In “Valley of the Heart,” the story of two California immigrant families brought together by marriage at the dawn of World War II is told over the course of 60 years from the memory of one central character. Lakin Valdez, who plays Benjamín Montaño in the production on stage at the Mark Taper Forum, says he wanted the character to be more than a straightforward narrator.

“At the heart of the story, there is going to be a character that we want to follow, that we want to understand through his eyes and perspective, “ he says. “I think it’s important to understand the truth of any character that you inhabit,  but at the same time, that the character has a soul. That is exactly what I wanted to look into and discover further, in order to inform my work in the role.”

In the play written and directed by Luis Valdez –Lakin’s father and the founder of El Teatro Campesino– Benjamín is the son of of a Mexican couple that works in a farm owned by a Japanese family.  The young man falls in love with the farmers’ daughter and marries her, but the couple’s bliss is interrupted when Japanese forces attack Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. A few months later, the play’s Japanese family –including the young bride Thelma– is sent to an internment camp.

Lakin Valdez as Benjamín Montaño in ‘“Valley of the Heart.’ ” Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Being close to the material helped Lakin tackle the part. The story set in the Northern California region that is now known as Silicon Valley is partially based on his father’s own experiences, growing up in the region as part of a farm worker family. As a member of El Teatro Campesino, Lakin was part of the play’s original workshops in the company’s home base of San Juan Bautista and he originated the role of Benjamín when the show had its world premiere in San Jose in 2016.

“It’s only natural that an actor who’s going to create a role or be part of its evolution over time, that you have some influence,” he says. “You bring something to the table in order to give it another type of meaning or truth to the work.”

The play deals openly with issues of racism, class and systemic discrimination, and the actor says it has brought audiences to the Taper that are not the usual theatergoers. He says the play resonates with Mexican and Japanese families in Los Angeles neighborhoods like Boyle Heights that were directly hit by the World War II internment.

“We’ve always had numerous folks from both the Asian and Latino community come out to view the production, and at a lot of the performances there’s always a very audible response to the play,” he says. “It’s extremely emotional.”

The production by Center Theater Group marks the return of El Teatro Campesino to the Mark Taper after last year’s revival of “Zoot Suit,” Luis Valdez’ landmark play that had its world premiere at the same venue in 1978. It’s a family reunion for Lakin: besides having his father as a director, his mother Lupe Trujillo Valdez is the show’s costume designer and his uncle Daniel Valdez plays his father. It’s also a reunion for the extended El Teatro Campesino family –the Mexican mother is played by Rose Portillo, who along with Daniel Valdez was part of both Zoot Suit stagings at the Forum.

Lakin recalls being part of the ETC family growing up.

“I can only say I’ve always had the great fortune of being able to be surrounded by maestros my entire life,” he says. “Some of the earliest members of the Teatro, some of who actually still continue to do work with the Teatro and those who actually moved on and still have connections with the Teatro, have always been my teachers. I always found it a place to, not only nurture myself, but to also nurture others.”

And Lakin says that a play willing to take on issues like “Valley of the Heart” shows the relevance of  El Teatro Campesino in today’s political climate.

“These are perilous times, almost the the same as when the Teatro started, in the 60s,” he said, warning that it was not a random decision to end “Valley of the Heart” at the dawn of another disastrous period in U.S. history, on September 10, 2001.

“There are always going to be things that come back around,” he says. “Obviously we’ve made a lot of progress and changed so much, but the spiral of time goes upward, and I’ve witnessed that.”

“Knowing my history and connection to the theater, it’s clear that the fight continues and we have to keep going, and the Teatro is special in that regard.”

“Valley of the Heart” runs through Dec. 9 at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Avenue, Los Angeles. Tickets range from $30 – $99 (subject to change) and are available online at CenterTheatreGroup.org, by calling Audience Services at (213) 628-2772 or in person at the Center Theatre Group Box Office (at the Ahmanson Theatre at The Music Center in Downtown Los Angeles).  

Photo above: Lakin Valdez (left), Joy Osmanski (background), Melanie Arii Mah, Justin Chien and Scott Keiji Takeda in the Center Theatre Group production of Luis Valdez’s “Valley of the Heart.”   Photo by Craig Schwartz.

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