For a playwright who has enjoyed some 70 productions of his 51 or 52 plays — he’s lost count — Tom Jacobson can take a moment to smile as two of his works go up over the same weekend. On Friday April 22, Circle X Theatre Company opens Jacobson’s The Chinese Massacre (Annotated) while, on Saturday April 23, Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA raises the lights on House of the Rising Son.
The theaters occupy side-by-side 99-seat spaces in Atwater Village. “It’s crazy there are two plays at once,” says Jacobson, nattily dressed for his day job at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles. “In fact, while you’re watching one, you’ll probably be able to hear a little of the other one through the wall.”
While the soundproofing is “pretty good,” says Jacobson, there is a lot of sound to proof. “In one theater there’s a riot going on with gunshots and screaming and you hear a tiny bit of that — very little, really. A train goes by now and then and that just makes you feel like you’re at the Public Theater in New York with the subway going by.”
The two theaters opened recently under the leadership of artistic directors Tim Wright of Circle X and Gates McFadden of EST/LA. Jacobson is a former EST/LA artistic director so he is on familiar turf — if not the building itself, the company. And he is pleased to have his productions open in Los Angeles. “We have the biggest and best acting pool in the world, and it’s much less expensive to put on a play here than in New York. I love the theater community in Los Angeles.
“You tend to get really excellent work and I live here, so I always like to have my first productions here. If they go to New York [as last year’s Ovation- and LA Weekly Award-winning The Twentieth Century Way did, traveling to the New York Fringe Festival], then fantastic; they’ll get a lot more attention and it’s much easier to get them off into the world.”
Jacobson notes his plays sometimes take a long time to get to the stage. Of the two about to open, Jacobson wrote House of the Rising Son first, about eight years ago. “I’m used to that. It allows me time to do a lot of refining.”
The Chinese Massacre (Annotated) was commissioned about five years ago by Circle X, which produced Jacobson’s Sperm a couple years before that. The company workshopped Massacre in 2008. “The play is annotated or footnoted during the production. Actors do asides, and those footnotes are either citing historical sources or commenting on the action in some way, creating a tie between the incidents in 1871 and the world today or how we think of what happened in 1871 today. So it creates an interesting bridge.”
Jacobson describes the Los Angeles of 1871. “There were 6,000 people living here, yet it was about as diverse as it is today. There were people from all over the world. Five hundred of the 6,000 were native French speakers. There was tension in the Jewish community between the French Jews and Prussian Jews, because the Franco-Prussian War happened earlier that year. We look back at that and say, wow, we have some of those same issues today and then look at how we are examining them.”
The action occurs in the plaza around Olvera Street where Los Angeles began. “The massacre took place in a street called Calle de los Negros which was translated into English much more roughly. It was a tiny place and people were really, really concentrated.”
The fighting began over a woman. “The Chinese and some Americans at the time referred to criminal organizations as companies, but they were also known as tongs and functioned as gangs or organized crime. There was a mix of legitimate and illegitimate businesses: saloons, opium dens, prostitution and gambling,” says Jacobson. “Some of these were legal, but the means by which individual companies maintained dominance included intimidation and violence, including gang hits.” Prostitutes were in effect sex slaves, sold to the company by their families or kidnapped.
“This particular woman was working for one of two companies and was kidnapped and married to a Chinese man in the other company. This gave him, and the company, legal control over her. The original company wanted her back. There was a shoot-out between the two tongs. A white man got in the middle of it and was killed. Then all the simmering tensions between the 200-member Chinese community and the broader community, who saw the Chinese as foreigners taking jobs away from Americans, descended on the Chinese community on Calle de los Negros. Nineteen men and boys were lynched over the course of one evening.”
Jacobson implements the asides or annotations in order to be like Brecht’s Epic Theater, in which the annotations create distancing. “That’s the conceit. Addressing the audience directly is meant to remind us we are in the theater watching a play, not true history. Brecht wanted the audience to become engaged intellectually, not emotionally, so he was trying to engage the head, not the heart. He had a political agenda doing that and since this is a play dealing with racial tension, there’s certainly a political edge to the content of it.”
Jacobson claims his work carries no political agenda other than an effort to get people to look at themselves and the city in which they live. “Its history is largely unexamined. People don’t tend to think there’s much history before Hollywood, when, in fact, there’s a very rich and fascinating 19th century history of Los Angeles. I want to call attention to that and think about recent racial tensions.
“I lived through the 1992 Rodney King insurrection and the racial tensions that led to that — it wasn’t that long ago. We can look back to the Chinese Massacre of 1871 as LA’s first race riot, but that’s only one of four. There was also the Zoot Suit Riots  and the Watts Riots in 1965. We have a history, probably more than most other cities, of race riots. Why is that? What does that mean to us today?”
It is a question Jacobson does not answer. “I want people to think about it and do their own self-examination. Can they just sit in judgment and say we’re better than that now or that’s not me?”
