Playwright Gives ‘Little Women’ a Multicultural Makeover

From left: Rosie Narasaki (Amy), Sharon Omi (Marmee), Jacqueline Misaye (Beth), Jennifer Chang (Meg), and Nina Harada (Jo) in a scene from Velina Hasu Houston’s “Little Women (a Multicultural Transposition).” (Photo by KELLY STUART)

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

This is not your parents’ (or grandparents’) “Little Women.”

Playwright Velina Hasu Houston has transformed the 19th-century Louisa May Alcott novel — which has been adapted for stage, screen and TV dozens of times — into “Little Women (a Multicultural Transposition),” currently being presented by Playwrights’ Arena through Nov. 20 at the Chromolume Theater.

Instead of the Civil War, the setting is Los Angeles after World War II, when Japanese Americans were returning from the camps. The story focuses on the Mayeda family — sisters Jo (Nina Harada), Beth (Jacqueline Misaye), Meg (Jennifer Chang) and Amy (Rosie Narasaki); their parents, Marmee (Sharon Omi) and Makoto (Ken Narasaki); and Auntie Ming (Karen Huie).

We also meet their African American neighbors, Mr. Laurence (Rif Hutton) and his grandson Laurie (Kevin Ivy); Laurie’s Indian American tutor, Mr. Bhat (Jeremiah Caleb); and a Mexican American professor, Briones (Peter Pasco).

“I first read the novel ‘Little Women’ when I was in the fourth grade,” said Houston, who may be best known for her play “Tea.” “I think I was a teenager when I saw the 1949 version of the film. I saw another film adaptation, the 1994 version, about 20 years ago. Whenever I read Alcott’s novel, I was taken with the story of four sisters developing into young women for several reasons.

“My mother is one of four sisters and her favorite film, Kon Ichikawa’s ‘Sasameyuki’ or, in English, ‘The Makioka Sisters,’ also features four sisters like my relatives whose lives are sent in different directions because of World War II. The film is based on a Jun’ichirō Tanizaki novel of the same name.

Opening Night: Playwright Velina Hasu Houston (right) with cast member Karen Huie, who plays Auntie Ming. (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)

“I also was drawn to the novel because of the character of Josephine March; I identified with a young woman who dreamed of becoming a writer. The novel and subsequent film adaptations, however, were in some ways out of my reach because I am a multicultural being who is Japanese, African American, Native American Indian, and Cuban.”

Houston explained, “Attention to memory is what brought me to write my play … attention to the history of the United States, California, Los Angeles, and the Asian American and African American communities as well as Mexican American, Indian American, and mixed-race American communities. I wanted to focus on an area of U.S. history – and Los Angeles history – that was particular to certain cultural communities, and especially to explore the shared history of Japanese Americans and African Americans in Los Angeles.

“Today, Japanese American discourse includes – as it well should – concern for how Muslim Americans may be viewed by mainstream U.S. culture. That discourse often seems to sidestep the important aligned history of Japanese Americans and African Americans. The Japanese American community owes a debt to the African American communities that welcomed them back into Los Angeles. That alliance was an organic meeting of the minds of two distinct communities – equity and inclusion long before our society started considering it.

From left: Rif Hutton (Mr. Laurence), Ken Ivy (Laurie) and Nina Harada (Jo) in a scene from “Little Women (a Multicultural Transposition).” (Photo by KELLY STUART)

“When I first came to Los Angeles, there were several institutions that illuminated the history of Japanese Americans in the Crenshaw District and Leimert Park; most now are gone. An example of this was the Holiday Bowl, where Japanese, Japanese Americans, and African Americans congregated.”

Regarding the fact that all of the characters are people of color, Houston said, “My primary objective was to transpose the novel into a multicultural landscape … My point is that the story can be anybody and everybody’s story.”

Interracial/intercultural relationships are explored as both Laurie (who is half Italian) and Briones are interested in Jo, who has no plans to get married, while Meg and Mr. Bhat fall in love. Marmee is a Chinese American who accompanied her Nisei husband and their daughters to camp.

While the playwright did not base the latter element on an actual family, “I do know that non-Japanese American spouses did go to the forced incarceration camps with Japanese American spouses, and that babies of mixed Japanese heritage who were living in orphanages were also removed from those orphanages to be taken to camps.”

As for the message of the play, she said, “It is my hope that women and other audience members simply go on a journey with several characters who are part of the tapestry of the United States, and perhaps reflect upon the illuminations that they experience.”

Peter Pasco (Briones) and Nina Harada (Jo) in a scene from “Little Women (a Multicultural Transposition).” (Photo by KELLY STUART)

Collaborative Works

Houston has worked with the director of “Little Women,” Playwrights’ Arena Artistic Director Jon Lawrence Rivera, before. For the 25th anniversary of “Tea,” which is about Japanese war brides adjusting to life in America, he inspired her to adapt the play into a musical version, “Tea, with Music,” with composer Nathan Wang at East West Players.

“We also collaborated on another musical, also with Nathan Wang, called ‘Cinnamon Girl,’ which was produced by Playwrights’ Arena in Los Angeles and also in China,” Houston said. “Playwrights’ Arena also produced ‘The Hotel Play,’ a site-specific drama last year, that was penned by several playwrights; I was one of them.”

She has worked before with members of the cast as well. Omi originated the role of Himiko in “Tea” in the Rockefeller Fellowship workshop production at Asian American Theatre Company in San Francisco in the early ’80s, and performed in the same play at International City Theatre in 2005.

Houston has known actors and fellow playwrights Huie and Ken Narasaki, Omi’s husband, for a long time. “Having Sharon, Ken, and their daughter Rosie in the play is an honor.”

Chang, who is also a director, was in the workshop of “Little Women” at The Pasadena Playhouse last year along with Rosie Narasaki, Huie, Misaye and Harada, who has appeared in some of Houston’s other plays.

“I have enjoyed getting to know the new actors on the project, some of whom I have known from other avenues of life in the past,” Houston added.

“Tea,” for which Houston interviewed almost 50 Japanese female immigrants livin