Epstein Family Alumni Center
3607 Trousdale Parkway, TCC 305
Los Angeles, CA 90089-3106
USC Asian Pacific Alumni Association
VELINA HASU HOUSTON PhD ’00
By Kalai Chik
Growing up in the small town of Junction City Kansas, Velina Hasu Houston PhD ’00 found her passion in writing and literature, which eventually led to a successful, award-winning career as a playwright, librettist, lyricist, poet, author, screenwriter and essayist. Through such plays as Tea and Kokoro (True Heart), Houston has broadened public understanding of the transnational U.S.-Japanese identity. In recognition of her literary contributions, she has received a Japan Foundation fellowship, a Fulbright, Kennedy Center recognition, two Rockefeller Foundation fellowships, a California Arts Council fellowship and numerous honors, including the Lee Melville Award for Outstanding Contributions to Los Angeles Theatre.
Born outside of Tokyo and raised in the Midwest, Houston was inspired to write stories based on her global view of humanity, culture and behavior. In particular, she focuses on the topic of shifting identities that result from living in a multicultural family, as well as her observations of society. Houston is of Japanese, Blackfoot Pikuni, African American and Cuban heritage with historical ties to India and China.
“Being from a multicultural family has enriched my perspective of the world,” she says. “When I hear
people say the word ‘global’ I know my family is global from its very roots. I’ve always had a global perspective of humanity and culture and behavior. It motivated me to perceive the world in a much larger way. It’s been a gift.”
At a young age, Houston began writing poetry and short stories and eventually wrote her first play when she was 11, after she received encouragement from her teacher.
“There was a teacher who read my poem and told me my poetry was very theatrical,” says Houston. “So I began to read plays and once I explored the medium, the form really just felt natural and organic to who I was and what I wanted to do.”
However, very few people in Houston’s world shared her interest in the dramatic arts.
“When I first became interested in the dramatic arts, there were no Asians or Asian Americans around me who had similar interests,” she recalls. “I told my mother I wanted to do this and she said that Japanese immigrants couldn’t be involved in the arts, that it had to wait a generation.”
Despite the hardships and the lack of support, Houston persevered and continued to pursue her passion for writing. Interested in Pacific Rim culture, she moved to Los Angeles after college to embark on her playwriting career.
Welcome to L.A.
Upon her arrival in Los Angeles, Houston joined the organization Pacific Asian American Writers West, which provided both the moral support and the creative validation she needed to write about the Japanese immigrant experience.
“As I went into that field, there wasn’t a lot of support,” she says. “My family wasn’t happy with the choice and my fellow dramatists felt that I was the odd person out. Even my professors discouraged me from writing about Japanese subjects because they said nobody was interested in these kinds of stories. But that only made me more determined because I felt that the stories of people who were not part of the mainstream were important to truly understanding our history, culture, and future.
“When I have the compulsion to tell a story, I tell that story,” she continues. “If it makes people uncomfortable, then so be it. But that’s true about any work of art or literature. Regardless of what holds us back, including ourselves, we need to have the courage to keep moving forward and keep expressing ourselves.”
Indeed, this perseverance would later lead to the creation of Houston’s first of many successful plays: Tea, which depicts the experiences of five Japanese war brides who move to post World War II-era Kansas with their American servicemen husbands.
Despite Houston’s desire to write this play, she ran into some small roadblocks on the way.
“Years ago at my graduate institution, I told my advisor that I wanted to write a play called Tea, which has become the most produced play about the Japanese female experience in America,” she says. “My advisor said to me not to write it because no one would be interested in what happens to five Japanese women. He said I had to write for a wider audience. The fan was going on in his office and I asked him, ‘Did you say wider or whiter?’ He replied, ‘Velina you’re impossible.’ And I responded, ‘I’m asking because I’m not sure but you may be saying both.’ I wrote it anyway. Because I had to.”
In 1987, Tea premiered Off-Broadway at New York’s Manhattan Theatre Club. Houston later teamed with composer Nathan Wang to turn her play into a musical: Tea, With Music, which opened at Los Angeles’ East West Players in 2012 and was named LA Weekly’s
“Pick of the Week;” it later received a 2012-13 Los Angeles Stage Alliance Ovation Award nomination for Best Book of an Original Musical. Houston has also written a novel based on Tea.
A Trojan and Inspiration
Houston is currently the associate dean of faculty development and recognition, the director of dramatic writing, resident playwright and a professor at the USC School of Dramatic Arts; she is also an inaugural associated faculty member of the USC Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religions and Culture.
Yet no matter how busy she is, juggling teaching and writing projects, Houston takes an active role in the Asian and Asian American communities on and off-campus, including the USC Asian Pacific Alumni Association. And she continues to motivate people from all backgrounds to follow their passions while staying true to their beliefs and cultural values.
“It’s that experience that tells me no matter what you have to write or create, you have to go forward and do it,” says Houston. “Understand that there will be naysayers, but in the process of creating something, you can’t think of your audience; simply have to create it because you must. Inner motivation must drive you to do this. That keeps me moving forward.”
"Tea, With Music," Photo by Michael Lamont