I was eleven when I wrote my first play. Truly, I did not know what a play was, but, in some respect, one can be fearless in one’s pre-pubescent ignorance. Throughout my elementary school years, I wrote poetry which, at the time, was some sort of necessary expression that I felt compelled to write. I know now that it was nothing but juvenilia; however, when one is a juvenile, what else can one produce even if one thinks it is important at the time? I thought that because I experienced something or felt something deeply, it was a poem. It, however, was not. I understand that now.
There were a lot of comings and goings at my elementary school because it was located about two miles from a military base, which meant that soldiers (sometimes called G.I.s, which means Government Issue or “doggies,” which was a civilian epithet that, in my eyes, was on the same level as the N word) constantly were on the move being stationed here and there and, if they were married, taking their wives and children with them. Those wives were significant to Kansas school children because often they brought their talents to the schools as teachers. One such military wife taught at my elementary school for one year. I do not remember her name and, therefore, have no way of tracking her down, but she changed my life. As the multiethnic daughter of a Japanese immigrant, I faced many challenges such as being dark-skinned in a society predicated on Whiteness, being a female, being of mixed heritage, being Japanese culturally in every way possible but being in a mixed ethnic and dark body, wanting to be a writer, and wanting to be the first in my family to attend college. In my way of seeing things, however, challenges are things to be leapt over, not impediments. That military wife/school teacher was an important key to unlocking the doors that so many closed before me. (Doors are meant to be opened. Knock first, but if nobody answers – particularly after repeated attempts – open it and walk through; you do not need a big stick.) Her encouragement helped me overcome challenges and open doors.
The military wife/school teacher was White with short, medium brown hair. She liked to wear sweaters during the winter. They were monochromatic, V-necked sweaters and she always wore a shirt underneath it, the collars of which were gently laid on top of the inner shoulders of her sweaters. With soft, brown eyes and thick, manicured hands, she shook my hand warmly if she passed me in the hall. Always, she acknowledged me, human being to human being. She was not my teacher, but she actually took the time to read my poetry. I was so surprised. I thought that perhaps she was a White liberal reaching out to a poor little immigrant child, but she in point of fact liked the poetry and discussed it with me. I was gob-smacked. After reading a poem about my Japanese mother leaving the port at Yokohama on a ship, she encouraged me to write a play.
“What is a play?” I asked. I never had seen or read one. (Years later, I would learn that there was a community theatre in my town, but they only produced plays by White authors and usually musical theatre. I had no contact with that theatre whatsoever, not then and not now.)
The teacher gave me three plays by Anton Chekhov to read (The Cherry Orchard, Three Sisters, and The Seagull). I was ten years old. In a year, my father would pass away. Once I began reading those plays, a vista opened in front of me. The Cherry Orchard evoked my grandfather’s persimmon orchard near Matsuyama, Japan. Furthermore, the giving way of the old order to the new in Chekhov’s play also reminded me of what happened to my grandfather when Japan was defeated by the Allied Powers at the end of World War II. In Chekhov, I had found a writer, son of a serf, and doctor who in some ways understood the road that my family had traveled in a way that nobody in my United States’ education ever had understood or wanted to understand.
It was at that moment that I began to think about something that the late Jorge Luis Borges said of his own early view of his life, “My destiny was literary.” (I do not mean in any way to compare myself to Borges, nor do I speak out of a sense of hubris, something that a college professor and friend, the late David Hacker, would ask me years later as he mused, “Hubris works, sometimes.” I say it with the same understanding that encourages me to drink a glass of water on a thirsty, hot day. I only had dabbled in the literary prior to that moment. When playing with neighborhood girls, I persuaded them into acting out a version of Cinderella that I revised into what I would now call early feminism. I never acted in it, but observed with keen interest and, sometimes, directed, although I prefer the outside and often insightful perspectives that other directors bring to my plays today.)
