Feeling blu at Company of Angels

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Xavi Moreno and Phillip Garcia in "blu"

Playwright Virginia Grise’s journey to the premiere of her blu – opening Oct 14 at Company of Angels in downtown LA — began in South San Antonio, Texas nearly a decade ago, while she was working as a middle school teacher. “I didn’t start out to write a play at all,” she recalls. “I was writing mainly between classes when I was teaching.  There was so much I was witnessing in the school and in the community that I was compelled to write about. I wasn’t chronicling my day or writing about anything specifically.  I was just writing as an emotional release.”

During this time, Grise was also performing in the community as a solo artist, working with site-specific installations. Not knowing exactly what do with her between-class creative output, she joined another woman in a 45-minute joint presentation of their mutual writings, focusing on the Texas public school system. Grise did not feel it hit the mark. “It was just two voices and I felt there was a whole world missing.”

Virginia Grise

Deciding she was at the time in her life where she needed more training, Grise came to LA in 2006, entering a graduate program at CalArts focusing on Writing for Performance, mentored by multidisciplinary artist Carl Hancock Rux. “When I started my first playwriting class at CalArts, I took my original writings from working in the school system in Texas. I actually brought in six different stacks of my writings. I admitted I didn’t know what they were but I thought they were related. I just wanted to read them.

“We read them together in class. It was from those readings that I began to identify who the voices were.  That’s when I realized I was writing a story about a family. This eventually evolved into the six characters who are in the play:  the mother, father, older son (blu), younger son, the daughter and the mother’s female partner.”

During this time, Grise was living in Boyle Heights and began another series of poems that were in response to the helicopters that constantly flew over the neighborhood. “It was different from what I experienced in Texas,” she says. “I found the great geographic expanse of Los Angeles makes the awareness of this kind of police activity more acute. It seemed like it was unrelenting, constant, very disturbing.  I started writing poems. I would do one every time I heard a helicopter overhead.”

Grise received her MFA in 2009. In her mandate to “push against the boundaries of traditional theater and live performance,” she has since collaborated with installation artists, choreographers, musicians, filmmakers and video artists to create original, genre-bending performances for the stage. Along the way she has garnered a 2010 Pierre Cardin Award in theater directing from the Princess Grace Foundation and was a 2009 Jerome Fellow at the Playwrights’ Center. She has performed nationally and internationally (at venues in Cuba and Rwanda). Her one-woman show The Panza Monologues, co-written with Irma Mayorga and originally published by Evelyn Street Press, has toured throughout the U.S. and was recently released as a performance DVD.

Alexandra Jimenez and Phillip Garcia in "blu"

In 2010, Grise enveloped her early Texas and LA writings within the stage play blu, which was a recipient of the Yale Drama Series Award, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Latino/a Playwriting Award and Alliance Theatre’s Kendeda Award. blu was published by Yale University Press last month. “The dialogue is very poetic because it all started as poetry,” says Grise. “Of course, the next step was to get it staged for real.”

The play is a co-production of La Colectiva Chorizo y Maguey (a creative partnership between Grise and playwright Ricardo A. Bracho) and Company of Angels. Grise describes the work as “an epic poem for the stage, chronicling the inner workings of a queer Chicana/o family as they live out their lives while police helicopters relentlessly circle their rooftop.” Told in a heightened poetic language of street talk, blu features a six-person ensemble, including Diana Delacruz, Romi Dias, Luis Galindo, Phillip Garcia, Alex Jimenez and Xavi Moreno.

“The family is dealing with many things,” says Grise. “blu is the oldest son, 18 (Moreno).  He is being heavily recruited to join the military.  I grew up in San Antonio. This is a town with five military bases.  The intensity of recruitment happens in the community when the children are very, very young, like when they are 12. And we are at war. There is also the problem of education and the effects of pre- and post- “˜no child left behind’ policies they are dealing with.

“The reality of a gay/lesbian household is important to the play. The two women are raising the family.  What is that? What does love look like? What does it mean in raising a family?  And, naturally, the presence of this new woman in the house definitely causes conflict in the home.”

Alexandra Jimenez and Romi Dias

Grise feels she has a strong ally in director Laurie Carlos, an Obie-winning actor who created the role of Lady in Blue in Ntozake Shange’s For colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf.  A two-time Bessie Award-winning choreographer, writer and director, Carlos has staged premieres of new work at such venues as the Guthrie Theater, Penumbra Theatre, Trinity Rep, Hyde Park Theatre, Pangea World Theater, and Pillsbury House Theatre.

“I met Laurie Carlos many years ago in Austin Texas, when I was involved in a series of  year-long writing workshops. Laurie came in and out of these workshops and I got to know her and her work. This is our first play collaboration. I felt Laurie was a good fit. From my experience with her, I believe she is a person who can put a dream world on stage.  The play for me is about the sister, Gemini (Jimenez), who spends a lot of time on the roof just dreaming.  I really wanted the play to be rooted both in real experiences ““ the war, the poverty, the failed school system  – and the dream world. And I felt Laurie could do that.”

Carlos, who is in the final tech rehearsal phase prior to blu’s first preview performance, says she has known Grise for more than a decade, “in Austin, San Antonio and at CalArts. Her creative voice is one that I support strongly.  And over the years, I have felt one of my strongest callings is to help artists develop their voices.  I am here at her invitation; and at this point, after three weeks of rehearsal, I think I understand the play more than she does. The story within this work exists in the present and the past, in memory and deep in the body. It has been my job to bring that out.

Xavi Moreno

“When I began rehearsals, I knew I had been given an outstanding ensemble. They exhibited great craft right from the beginning. These actors have come to the work with no resistance whatever. They have embraced my technique, the gestures, the movement.  They work.  They ask questions every night.  We answer one another with deep respect. This has been more than a pleasure and a blessing to work these actors in LA.”

While anticipating the premiere of blu, Grise and her partner Bracho are also working on The Mexican as Told by Us Mexicans, a staged adaptation/theatrical retelling, of The Mexican, a short story by Jack London.

blu, Company of Angels, 3rd Floor of the Alexandria Hotel, 501 S. Spring Street, LA 90013. Opens Oct. 14. Runs Thur-Sat at 8 pm; Sun 7 p.m. Through Nov. 13.  Tickets: $20 for general, $15 for seniors and $12 for students. www.companyofangels.org.

Julio Martinez

Julio Martinez

Julio pens the weekly LA STAGE Insider column for @ This Stage Magazine, as well as the monthly LA STAGE History column. He is a recurring contributor to Written By (the monthly publication of the Writer’s Guild of America) and is the TeleVision columnist for Latin Heat Entertainment. On air, he hosts the weekly Arts in Review program for KPFK 90.7 FM. An active journalist for over 30 years, Julio’s articles and reviews have appeared in Los Angeles Times Magazine, Daily Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, L.A. Weekly, Stage Raw, Backstage West, Westways Magazine, and Drama-Logue Magazine, among others.