LA theater wouldn’t be nearly as interesting without Spring Street.
I spent most of a warm spring day yesterday on Spring, first catching Cornerstone Theater’s production of Lisa Loomer’s new Café Vida at Los Angeles Theatre Center, then crossing the street to see Company of Angels’ L.A. Views V: April 29, 1992.
It was a highly concentrated dose of theater set in LA. And the view of LA from Spring Street depicts an LA that out-of-town playwrights seldom touch — which is to say, an LA that’s not all about the Hollywood industry.
Café Vida is an especially exciting production. Although it was inspired by the famous Homegirl Café, the downtown LA institution that Homeboy Industries uses as part of its mission to help gang-bangers find healthier lives, the play successfully avoids being a cloyingly inspirational piece about do-gooders doing good. The priest (Peter Howard) who runs this program is not the star of the show. Instead, Café Vida is a funny but ultimately sobering play about the challenges faced by a young woman as she navigates the Homegirl process.
As might be expected in a Cornerstone production, the play’s professional actors are joined on stage by several young adults who actually have gone through that Homeboys/Homegirls process, including Lynette Alfaro, who plays Chabela, the leading character. Although she has no previous training, Alfaro has a naturally commanding stage presence and holds our sympathies from her first few words.
Chabela’s antagonist from another barrio, a fellow Homegirl Café participant named Luz, is portrayed by Sue Montoya, an 18-year-old who’s also going through the real-life program. She has a cooler but equally authentic ability to seize our attention.
Felipe Nieto, 21, who “has worked at Homeboy Industries since age 16,” according to his bio, plays the only Homeboy who’s training with the Homegirls, and he’s perfectly in tune with the character’s description in Loomer’s script — “boyish, with a raunchy sense of humor that protects his sensitivity.” Jesse Gamboa, as Chabela’s unrepentant ex-con husband, has mastered the character’s tension and menace; he’s also a product of Homeboy Industries. Cornerstone appears to have cornered the market on budding acting talent within the Homeboy/Homegirl ranks.
Three weeks ago, without even thinking about the approaching Café Vida, I cited Loomer as one playwright who had written about class issues in an LA setting — in her Living Out at the Mark Taper Forum. In Café Vida, the actual clash of the classes isn’t so prominent, although we see a few café customers who are clearly from somewhere much higher in the 99% ranks than the leading characters are. But of course in the lives of Chabela and Luz and Rafi, poverty is a given — and with it, the usual accessories such as shortened formal educations and easy access to drugs.
Loomer has experience writing for Cornerstone; here is what I thought of her Broken Hearts, which Cornerstone produced in one of the other venues at LATC, in 1999. With Café Vida, she has clearly mastered the Cornerstone technique of creating fictional narratives from real-life stories.
She has more flexibility to shape her story than some of Cornerstone’s writers. No attempt is made to connect this narrative to a classic tale, as is often the case. And the fact that the names are fictionalized gave Loomer more flexibility to shape the story. She includes such non-realistic devices as singers (Magaly La Voz de Oro and Page Leong) who accompany Chabela and Luz as the sound tracks in their minds, a dream sequence, and moments of group movement choreographed by Ana Maria Alvarez (in addition to more realistic fight choreography by Edgar Landa).
Any mention of actual barrios that might raise gang-bangers’ hackles are loudly bleeped in Bruno Louchouran’s sound design.
Loomer also creates an initially marginal character named El Maiz (Shishir Kurup), who looks like a taciturn homeless man. But El Maiz suddenly erupts into a passionate monologue about the relationship between NAFTA and the increase of corn exports from the US to Mexico. He contends that this has diminished Mexico’s home-grown corn crops, which forces farmers there to turn to more profitable crops, such as the ingredients of illegal drugs, which then re-enter the US.
Cornerstone and/or Loomer probably felt the play had to mention some of the more macrocosmic forces that affect the microcosmic world that’s on display in Café Vida, especially considering that this is the first production in Cornerstone’s large Hunger Cycle, which will explore “hunger, justice and food equity issues” for a period spanning six years. So she came up with El Maiz, who packs most of this context into one speech, instead of trying to sprinkle these arguments in smaller doses throughout the play.
Kurup performs the monologue with a beautifully calculated crescendo, but I wonder if it serves this viewpoint for it to presented through the voice of a man who appears as if he’s on the margins of mental health (or, alternatively, as if he’s simply a magically-realistic, Brechtian device — a symbol instead of a man) However, it probably wouldn’t ring true if we heard these words through the voices of any of the more realistic characters.
Regardless of what you think about this brief interruption, the production as a whole coheres persuasively, as directed by Cornerstone artistic director Michael John Garcés. I missed 3 Truths in 2010, but otherwise I think I’ve seen all of Cornerstone’s major productions since Garcés took the helm of the company six years ago, and this is the best. Like too many Cornerstone shows, this one has a brief run — only two weekends remain. I suggest that anyone who’s hungry for a vital LA story told in compellingly theatrical terms should schedule a visit to LATC pronto.
Café Vida, Los Angeles Theatre Center Theatre 3, 514 S. Spring St., LA. Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Closes May 20. www.CornerstoneTheater.org. 866-811-4111.
