Sitting in the lobby of the Los Angeles Theatre Center (LATC), playwright Velina Hasu Houston is cool, calm and collected as she takes a break from rehearsal for her world premiere play Calligraphy, set to open at the venue Nov. 12.
Dressed in a flowing, flowery skirt with a white scarf, funky turquoise shell and cropped gray sweater, she looks every bit the hip, creative scribe. She leans back on the bench, ever so slightly, occasionally acknowledging those passing by. On this night she sits outside the door of the theater where her latest play has been entrusted to five actors and director Jon Lawrence Rivera.
“I’m actually well known for my open mindedness for my work,” she says leaning forward to reinforce her point. “I write fast and think on my feet. Nothing is precious. If I walk in with a precious attitude about my play, I may as well sit in my office. I want the play to get better. So that means put my ego aside and let the play get better.”
Calligraphy, presented by Playwrights’ Arena and Latino Theater Company, is about two female cousins — one is Japanese/African American and lives in Los Angeles; the other is Japanese and lives in Japan. The two women are finding it difficult to cope with life’s many changes while dealing with their mothers growing old.
“It’s called Calligraphy because when you draw with that dark black India ink, you make bold strokes,” explains Houston. “That’s how we live life – with bold strokes. Then it begins to fade but it fades with different forms of beauty. We should be able to appreciate the aging.”
Houston, who brings uniquely pertinent credentials to her role as playwright, wrote her current play, in part, because she was going through her own mother/daughter concerns. “The issue of parents aging is challenging,” says Houston whose career began Off-Broadway. “It started with my own life. The first seed was my own mother getting dementia. As I began to see my life shift from being the daughter to the mother – I had to take on responsibility. She’s Japanese and doesn’t speak English very well. I had to step in and be a business manager. It was a learning process for me – how I was living my life and looking at things differently. In a sense, my mother became my child. I began to see the world through my mother’s eyes.”
Houston says ever since she was a small child, she and her mother have always been very close. “I adore the human being that she was. Her choice to marry a black man in 1950s Japan was a huge thing. I began to understand the impact that choice had to have on her life. She had to have courage. So, I admire her pioneering spirit.”
COMING OF AGE
After doing extensive research for the play over a five-year period, Houston realized there was a “large part of the culture that didn’t have patience for aging” and didn’t think of the natural evolution as being beautiful.
“I had to move from the shock of dementia to understanding the beauty in the aging process and what I could learn from that,” she explains. “I wanted to learn about other people who were seeing their parents’ lives change. I started interviewing caregivers in their 40s and 50s and wanted to know how they thought of themselves.”
Seeking a deeper understanding, Houston traveled to Japan to do more interviews and to discover whether there were cultural differences in aging there as well. “I looked at my mom’s aging from both the Japanese and American perspective,” says Houston. “I did a lot of reading about these kinds of life changes. Then I sat down to write the play.”
Although Calligraphy is not directly about her life, Houston says she did “draw on a lot of family experiences” to create the history of the people in the play, which stars Melody Butiu, Kevin Daniels, Fran de Leon, Emily Kuroda and Jeanne Sakata. Helping Houston’s vision materialize on stage are director Rivera and dramaturge Luis Alfaro.
“The play spoke to me because I have been questioning lately my future role in the lives of my parents as they grow older,” says Rivera. “I think it’s a valid question we consider even if they’re strong and active in their 70s. Velina’s play looks at it through the prism of Alzheimer’s but its broader message is the same. Are we going to be good caregivers to our parents when they are too weak to care for themselves? There are many answers. It’s a complex question. And each of us will respond to it in our unique way.”
The collaboration between Playwrights’ Arena (a theater company founded by Rivera devoted solely to the work of Los Angeles-based playwrights) and Houston came to fruition out of mutual respect. “Jon and I have gotten to know each other through this process,” says Houston whose other plays include Waiting for Tanashi (about her brother), Asa Ga Kimashita (Morning Has Broken), Calling Aphrodite, Messy Utopia and American Dreams, to name a few. We’ve always wanted to work with each other. This was the perfect opportunity.”
Rivera says, “I have been an admirer of Velina’s work for years. When she asked me to collaborate with her on this play I said yes without hesitation. I am attracted to playwrights with interesting backgrounds, culturally, intellectually and artistically, just like Velina.”
According to Houston, “Calligraphy will be Playwrights’ Arena’s first Equity production at LATC. “This is a big artistic leap for all of us,” she says.
She has nothing but high praise for Alfaro. “Luis and I have had great discussions about people of color and multiculturalism,” she says. “He comes in at different intervals and is able to provide a third eye. He’s like the psychotherapist for the play. He encourages me and is an asset to me as a fellow artist who is also a playwright.”
GETTING TO KNOW HER
Houston’s life story is far more intriguing than any play she could ever write. It has all the ingredients for a juicy romance novel while reading like a fascinating tome about reality, family, ethnic cultures, international affairs, survival, exclusion, assimilation and triumph.
The dramatist, who was born on a military ship outside of Japan 53 years ago, is the second daughter of a Japanese woman (Setsuko Takechi) and a World War ll and Korean War African American soldier (Lemo Houston), now deceased. Her father’s military record notwithstanding, Houston wittily and candidly shares her provocative thoughts about war.
“If men had menstrual cycles and had to bleed every month, there wouldn’t be war,” she proclaims. “It changes the way women engage with humanity. I know this is controversial but the world might be different if we all experienced that on a monthly basis. There would be less of a drive for antagonism.”