There were two other teachers who were kind to me during elementary school: Phyllis Jones, my first grade teacher; and Dorothea Barr, my fifth grade teacher. When I was in my thirties, I was invited to the small Kansas town in which I grew up to present a poetry recital at the local library. In the audience, two women stood at the rear – Mrs. Jones and Mrs. Barr. I was touched by their support; both have passed away. When I was in the first grade, I walked home to have lunch with my father. Usually, I enjoyed lunch with my mother, but, on this day, she had a doctor’s appointment and asked my father to provide lunch. I looked forward to spending time with him, but it was not to be. Long suffering from Post-traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) and its related effects, which included alcoholism, he did not hear me when I came home. Upon returning to school, I encountered Mrs. Jones and she took me to the cafeteria to share a lunch of apples and biscuits. Regarding Mrs. Barr, she often protected the children with Japanese mothers because, frankly, there were a lot of American children who ostracized us and yelled epithets at us. In that respect, she was the kind of U.S. citizen that let me know that immigrant Americans had the same rights as U.S.-born Americans, and that they should be treated with civility.
And then there was Samantha. Yes, Samantha Stevens. Even though my father had purchased a color television when I was seven years old, we were not allowed to watch it whenever we wanted. He made an exception with a show called “Bewitched.” At first, I said to myself, “It’s about a White suburban housewife.” I could not fathom what that had to do with me, but, as with most things in the White patriarchal society in which I was raised – including my education in U.S. schools – I opened the door and went in. I made it mine, incorporating myself into worlds that were a hundred degrees from my life experience. Immediately, I grasped why Samantha Stevens was relatable to my journey. Like me, she was an Other among conventional entities. She was a witch in a world that either did not know about her true identity or that expected her to keep it concealed. She tried to do so, but, frequently, could not. Her true identity emerged in ways that destabilized the conventional entities in her world and the conventional society in which she existed, a society that had no tolerance for difference of any kind. For me, that was relatable in terms of being a person of mixed ethnic heritage in a world full of people who prioritized a monoracial/monoethnic identity and also being a female of African descent in a White patriarchal society. I understood the tensions that she faced in being herself when that very organic nature was considered an abomination to most of the rest of her society (other witches being the exception and sometimes even her husband Darren Stevens when it was to his advantage that she exercise her true identity). Since there were no other characters of mixed ethnicity of African descent on U.S. television, Samantha, despite the fact that she was White, stood out as a marginalized anomaly because she was not a “mortal.”
After I finished reading the plays, the military wife/school teacher encouraged me to write a play. She said it could be a one-act play, just thirty minutes long. I reflected upon what I would write and, by the time I came to terms with a commitment to do it, her husband was ordered to Germany and she departed.
I began writing the play, but then my father’s illness worsened. Since the end of World War II, in which he had fought in the Pacific Theatre (interesting terminology, not mine), his PTSD eroded him both psychologically and physically, and he drank more whiskey to drown out the demons. Eventually, his entire being collapsed and nothing was left. After his death, I was a pariah to most of my Kansas schoolmates, those same U.S. citizens. They did not want to come to my birthday party, which I no longer felt like having anyway (my birthday was May 5 and my father’s was May 12; he died a week after his birthday). Moreover, they did not want me at their birthday parties and no longer wanted to play with me.
The solitude turned out to be a gift. I finished my first play. My sixth grade teacher, the third teacher who was kind to me, James Hosler, had a reading of the play. I moved on to middle school and returned to writing poetry. Their encouragement was integrated into my DNA.
During middle school, I wrote a couple of plays, but I was growing up during a time when society’s sociopolitics had no interest in or tolerance for the equity, diversity, and inclusion of non-White, non-male, non-heterosexual voices. In high school, four teachers encouraged my creativity; three were White, one was Black. I wrote a play about a female spinster and a traveling saleswoman. We had a reading of it in one of my classes. The theatre bug had not bitten me, as many like to say. Rather, it always had lived in my marrow and was rising to the surface to drive me toward my destiny.
