Writing plays is usually a more collaborative art than, say, writing fiction or poetry or criticism.
Naomi Iizuka, however, takes this behavior to extremes. In order to write 3 Truths, the “bridge play” of Cornerstone Theater’s Justice Cycle, she adapted elements of seven other plays by five other playwrights, after sitting for hours in “story circles” with groups from various communities, as well as one-on-one interviews with individuals.
But then that’s the nature of a Cornerstone “bridge play.” 3 Truths is the culmination of a cycle that already brought forth Michael John Garcés’ Los Illegals (about immigration justice) in 2007, Julie Marie Myatt’s Someday (about reproductive justice) in 2008, KJ Sanchez’s For All Time (about criminal justice) later in 2008, and Julie Hébert’s Touch the Water (about environmental justice) in 2009. All of these incorporated contributions from L.A. residents who are particularly involved in the topics under discussion.
To help unite all of those far-flung sources in her bridge play, Iizuka borrowed a narrative skeleton from Aeschylus’ Oresteia — the ancient Greek trilogy about post-Trojan War turbulence within the royal family of Argos. But 3 Truths sets that venerable story in contemporary L.A.
The individual plays in Aeschyus’ trilogy are Agamemnon, The Choephori or The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides. In Iizuka’s version, the three parts of the play are identified as the first, second and third “truths” — and, according to a Catholic priest character in act 3, these consist of “my truth, your truth and the truth.”
“The Justice Cycle covered a lot of ground, a lot of issues,” Iizuka says. “It needed a structure that was flexible but strong enough to withstand all these adaptations. I tried mapping out all these themes, but it didn’t come together until the Oresteia burbled up to the surface.”
On April 19, as Iizuka’s process was approaching its home stretch, I attended a community reading of the first two acts of the play at Cornerstone’s downtown headquarters. About 50 people sat in one large circle for the reading, with parts assigned somewhat randomly — and not necessarily to the actors or community members who would play those roles in the production. Judging only from the sound of the voices during the reading, it was difficult to distinguish between Cornerstone’s professional ensemble actors and the amateur community-based readers. No one was noticeably hesitant or clumsy.
After the reading, about half the group stayed and offered “value-neutral questions” and then a few opinions to director Garcés and Iizuka. Some of the comments reflected a deep knowledge of the textual raw materials, with very precise references to how particular details fit together. Still, one uninformed but unafraid questioner asked, quite simply, “What is the Oresteia?” — which might have sounded a little odd in this context, but of course some members of the audience will probably ask the same question. Garcés quickly provided a few of the basic plot points.
Actually, near the beginning of Iizuka’s script, a scene briefly covers the same expository material, within the context of a L.A. high school class that’s studying the Oresteia. Although such an assignment might sound a little advanced for most high school classes, Iizuka notes that the students are members of the chorus, in Greek terms. One function of the chorus is to tell the story — and the back-story. “We’re making sure everyone is in the same room together,” she says. “My hope is that if you don’t know the Oresteia, we might inspire you to go back to it.”
The principal modern-day L.A. characters in 3 Truths correspond to analogues in the Greek original, many of which will be obvious to anyone who knows the Oresteia. In a few cases, though, the details are so different that even classics-oriented theatergoers might not make the connection.
A character named Gerald, for example, corresponds to the Herald who explains the Trojan War. But Iizuka’s Gerald also kills the play’s Hector, an act that would be more appropriate for someone who corresponds to Achilles. Unfortunately for Iizuka’s purposes, Achilles doesn’t show up in the Oresteia, but Iizuka wanted to represent the murder and its aftermath. Gerald was drafted for that purpose.
Even more of a stretch is an analogy between a homeless man in 3 Truths named Augustus and the original’s character of Aegisthus, who is most famous for being Clytemnestra’s adulterous lover and co-conspirator. In Iizuka’s text, Augustus isn’t sleeping or conspiring with the Clytemnestra-like character — Iizuka didn’t feel that was necessary in a play about different forms of justice. But Augustus speaks a monologue at the beginning of the second act of 3 Truths that corresponds somewhat to Aegisthus’ monologue near the end of Agamemnon.
Aegisthus’ monologue begins (in a Philip Vellacott translation) with “O happy day, when Justice comes into her own! Now I believe that gods, who dwell above the earth, see what men suffer and award a recompense.” Augustus’ tone is less gleeful — but equally convinced of the power of “a vast metaphysical system, a divine celestial ecosystem.”
Even more important than the connection to the Greek original was the mandate that the themes of all the previous Justice Cycle plays be represented in some form, along with the concerns of the community members who participated in them. After receiving the assignment in 2006, Iizuka read and attended all the plays.
She was struck by the differences among them, not only in subject matter but also in style. For All Time was inspired by real-life transcripts, but Touch the Water was “phantasmagoric,” Iizuka says. “They brought me to a world of characters I didn’t anticipate, and they moved me in ways I didn’t expect.”
The intensive work of conducting her own interviews and story circles with community members was concentrated in the second half of 2009. A teacher at UC San Diego, Iizuka says she was commuting to L.A. every week and sometimes twice a week during that period.
Is it frustrating for a playwright to be adapting the contributions of so many other sources instead of imagining something all by herself?
“I don’t feel frustrated,” Iizuka replies. “I have felt overwhelmed. I felt this responsibility toward people who have shared cataclysmic and intimate details from their lives. And I wondered how I could make the moving parts work together.”
In the end, “it’s very inspiring. I felt I dropped into something much, much bigger than myself. It’s more interesting than what my individual consciousness could have fashioned.”
Iizuka’s work is well known and produced with some frequency in America’s nonprofit theaters. Yet even though she lived in Los Angeles from 1994 until 2001, Cornerstone’s alfresco production of 3 Truths at the 400-plus-seat Watercourt in downtown L.A.’s California Plaza (opening the 2010 Grand Performances season) will be her first major L.A. production. Her 36 Views was produced at Laguna Playhouse in Orange County in 2005, but otherwise she has been represented in the area only by a few obscure sub-100-seat productions.
However, Iizuka’s first big L.A. splash (pun intended — water is a major scenic component of the Watercourt) will be very short-lived. After an initial press opening on June 3, there will be only five regular performances, on June 4 and 5 and June 10-12. Four years of work for only two weekends of performances?
“You really have to believe it’s about the process,” Iizuka responds. “A lot of people don’t believe it in their bones. I wrote it for many communities, and it has been an amazing ride. You can lose sight of that if you don’t remember why you’re doing it.”
3 Truths, Watercourt, California Plaza, 350 S. Grand Ave., downtown L.A. June 4,5 10, 11, 12, 8 pm. Free. No reservations taken; admission on a first-come, first-served basis. www.CornerstoneTheater.org.