***All Café Vida production photos by John Luker
Across the street from LATC, Company of Angels is also doing some of its finest work in years, in a production with the unfortunately unwieldy title L.A. Views V:April 29, 1992. The “V“ refers to the fact this is the fifth in an annual series, but the last part of the title is what counts — these are eight short plays set in LA on the day, 20 years ago, when extensive riots broke out.
The series begins with a glance at the medium through which most of the world witnessed the LA riots — TV. Nic Cha Kim’s Rise Up illustrates the scene off-screen, and then on-screen, as a local TV station covers the riots by sending its “weather girl” (Jully Lee) up into a helicopter for a bird’s-eye view. It can’t be easy for someone in a helicopter to accurately discern the ethnicities of rioters from above, but that’s what the anchorwoman (Rebecca Cherkoss) asks the “weather girl” to do. The anchorwoman expects this report will be a golden career opportunity for everyone involved in the station’s coverage.
The next five scenes take us down into the action on the streets. In Malik Burroughs’ Rodney & Ricky, a black attorney (Rafeal Clements) is torn between office duty and his relatives who are in the thick of the fight. Jonathan Ceniceroz’s Burning Palms takes us to two sets of neighboring apartment dwellers with a wide range of different perspectives on what’s happening. This play includes the production’s funniest concession to interest in Hollywood — one of the characters is a black stand-up comic who learns during the rioting that a Latino neighbor works for Comedy Central.
Mayank Keshaviah’s Switzerland covers a tense confrontation between strangers at a burrito stand. Gabriel Rivas Gomez’s Kicks displays a dispute between a mother and a son who brings home stolen shoes as riot loot. Gomez’s Rooftops illustrates a family of Korean immigrants trying to defend their business from an elevated sniper perch — most of the conversation is in untranslated Korean, which demonstrates some of the barriers that made matters worse that day.
Finally, the program returns to a location somewhat removed from the fray — first, in Julie Taiwo Oh’s Rioters or Cannibals, about a white couple in a living room, severely divided on the most appropriate way to react to what’s happening. Then the production ends on a more surreal note with Clean, by Michael Patrick Spillers, as two rioters escape to the presumed security of a celebrity cemetery, only to be confronted by a couple famous ghosts and then by real-life avengers from the rioters’ victims.
Often the redeeming factor of programs of short plays is that if something isn’t entirely convincing or engaging, we quickly move on. Here, however, the batting average is high enough that none of the plays feels like a waste of time. And the many set changes are facilitated by enlisting everyone in the large cast to depict rioters in between the scenes — it’s a convenient way to balance verisimilitude (many of the rioters did, after all, spend part of that day moving furniture through the streets) with the scenic needs of the plays.
The production’s lead director is the Company of Angels artistic director Armando Molina, who, coincidentially, played the leading role in Cornerstone’s and Loomer’s Broken Hearts across the street at LATC in 1999. It seemed fitting that Cornerstone’s Howard, who was also in that production of Broken Hearts and had just completed his matinee in Café Vida, crossed the street yesterday evening to see the Company of Angels production. It’s easy for theater practitioners to see each other’s work if it’s just across the street — another reason why I hope that Spring Street retains its vitality as one of LA’s most important theatrical centers.
L.A. Views V:April 29, 1992, on the third floor of the Alexandria building, 501 S. Spring St., LA. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 7 pm, through May 27. www.companyofangels.org.
***All L.A. Views V: April 29, 1992 production photos by Rafael Cardena
Another factor in LATC’s reputation as a major center of LA theatrical storytelling is that it’s usually the home of Playwrights’ Arena — the company that devotes all of its resources to new plays by LA writers.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that every Playwrights’ Arena play is set in LA. The setting for the group’s current production of Michael Premsrirat’s The Girl Most Likely To isn’t very well defined, but it appears to be closer to the Bay Area, where the real-life murder that inspired it took place in 2002, than it is to LA.
Gwen Araujo, a pre-operative transgender woman, was the victim in real life. As also depicted in the play, a young man had come on to her, thinking she was biologically female, and killed her after he discovered otherwise.
Araujo was a Chicana, but Premsrirat, who is half-Filipino and half-Thai, gave his character not only a Filipino background but also gave her mother a Filipino uncle who performed in the Philippines as a drag queen.
The stories of the teenager in the US (Tobit Raphael) and the great-uncle in the Philippines (Ramon de Ocampo) are set two decades apart from each other. The narrative switches back and forth between them with no revelation of how the stories are connected until after the intermission. This leads to a degree of unnecessary disjointedness, but once the connection is established, the play comes together as intended.
The ending is harrowing, but most of the play is laced with generally joyous scenes set in the Filipino club where the drag queen performs, which prevents the production from being as grim and gritty as you might expect. The performances reach out into the so-sharply-raked space of LATC Theater 2 with considerable success, under the direction of Jon Lawrence Rivera.
This production operates on Equity’s Hollywood Area Theater contract, so the actors are being paid above the 99-seat level that Playwrights’ Arena sometimes works on — yet another reason why theater people on every level should support The Girl Most Likely To.
The Girl Most Likely To, LATC Theater 2, 514 S. Spring St., LA. Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 3 pm., through May 20. www.thelatc.org. 866-811-4111.
***All The Girl Most Likely To production photos by Adam Blumenthal