It also rose to the surface because my life was unlike the lives of most of my peers. Multiethnicity and immigrant status aside, there was also the matter of tea. As my Japanese friends and relatives have said to me, “All tea comes from Asia.” I say it, too. So, when my Kansas friends asked me if I liked sugar in my tea, I was perplexed. Tea, after all, was a beautiful amber-green color and sugar should never touch it. In my house, my mother would have tea with her friends at a table full of tiny, beautiful dishes that contained a variety of foods, both savory and sweet. They were not American foods, but things like o-tsukemono, oshitashi, kinpira gobo, narazuke, natto, and other Japanese foods in bigger, beautiful dishes such as o-den, maki-zushi, o-mochi or oshiruko; and parboiled ika with a paste of miso, chopped green onions, and chili paste. Because there were no grocery stores, my mother and I prepared these items from scratch. (When I was around five years old, a Japanese woman and her American husband conducted a survey to ascertain how many Japanese women lived in the area because they wanted to open a Japanese grocery store. They told me that they had counted 700 Japanese female immigrants living in the Fort Riley, Kansas, area. This was the first spark for what would later become my play Tea.) Fundamentally, having tea in this way and engaging with the Japanese female immigrants around that tea table was like a blood transfusion to me. I felt their joys and pain so deeply, so personally. As it flowed into my DNA, I knew that it was as important to me as breathing. It further fortified me for the necessity of going into the outside world and facing all the closed doors; so many closed doors, some of them shut in my face just as I was about to cross the threshold.
As the daughter of a Japanese immigrant, studying anything artistic in college was out of the question. Along with my sister, I was expected to make my mark in a “more realistic” way. What that way might be was never discussed at my high school; I did not receive any advisement or college preparation, just a high school diploma (although several White teachers suggested to me that I should aspire to be a custodian or behind-the-scenes secretary [because someone with my skin color would never be placed at a front desk]). Nevertheless, I dreamed.
My mother was alone at the time. My sister had moved into an apartment and was working. I yearned to go west, perhaps even move to Japan, but I was not about to leave my mother alone in a small Kansas town. Being of a darker color than she, I knew firsthand what the vagaries and specifics of racism could do to the human heart, mind, and soul. So I stayed with her to run interference with regard to U.S. society.
10, 11, 12
I attended a local university, which allowed me to spend a lot of time with my mother, including staying at home with her for long periods. In addition, if there was a university break, such as spring break, which was so popular with White and/or wealthy college students, I took my respite with my mother. When I was nineteen, she met the man who would become my stepfather. Eight years her junior, he was an African American Catholic who never had been married and in whom I felt I could put my trust. He had conservative ideas about ethnicity and sexuality, but a little time with our family and his mind expanded, which included embracing my gay male friend and my first boyfriend, the platinum blond son of a farmer/postal worker and poet from a small Western Kansas town in which people of color were entirely absent (and out of sight, out of mind; if there were any such people in that town, I never saw them).
The time at the local university was enlightening. I served on the Mademoiselle magazine College Board, an experience that instigated an interview with Honey Bruce, the widow of Lenny Bruce, who became a friend until her death. In addition, I served on the university’s newspaper, which was an interesting sociopolitical venture. For the paper, I covered a certain meeting on campus. My supervising editor, who was White, purposefully told me that the meeting started thirty minutes later than it actually did so that I would be late. Once I caught on to her racist strategy, I was able to recover (Equal opportunity? What the hell is that? Nothing affirmative about that supervising editor’s strategy.) The work on the Mademoiselle College Board led to me writing a feature for the Kansas City Star professional newspaper. The paper named me the graduate most likely to succeed. That accolade was kind and unexpected, but the life of the mind was calling to me to the arts.
My last winter in Kansas provided me with added multiculturalism when I visited London with a group of theatre students from the local university. One of those students was Anne Lacy. We had a memorable trip and it gave me time to get to know her better. Her grandmother lived in London, which was an added dimension of who she was and is. I saw Alec Guinness on stage as well as several other plays. The one I remember most is Filumena.
