Other people get asked, ‘What’s your sign?’ ” says playwright Velina Houston. “I get asked, ‘What’s your race?’ ” The short answer is that she is half Japanese, one quarter black and one quarter Blackfoot Indian. The longer answer, the one the critics like, comes in the form of three plays for which Houston, 28, has mined her remarkable heritage. Her work is, literally, dramatic proof of American hybrid vigor.
The race mixing began when Velina’s grandfather, a black coal miner in Alabama, married a Blackfoot Indian. Their son, Lemo Houston, was a career soldier stationed in occupied Japan where he met Setsuko Takechi. Lemo was, Setsuko would later say, the first man she’d ever seen who was the color of soy sauce. The resulting saffron-and-soy romance had a tragic aftermath: Setsuko’s father, already embittered by the war, took his own life.
It was this train of events that Velina, who is Lemo and Setsuko’s second daughter, turned into a play, Asa Ga Kimashita (Morning Has Broken). The work won two national awards. Houston’s second piece, American Dreams, was based on the hostile reaction Lemo and his “Jap” bride met when they moved to New York, and Tea describes the atmosphere at Fort Riley, Kans., where young Velina grew up.
A strange exotic in the middle of the Kansas plain, Houston was not expected to be bright. When she scored well on grade school IQ tests, her teachers thought she had cheated and insisted that she take them over. She went on to be a Phi Beta Kappa at Kansas State and earned a master’s degree in drama at UCLA. Since Morning’s prize-winning success, she has had plenty of work. There is a TV movie in the works about the Kansas war bride, and Houston has been approached about serving as a consultant on a film set in an internment camp for Japanese during World War II. She is also working on a movie about the reunion of five women, none of whom, she notes, is of mixed heritage.
But it seems doubtful that Houston, who lives in Santa Monica, will stray from her favorite subject for long, considering that she lives with it day in and day out. “When you take an apple and an orange and put them together,” she says, “you come up with an entirely different fruit that is neither apple nor orange. And that’s what I am—I’m that new something.”