His employer, the Natural History Museum, helped immensely, he says. “Within it is the Seaver Center for Western History Research, which is one of the very best archives of LA history and material culture. In fact the museum is doing a permanent exhibition in a couple of years on LA’s history. The Chinese Massacre has come to prominence within that exhibition because it was a turning point in Los Angeles toward the rule of law.
“So the history department put all these records at my disposal and found amazing maps of Los Angeles and the plaza area. There’s a map from 1880, a few years after the massacre, and along Alameda Avenue every building was labeled. In other parts of town you would find a blacksmith’s shop or dry goods. But every building on Alameda for three blocks says Hs. of I.F., which stands for House of Ill Fame. So it was all prostitution along that stretch of Alameda. And that was Chinatown.” Jeff Liu directs The Chinese Massacre (Annotated).
New Orleans, Louisiana is not without its own seedy quarters, and Jacobson sets House of the Rising Son in a place where a man’s soul is what’s seedy. A scientist from New Orleans meets a younger man at an exhibition in Los Angeles. “In fact,” says Jacobson, “they have a very interesting evening where they tour several of the graveyards of LA at night. They hit it off so well he tells the younger man to come back to New Orleans to meet his family.” They leave the next day, smitten as they are.
“Not surprisingly, they encounter a lot of southern attitudes. There’s a lot of tension between these two guys and the scientist’s father and grandfather.”
This work hits closer to home for Jacobson. He and his partner are about 10 years apart, “a generational difference,” which he wanted to explore.
“These two gay men, 10-15 years apart, have grown up in slightly different worlds so their attitudes toward themselves and the broader world are somewhat different.”
The play is set during the Tennessee Williams Festival in New Orleans and, in a sense, is admittedly an imitation of Williams’ style. New Orleans is one of the nation’s most violent cities so, when compared to The Chinese Massacre (Annotated), it raises the question: Is House of the Rising Son as emotionally violent as Massacre is physically violent? Jacobson admits, “I have different emotional experiences watching each. I was at a rehearsal recently for House of the Rising Son, and I found myself moved in scenes that hadn’t moved me before. The relationships among all of these four men are very powerful.”
He touches on things that are close to his heart. “My partner and I have different attitudes toward ourselves and the broader world. I saw myself and some friends in the characters at that rehearsal and that touched me a great deal. The Chinese Massacre, I think, will move Angelenos by the terrible things that have happened in our city and some of the kindness one can experience during a crisis. In 1992 I saw people going out of their way to be kind to others when some very terrible things were going on nearby. In 1871 there were people who helped save Chinese who were trying to escape the violence. They would hide them in their basements or take them to jail just to keep them safe.”
Heroes, he calls them.
“I’m moved less by violence than I am by the response to it, the kindness people might express or the risks they might take on behalf of others. In House of the Rising Son we see kindness. We see people negotiating some very delicate emotional territory and taking care of each other while still trying to get what they want.” House of the Rising Son is directed by Michael Michetti.
Jacobson, a former co-literary manager of Theatre @ Boston Court and a founding member of Playwrights Ink, just finished a piece he says will be part of a trilogy. “I was fascinated by the Getty Villa as a venue. They don’t know I’m fascinated about it, but I thought, wow, I’d like to write something for the Getty Villa. I figured it was going to have to be a Greek play or a fake Greek play.”
He recalls seeing an exhibition at LACMA called Pompeii and the Roman Villa. “A villa was destroyed and covered up by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD. The home was entirely decorated with theater themes. The family that lived there apparently loved Greek comedies, judging by the artwork, furniture and murals.”
He imagined this family, obsessed with theater, mounting a new play on the afternoon of August 24, 79 AD when Vesuvius erupted, and they turn to the audience and say, “No, the show must go on! So the play I’ve written is about their production, deciding what it will be and putting it on. They actually do an adaptation of a Greek play which allows them to comment on a past Greek civilization and culture and that allows me, through the Romans, to comment on the Roman civilization.
“It turns around into a commentary on us today. That’s the first of three plays. The next one I have to write is the play they wrote. The one I just finished is called The Rosy Fingers of Dawn. The one they’re writing is called Menander’s Clytemnestra. They’re billing it as being written by the Greek comic playwright trying his hand at tragedy. Then the third one will be archaeologists in the 21st century finding the family.”
We can expect the first one in about five to eight years.
**All production photos by Shane William Zwiener
The Chinese Massacre (Annotated), presented by Circle X Theatre Company, opens April 22; plays Thur.-Sat., 8 pm; Sun., 2 and 7 pm; through May 28. Tickets: $25 (pay what you can all Sun. matinees). House of the Rising Son, presented by Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA, opens April 23; plays Thur.-Sat., 8 pm; Sun., 2 pm; through May 29. Tickets: $25 (pay what you can Thur., 4/28 and 5/5). Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Los Angeles; 323-644-1929 for either show or www.ensemblestudiotheatrela.org or www.circlextheatre.org. Free on-site parking.