Backstage Pass with Lia Chang

Internationally Acclaimed Playwright Velina Hasu Houston named Distinguished Professor at the USC School of Dramatic Arts

Velina Hasu Houston. Photo by Ken Matsui

Velina Hasu Houston. Photo by Ken Matsui

Congratulations to Velina Hasu Houston, Associate Dean of Faculty, Director of Dramatic Writing and Resident Playwright of the USC School of Dramatic Arts, who was named a Distinguished Professor at the USC Academic Honors Convocation held on April 12, 2016. The title of Distinguished Professor is a great honor, awarded to select professors who have brought special renown to the University through their accomplishments. She is the first dramatic arts professor to be so designated. Specifically, she was recognized for placing the immigrant experience into meaningful conversations through her artistic work, for encouraging stakeholders at USC to take a transnational view of personal identity, and for furthering the kind of cultural awareness and sensitivity that the University seeks to promote.

But Still, Like Air, I'll Rise: New Asian American Plays, edited by Velina Hasu Houston. Photo by Lia Chang

But Still, Like Air, I’ll Rise: New Asian American Plays, edited by Velina Hasu Houston. Photo by Lia Chang

Houston, an internationally acclaimed playwright, librettist (opera), bookwriter/essayist musical theatre), poet, screenwriter and novelist, began her writing career in New York off-Broadway with her play Tea at Manhattan Theatre Club and American Dreams at Negro Ensemble Company. She expanded to productions and presentations from U.S. regional theatres to international global institutions ranging from opera to intimate theatres and including 17 commissions; producers include the Old Globe Theatre, Pittsburgh Public Theatre, Smithsonian Institution, Syracuse Stage, George Street Playhouse, The Pasadena Playhouse, Barrington Stage, Los Angeles Opera, and others. TheatreWorks Silicon Valley will present the regional premiere of her play Calligraphy, March 8—April 2, 2017.

“This has made me reflective about my career in the dramatic arts,” writes Houston in a post on Facebook.  “It began when I was five and told my mother that I was going to be a writer. She said that Japanese immigrants could not become artists in the United States. But she encouraged my creativity and I thank her for it – the beloved Setsuko Okazaki Takechi. I wrote my first play when I was 11 years old. My career began professionally with Lynne Meadow and Tom Szentgyorgyi at Manhattan Theatre Club, Craig Noel and Jack O’Brien at the Old Globe Theatre, and Leon Denmark and Samuel Barton at the Negro Ensemble Company. Their belief in my writing and support of my voice helped to propel my literary career forward, and also affirmed my belief that one must write from one’s gut, even if what you have to say is so far afield from the commercial and expected that you wonder if you were born in the wrong time or on the wrong planet. Of course, since those beginnings, many of you have done so much to enrich my journey, including many at USC. This is a big “thank you” to all of you – friends, family, artists, and civilians – that help to cultivate my dreams. The life of an artist and the life of the mind are fallow fields that have to be nurtured perpetually to sustain creativity. Particularly when we live in such unpoetic times. I appreciate art-nurturing. I honor it.”

Houston has been awarded fellowships from Japan Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, Mellon Foundation, Wallace Foundation (Lila Wallace-Readers Digest Fund), Aurora Foundation and others. She has been honored by the Kennedy Center, Sidney Poitier, American Film Institute, Pinter Review Prize for Drama, LA Stage Alliance and others. Her plays are studied globally throughout Asia, Europe and the U.S.; and published with Dramatists Play Service, Smith and Kraus, Vintage Books/Random House and others.

On April 28, 2008, playwright Velina Hasu Houston received the Made in America Visionary Award at the 42nd Anniversary East West Players Visionary Awards. Former 'Reading Rainbow' host Levar Burton, who presented Houston with the award, shared that he had been a huge fan of hers since his college days at USC. Credit: East West Players/Instagram

On April 28, 2008, playwright Velina Hasu Houston received the Made in America Visionary Award at the 42nd Anniversary East West Players Visionary Awards. Former ‘Reading Rainbow’ host Levar Burton, who presented Houston with the award, shared that he had been a huge fan of hers since his college days at USC. Credit: East West Players/Instagram

She has written journalistically for the Los Angeles Times, American TheatreThe Rafu ShimpoPacific Citizen and the Kansas City Star; and for film and television with Columbia Pictures, PBS, and several independent producers. She co-produced the documentary Desert Dreamers (narration by Peter Fonda) and served as Multicultural Consultant for Disney for Hayao Miyazaki’s film Kiki’s Delivery Service. She served for six years on the U.S. Department of State’s U.S.-Japan Conference on Cultural and Educational Interchange, Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission and Japan-U.S. Bridging Foundation. She was Research Advisor for Contemporary British, Irish, andAmerican Poetic Drama and Theatre, Aoyama Gakuin Daigaku, Tokyo, for two years. Her works are archived in The Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., and in The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, Calif.

Houston is also an inaugural Associated Faculty Member of the USC Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religions and Culture. She is a member of the Dramatists’ Guild, Writers Guild of America-West, the League of Professional Theatre Women, and the Alliance of Los Angeles Playwrights. She serves on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Critical Mixed Race Studies. She is a Fulbright Specialist Scholar and is developing a Fulbright project with Aoyama Gakuin Daigaku.

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Photos: Denise Burse, Chinaza Uche and More in Kimber Lee’s “brownsville song (b-side for tray)” at Seattle Rep through April 24
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Click here for the Lia Chang Articles Archive and here for the Lia Chang Photography Website.

Lia Chang. Photo by Garth Kravits

Lia Chang. Photo by Garth Kravits

Lia Chang is an award-winning filmmaker, a Best Actress nominee, a photographer, and an award-winning multi-platform journalist. Lia has appeared in the films Wolf, New Jack City, A Kiss Before Dying, King of New York, Big Trouble in Little China, The Last Dragon, Taxman and Hide and Seek, which will screen at the Disorient Film Festival in Eugene Oregon in April. She is profiled in Examiner.comJade Magazine and

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