A petite, caramel-colored beauty with twinkling Asian eyes, a feisty spirit and shoulder length blackish-brown hair, Houston identifies with both her father’s and her mother’s cultures. She calls herself both African American and Japanese, although she also has Cuban and Blackfoot Pikuni Native American Indian influences.
“I often get inquisitive looks from people who can’t quite figure out what I am,” says Houston whose family is like a mini United Nations. “Some people just ask if I’m Hawaiian or Latina. People just want you to identify yourself. If people ask, I’m Japanese and African American. There are a lot of me out here.”
Married for 10 years to Peter Jones, who hails from Northern England, Houston has four children including her daughter Leilani, 14 and her son Kiyoshi, 24. She also has two stepsons, Jason, 18 and Evan, 20. She lives with her family in a sprawling home located in an off-the-beaten-path cul-de-sac in Los Angeles along with a yellow Labrador named Athena, a Shiba named Kenta, a red tabby cat named Venus and a Chinese fighting fish named, well, fish. The home’s décor pays homage to her Asian roots and her many theatrical triumphs as it showcases Japanese dolls, teapots, artwork, playbills and posters from previous theatrical productions.
Houston has an older brother who was adopted in Japan, grew up and married an Argentinean, and a sister who married into a Chinese family and is now a professor at Cal State LA. She grew up in Kansas where she often spent time in Japanese and French war bride’s kitchens watching and learning how to cook. “There was a time in my life that parents came in different colors. It was black husbands with their international wives.”
As a child she didn’t know about fairytales like Mother Goose because her mother, a traditional Japanese woman who reared her to be the same, didn’t know American folk stories. For a time she was estranged from her father’s side of the family after, she says, they disowned him when he married a Japanese woman. However, she now has a relationship with several members of her father’s family.
THE JOURNEY BEGINS
Determined to become a writer after a teacher gave her Anton Chekhov’s play The Cherry Orchard to read, Houston attended the University of Kansas where she studied communications and philosophy. She also has a Master of Fine Arts in playwriting from UCLA and a PhD in Critical Studies in Cinema from USC. A lifetime member of both UCLA and USC alumni associations she jokingly refers to herself as “biracial and bi-campus.”
Once she graduated from the University of Kansas the Jayhawk, Bruin and Trojan’s career took a meteoric ride. She’s written a book, Writer’s Block Busters: 101 Exercises to Clear the Dead Wood and Make Room for Flights of Fancy (Smith and Kraus), poems, essays and more than 20 plays which have been produced worldwide.
For instance, her play Tea, which portrays the lives of Japanese war brides who move to the United States with their American servicemen husbands, became a trademark of her work with numerous productions and presentations around the globe including the U.S., Osaka, Tokyo, Hiroshima, nationwide radio in Japan, People’s Republic of China, Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, and Indonesia. She’s also written for television and film. Many of her plays speak to the multicultural experience, something advisors at UCLA told her would never work.
“When I was at UCLA they discouraged me from writing about Japanese and Black people in theater because they didn’t think anyone would produce my plays,” says Houston. “I was discouraged from writing Japanese characters. I guess I had a multiculturalism outlook before it was popular.”
It would seem Houston got the last laugh. Not only have her plays been produced, she’s been praised extensively and awarded generously from the community at large for her good works. Houston’s mastery of the written word is the direct result of several decades of study and application. She is the recipient of 15 playwriting commissions from some of the nation’s most distinguished institutions.
This year, Houston, who first writes her plays out in longhand, completed a multi- playwright commission, “The DNA Trail” at Silk Road Theatre Project, Chicago, produced in association with the Goodman Theatre. In “The DNA Trail” commission project, seven playwrights were commissioned to write plays dealing with DNA.
“We had to agree to take DNA tests and share the results with the room,” says Houston. “What interested me was the women who do voluntary double mastectomies. That struck a deep chord.”
Houston’s play was about two sisters who had never met. When their mother dies of cancer, one sister looks for the other. “They have different ideas about the cancer,” says Houston. “One decides to have a mastectomy and the other thinks it’s a crazy idea. That fascinated me.”
According to Houston, USC’s Visions and Voices program is bringing “The DNA Trail” project to Los Angeles in January 2011. Today, Houston is a tenured professor at USC where she holds the title – associate dean of faculty/professor of theatre, resident playwright/director of dramatic writing. This year marks her 20th at the university.
As a playwright, she uses all of her life’s gems to create her body of work. “I tell my students that humanity is your laboratory,” says Houston who is working on another play called The Blacker the Berry. “I tell them to use everything you see, taste and smell. The most important thing for me is they need to write about things they feel the greatest passion for. Be inspired by deep critical passions so the drive to write the play doesn’t have to be forced. It’s just there organically.”
Writing is more than a passion for Houston, who admittedly is so focused, she can write while standing in line at the bank. “I write compulsively,” says Houston who likes to cook, bake, read poetry, walk and get massages when she’s not writing. “It’s like air and water. It’s like the necessities of life. I love writing. It’s an important relationship for me. I’d be unhappy if I couldn’t write.”
Production photos by Edwin Lockwood
Calligraphy, produced by Diane Levine for Playwrights’ Arena and co-presented with Latino Theatre Company, opens Nov. 12; plays Thur.-Sat., 8 pm; Sun., 3 pm; through Dec. 12. Tickets: $30 (Thurs. performances $10). The LATC, 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles; 866.411.4111 or thelatc.com.