The prolific playwright opens up about herself, her work, and her journey.
With Hero Theatre’s production of Tea coming up this spring, I had the honor of interviewing playwright Velina Hasu Houston about her heartbreaking and thought-provoking play. Houston –who is also a Distinguished Professor and Director of Dramatic Writing at the USC School of Dramatic Arts — shares her inspiration behind Tea and how her background informs her work.
You have had such a long and illustrious career. Can you take us through a bit of your journey?
My journey as a writer began when I was five years old. At that time, I told my mother that I was going to be a writer. She told me that immigrants do not get to be artists, that such things had to wait a generation. This response made me even more determined to become a writer, not to prove my mother wrong, but to make her proud. For many, many years, she was, but she suffered a brain injury in 1991 that compromised her mental cognition. While that impairment has worsened over time, I am happy to say that my mother is still alive at ninety-one years of age. She has been my greatest muse as well as the greatest love of my life.
I began my writing creatively and in communications. I wrote poetry, and journalistic pieces for magazines and newspapers; then plays as well as theatre and television.
You write such powerful female characters. How has it felt to provide generations of actresses — specifically those of Asian descent — with such meaningful parts?
I never set out specifically to write female characters or to write about Japanese immigrants. However, my upbringing organically led me in those directions. My mother, a female and a Japanese immigrant, has had the biggest impact on my life and identity, so it is only natural that my creative expression gravitates towards those dimensions of my being. An outgrowth of this is that many of my plays offer a plethora of roles for Asian and Asian American actresses. This outcome is something that makes me happy. I have met so many talented actresses of Asian descent and felt disappointed that their skills were too rarely seen on U.S. stages, television shows, and film. That they can portray consequential, prominent characters in narratives that include or emphasize cultures that are closer to their own realities means a great deal to me.
You’re a writer first and foremost. But also a female writer of color. A trailblazer, especially if you look at the fact that you were writing in a time where theatres weren’t held accountable for providing opportunities for more women, let alone women of color. Can you talk to us about that?
My literary career began its ascent at a time when there was no social media via which to proclaim productions of my plays; and no desire on the part of theatre, film, or television to embrace the voice of a female writer of color or to embrace cultural narratives beyond explorations of White European American, gentile patriarchy. That meant that it was harder or impossible to be given the time of day by many producers. Even if they took a meeting with you, rarely did they consider you seriously for this or that production, regardless of the medium. Despite these challenges and roadblocks, I was able to cultivate a literary career in theatre (regionally across the U.S., internationally, and eventually locally), musical theatre, opera, film, television, poetry, and prose. With theatre, I worked nationally at numerous regional theatres and did not start working in Los Angeles until the 21st century, although I’d had a few creative excursions here in the early 1980s. In 1981, my play Asa Ga Kimashita was produced at East West Players, garnering numerous critical awards. In 1991, my play Tea had a nine-month run at the Odyssey Theatre and, in 1996, my play Kokoro had a six-month run at the same theatre. There were a few other excursions, but the next major production would be with Playwrights’ Arena/Latino Theatre Company of my play, Calligraphy. At the time my literary career was blazing a trail nationwide and globally, regional theatres in Los Angeles had little interest in Asian immigrant narratives. For a while, Gordon Davidson was interested in the story of Tokyo Rose and commissioned me to write the play, but it was clear that his vision of Tokyo Rose subjugated the story to a purely Western perspective. Not my cup of tea. (There are always more than two sides to any story.)
Nowadays, I’m fascinated that theatre, film, and television entities are compelled to provide opportunities for females and people of color. I am glad that many young females and people of color are benefiting from these opportunities. I hope this approach endures.
Is there anything you would have done differently?
I don’t think there is anything I would have done differently and my style is pretty much the same these days. I believe that one just does the work with as much authenticity, clarity, and openness that one can. The world doesn’t always make that the easiest of approaches, but one just has to keep one foot in front of the other and damn the torpedoes.
How much did you draw from your own life for Tea?
