The Lunch Lady has been a fixture in American pop culture for decades. There’s Chef on South Park, Lunch Lady Doris on The Simpsons and countless lunch ladies in teen movies and TV shows — most recently, perhaps, Marley’s mother on Glee. A few, like Chef, are a source of comfort and advice, but more often the Lunch Lady is cast as a villain or as the butt of cruel jokes.
In creating Lunch Lady Courage for Cornerstone Theater Company, playwright/Cornerstone ensemble member Peter Howard avoided discussions of all of these in an effort to “check the impulse to create heroes and villains.” Instead he focused Cornerstone’s usual “story circles” on the real-life experiences of the students, food service workers, teachers and administrators who participated in the making of the play.
What he found was a community with an urgent mission (to care for the education and well-being of children) that was often misaligned. Teachers, already pressured to weave educational miracles, Howard explains, are being asked to cede valuable learning time to “breakfast in the classroom” and nutrition periods. Both missions — learning and eating — are equally important to a growing child, and Howard describes the challenge today to be “seeing food as part of the school day, not as an interruption.”
Lunch Lady Courage is the third play in Cornerstone’s Hunger Cycle, a seven-year project examining all aspects of food in our culture. Cornerstone’s ensemble of artists identified a number of areas they wished to address, including restaurants, food and addiction, community gardens and institutional food service.
In the company’s search for the right institutional setting, public schools seemed a logical choice, particularly for Howard. He was taken by the complexity of the school food service situation. He sees three prongs to the issue: student tastes (schools want to give the students food that want to eat), school budgets (which have to pay for food and staff to make and serve it), and federal guidelines (the National School Lunch Act was signed into law in 1946 by Harry S. Truman and has been amended many times, most recently by President Obama). “Public education is the social justice issue of our time,” he says.
While the play was developed with input from schools all over Los Angeles, it is being performed at and features students (on and off the stage) from Los Angeles High School of the Arts (LAHSA), which uses theater as a pathway to all aspects of classroom learning. Howard wanted to do the play in an LAUSD-operated school — as opposed to a more flexible charter or private school — because he was interested in exploring the challenges and bureaucracies faced by a regular public school. LAHSA is one of six Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools that occupy the site of the former Ambassador Hotel between Wilshire Boulevard and 8th Street, three blocks west of Vermont Avenue.
The recent school principal, Esther Soliman, was familiar with Cornerstone and very supportive of the project, but the district and SEIU (the union representing cafeteria workers) officials had to be reassured that this was not a reality television production. All concerns were assuaged, and members of SEIU Local 99 even gathered for a story circle, contributing their experiences to Howard’s writing process.
Because most of the actors in Cornerstone community productions are people with regular jobs and commitments (as opposed to professional actors), scheduling Cornerstone rehearsals is always an exercise in juggling conflicts. Because some of the actors in Lunch Lady Courage are also high school students, scheduling this production has been particularly challenging for stage manager Nikki Hyde. The young actors carry a full academic schedule, play sports, prepare for CAHSEEs (California High School Exit Exam), have homework and tests and all the drama and excitement of teen life — and they have a professional play to rehearse.
On February 14, the group was a bit rambunctious. “Oh, Valentine’s Day,” director Chris Anthony realized, “that means candy!” They had to “peel the students off the ceiling, and the next day, scrape them off the floor,” she recalls. In spite of all the pressures in their lives, she says the students have displayed a remarkable professionalism. “Schools are a complex system,” explains Anthony. “There are rhythms in the life of a school that we have to deal with, and we try to reflect that life on the stage, too.”
Because theater is integral to the school curriculum at LAHSA, the students are equipped (their costume shop has eight sewing machines!) to help on all aspects of design and production. Hyde held a stage management workshop, and the designers each gave a workshop in his or her respective discipline and worked with students on the design and construction of the elements.
The student performers are joined on stage by four adults — three professional actors and one food service worker. The pros are Cornerstone ensemble members Page Leong and Bahni Turpin, plus Joel Jimenez, who is currently in residence with the company.
SEIU member Frank Boeheim participated in the story circle at Local 99 because “it was unusual to me that someone was interested in what I did for living and wanted to write a play about it.” He was asked to audition and was cast as a cafeteria worker in the play. Boeheim comes to rehearsal after a full shift in the cafeteria of Bethune Middle School in South LA. “It makes for a long, long day,” says Boeheim. “I am learning a lot of new things, but I don’t think I would choose acting as a career.”
An act of Courage
Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children is the foundation, the inspiration for Lunch Lady Courage, says Howard, although he does not see it as an adaptation. “And I think I have the right to say that, since I’m the writer,” he jokes. Cornerstone has a long history with Brecht, adapting Caucasian Chalk Circle and The Good Woman of Szechuan (twice!) — and Howard finds adaptation to be particularly appropriate for the company since one of its aims is to “bring unlike things together.”
The Cornerstone team used the Brecht play as a jumping-off point with students, and as an opportunity to study a great 20th century work. For example, they read the scene in which mute Kattrin stands on a roof and bangs her drum. Students were asked, “If you could bang your drum and be heard, what would your message be?” They discussed their responsibility to represent, on the stage, not just people like themselves but also students very different from themselves, and to do it in an authentic way. “If you’re an artist, you have a responsibility to say something,” Anthony says — a lesson she is passing on to these young people.
“Brecht was willing to be difficult — to himself, politically, theatrically,” Anthony says. “Things don’t line up neatly.” And Lunch Lady Courage is no different. “The characters and who they are and what they want”¦” Anthony trails off for a moment. “Sometimes life is too big.”
The students are tackling these complex ideas with Anthony’s guidance. She sees a beauty in the striving. They have learned to “sit and let things be difficult,” she explains. When a character doesn’t know what to do or say and silence falls, the young actors stay in that awkward moment and let the silence rest. After all, Anthony says with a laugh, they’re teenagers — they’re very familiar with “awkward.”
Lunch Lady Courage, Cornerstone Theater Company at Cocoanut Grove Theatre, Los Angeles High School of the Arts, 701 S. Catalina St, Los Angeles 90010. Opens Thursday. Thu-Sat 7:30 pm, through April 13. Tickets are pay-what-you-can. www.CornerstoneTheater.org. Select dates will include public events such as panels and community dialogues.
**All Lunch Lady Courage production photos by Kevin Michael Campbell.Â