As my mother’s life settled into her new marriage, I began to dream again about moving west. I did not want to go to Japan anymore, fearing the anti-Blackness that existed and still exists in that country in too many places. I wanted to go to California, even though I knew that anti-Blackness would exist there as well. In some way, however, I believed that it would not be as bad as Kansas or urban Japan. In college, I had majored in communications, although I had taken so many classes in philosophy and theatre that I could have gone a bit longer and finished a triple degree, but I was ready to migrate. In the vein of my Japanese culture and immigrant perspective, I aimed to go to law school, but I took a playwriting class from the brilliant and kind Norman Fedder, a Jewish American writer from New York, who nurtured my literary destiny. Encouraging me to build my “house” so that the Big Bad Wolf could not huff and puff and blow it down, he motivated reflection: I wondered if my writing and me as an artist would ever garner the attention and respect that I felt every hard-working, fruitful artist deserved. In his class, I wrote a play called Switchboard that was recognized by the American College Theater Festival. That awarded me with a dramaturgical conversation with Robert Brustein (I was to meet him again several years later and he did not remember me; I would meet him on two other occasions and he still did not remember me).
The critical attention stimulated my destiny, but it was an afternoon discussion with my mother over tea and maki-zushi that invigorated me and sent me walking toward it. I was twenty-one years old. She said that I was old enough now to know that my grandfather, her father, had committed suicide and that she had discovered the body. We talked about the years before the war in Japan, my grandfather’s anti-Western sentiments, the Allied bombing of the area in which my mother lived (there was an army uniform factory nearby, making her hometown a target for fire bombs; her personal experience with those fire bombs occurred when hundreds of her schoolmates were killed and she barely escaped death herself). She also wanted me to know about my grandfather’s shock at Japan losing the war, my grandmother dying prematurely from a breast wound inadvertently caused by a “son” (who actually was the child of my mother’s sister), and the fact that my grandfather’s youngest daughter – my mother – had fallen in love with a Yankee, a Yankee of color, and planned to marry him. The family history that my mother revealed to me struck deep chords. These were stories that I was compelled to explore, perhaps starting with my Japanese grandfather and the challenges with which he was faced at the end of World War II as the old order of life gave way to a new way of life without his country, his wife, and his youngest daughter. I resolved to be the explorer.
Catapulted into my destiny by these revelations and encouraged by Doc Fedder and his colleague Joel Climenhaga, I headed to Los Angeles to pursue a master’s degree in playwriting from UCLA and any thought of a law career was put to rest permanently.
A playwright began her journey.
1 – The left eye of Velina Hasu Houston at age five. Family photograph. All rights reserved. Use subject to permission.
2 – Velina Hasu Houston at age five. Family photograph. All rights reserved. Use subject to permission.
3 – Velina Hasu Houston’s mother. 1953. Tokyo, Japan.
4 – The cover of a book of Chekhov plays, this one “4 Plays & 3 Jokes,” Translated and with an introduction and Notes by Dr. Sharon Marie Carnicke, Hackett Publishing Company. Gifted to me in 2010 by the author.
5 – Elizabeth Montgomery on Bewitched, 1960s. Web. www.hollywoodlady.tumblr.com, Oct 17, 2015. Retrieved on February 8, 2018 @ http://hollywoodlady.tumblr.com/post/131353131681/vintagegal-elizabeth-montgomery-on-bewitched.
6 – Parents of Velina Hasu Houston. Family photograph. All rights reserved. Use subject to permission.
7 – Parents of Velina Hasu Houston. Family photograph. All rights reserved. Use subject to permission.
8 – A cup of green tea. Photograph by Velina Hasu Houston. All rights reserved. Use subject to permission.
9 – Velina Hasu Houston at age sixteen and at age twenty-one. Family photographs. All rights reserved. Use subject to permission.
10, 11, 12 – Velina Hasu Houston and her mother. Family photographs. All rights reserved. Use subject to permission.
13 – Velina Hasu Houston and friend Anne Lacy Johnson in London, 1979.
14, 15 – Velina Hasu Houston and her mother. Family photograph. All rights reserved. Use subject to permission.
16 – Rehearsal photo, “Ikebana” by Velina Hasu Houston, The Pasadena Playhouse, 2000.