Tea was a play that was in the making throughout my childhood. I enjoyed coming home from school some days and finding my mother and Japanese friends gathered around our dining room table sharing a multitude of delicious Japanese dishes in tiny, pretty plates with hot green tea. During those times, the Japanese women shared their lives with each other. I listened with fascination. That was the beginning of Tea. Tea also was born from my love of my mother. She was an attentive mother whose language of love was to do as much for me as she possibly could. We were and are close. I watched her strive to create a place for herself in a U.S. society in which she did not naturally fit. She worked so hard and asked so little. I wanted to pay homage to her chrysanthemum strength via my plays. So that is a big part of Tea, too.
However, my observations about the Japanese female immigrant in Kansas went beyond my personal experience because of listening to the women who shared tea with my mother. Because of this, I drove around the state of Kansas with my mother and interviewed forty-eight Japanese female immigrants who had married U.S. servicemen at the end of World War II through the mid-1960s. The interviews were from two hours to eight hours in length. Their substance enlightened me to the challenges faced by Japanese immigrants in the wake of World War II in which they had been the U.S. enemy.
From my mother’s stories and the stories of the interviewees, I created five fictionalized characters who were amalgamations of what I had learned and what I directly had experienced.
Why does Tea still resonate with audiences today?
I think Tea still resonates with audiences today because all of us understand what it is like to be a stranger in a strange place, be it a neighborhood, a city, or a country. In particular, the circumstances of immigrants in the U.S. are always dynamic. Given that, the immigrant narrative remains forever relevant.
What does Tea mean to you?
Tea is a metaphor for the Japanese female immigrants — the chrysanthemum women — who so deeply touched my life. Those women are a dying generation. The Meiji Era-raised Japanese culture that they bestowed upon their children is a Japanese culture that no longer exists even in Japan. Japanese culture in Japan, of course, has changed as the world has changed. Japanese American culture is a U.S. culture that has ancestral ties to old Japanese cultures. The culture of the women of Tea is vanishing and yet the immigrant spirit that is part of it endures in the U.S. psyche because of the dynamics that plague (and preserve) immigrant identity in this country. (As Nietzsche said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”) Tea as a beverage is also a metaphor for me, a metaphor of my immigrant roots, my soul, my consciousness, and my organic transnationalism.
What do you hope audiences take away from the story?
I hope that audiences that come to see Tea are enlightened to their own strength to survive in places that they may not fit and also are more conscious, even to a tiny degree, of the struggles that immigrants face to fit into life in these United States.
What advice would you give to other WOC writers who are coming onto the scene today?
Maya Angelou said you gain strength and confidence from those who came before you and who you now stand on the shoulders of and whose words you carry with you through life. As my literary career developed, I felt this way about writers such as Ms. Angelou, Lorraine Hansberry, Wakako Yamauchi, Gloria Anzaldúa, Audre Lord, Ntozake Shange, and others. As I get older and wiser, I suggest that writers of color and female writers remember that they are standing on the shoulders of a lot of women and people of color who paved the way to the more open doors that exist today. It is my hope that those writers open those doors just a little bit wider before they are through.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a Broadway musical, three plays, three films, and an Asian American musical. I continue to serve as a Distinguished Professor and Director of Dramatic Writing at the USC School of Dramatic Arts. I am heartened by the playwrights who have entered the Master of Fine Arts in Dramatic Writing over the last couple of years. They represent a new caliber of playwrights that I hope will experience great success in their careers. They have the wherewithal and humanity to do so, and I am invested in their success.
Is there anything that I should have asked, or anything you would like people to know about you?
Some things that few know about me:
In high school, I was a cheerleader.
In high school, I was on the starting five of our female basketball team.
In high school, I sang in choir and also independently as a soloist.
I am an avid cook and baker. I have won two blue ribbons for my pies. My husband, who is British, has the surname of Jones, so we often tease that we’ll open a bakery and I’ll call it Mrs. Jones’ Scones. While he is far from England, he likes the fact that his mixed race, transnational wife can make great English Trifle and scones.
I love animals. I have two red-sesame Shiba dogs, Kentaro and Kojiro. I have two cats. Stella is a black and white domestic shorthair, and Hanako is a calico cat.
I have two children. My daughter and works at Creative Artists Agency. My son graduates from medical school on June 6.
My sister, also a writer and professor (she also has a Ph.D.) lives in Los Angeles. My brother lives in Florida.
Hero Theatre’s production of Tea will be playing April 10th-May 17th at the Atwater Village Theatre. Tickets are available here.
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