling salesman named Willy Loman and his pursuit of success and the American Dream. Time-wise, it takes place in the late 1950s.
When casting the play it was important to me that the family be an accurate portrayal of a multi-ethnic Asian American family. The reason for this was personal, as I am Japanese-Chinese-Korean American. The actor who plays Willy (Kelvin Han Yee) is Chinese American while Willy’s wife Linda (Marilyn Tokuda) is Japanese American. Meanwhile, the actors playing the sons, Happy (Kenzo Lee) and Biff (myself), both have mixed Chinese and Japanese ethnicity.
APIA actors are often cast randomly without regards to their actual ethnicity but, for a family drama, I felt casting accurately would make it feel more authentic. I also decided to cast Willy’s neighbor Charlie (William Gabriel Grier) and his son Bernard (Ky Soto) with African American actors. Through these unconventional casting choices, I wanted to subvert social stereotypes of both the Asian American and African American communities—challenging, for example, the Asian American model minority myth.
It was also important to me that the casting of the play be historically and culturally accurate. For example, I consciously made the choice to cast Willy Loman as Chinese American; if he were Japanese American, he and his family would have been interned during the war years and he would not have been able to work as a traveling salesman.
Likewise, before I cast Charlie’s family as African American I made sure to research whether or not there were actually black lawyers presenting cases before the Supreme Court at that time. Luckily it turned out that during the late 1950s, there was a small number of black lawyers presenting civil rights cases before the Supreme Court—one of them being future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Historical accuracy and authenticity are important to me.
JANM: “Whitewashing” (the practice of casting white actors in non-white roles) has been increasingly called out in the media. Do you consider this version of Arthur Miller’s play to be your response to whitewashing in the entertainment industry?
TY: While I did not explicitly intend for the casting to be a response to “whitewashing,” I suppose it could be interpreted that way.
JANM: What do you hope will be the audience’s takeaway after seeing your play?
TY: I hope this reading of the play will resonate with the audience in such a way that some will recognize aspects of themselves or their own families in the play.
JANM: Are there other iconic plays or films that you think would benefit from a similar treatment?
TY: I love period pieces and I love family dramas. I picked “Death of a Salesman” because, in addition to being a compelling drama, it has an inherent universality that can accommodate an ethnically diverse cast. I’m sure there are tons of other iconic plays that could work, especially the more modern ones, like “The Odd Couple,” “Of Mice and Men,” or “Waiting for Godot.”
Ironically, for all the pains I took to cast the play in a “realistic” way, what I took away from the whole process was this: if you love the material and it speaks to you on a human and personal level, the other details don’t really matter so much. As a creative person you should just do the work and you will find a way to make it fit somehow. And if you can’t find a story that adequately fits your experience, you should create your own story, because getting to do the work you love is the main thing.
Tadamori Yagi’s staged reading of “Death of a Salesman” is free with museum admission. RSVPs are recommended here.