Now that the totally non-curated Hollywood Fringe Festival has once again come and gone, I’m fondly remembering a component of one of its predecessors, the Edge of the World Theater Festival — a gathering of supposedly edgy theater events that appeared annually for several years, from 1999 through the first few years of the 21st century.
EdgeFest was considerably more curated than the Hollywood Fringe, and one example of that was that it actively encouraged plays about Los Angeles through a program called the LA History Project.
Nowadays, most of the most prominent LA theatrical institutions — from Center Theatre Group to the Fringe — don’t pay much attention to LA subjects per se. But that doesn’t mean that LA-specific plays aren’t being produced. I conducted my own little LA play festival this weekend by seeing Bronzeville, revolver and Sweet Karma.
For me, the biggest revelation was Bronzeville, produced by Robey Theatre Company at Los Angeles Theatre Center. Its premiere in 2009 attracted encouraging reviews and an Ovation nomination for its writers, Tim Toyama and Aaron Woolfolk. But I hadn’t seen it back then. I was out of town for most of its run. So I was delighted to hear that it would return this year, giving me another chance to catch it.
Still, I wasn’t expecting it to be as much of a revelation as it is.
It takes place in 1942-45, after most of LA’s Japanese-descended population had been forced into internment camps farther from the West Coast, out of a fear that Japanese spies lurked among the locals. Thanks primarily to East West Players, I’ve seen plenty of plays set in those camps. But I had never seen any that centered on a sociological phenomenon that occurred in Little Tokyo after the Japanese Americans left — many of their homes were rented to African Americans who were moving from the South for wartime jobs.
Little Tokyo — already a residential area for non-whites — suddenly had a lot of empty homes that could be filled by other non-whites, as opposed to the many neighborhoods in LA where non-whites weren’t welcome. And so, for three years, the former Little Tokyo became a largely black neighborhood known as Bronzeville. Then, after the war ended, the Japanese Americans began the process of transforming Bronzeville back into Little Tokyo.
Think about this situation for about 30 seconds, and you can probably sense the drama inherent within it. But Toyama (who is Japanese-American) and Woolfolk (who is African-American, with professional experience in Japan) raise the stakes even higher.
Their fictional black family the Goodwins have barely settled into their new Bronzeville digs when they discover that one of its previous inhabitants, a young man named Hide (“Henry”) Tahara (Jeff Manabat), has been hiding upstairs, after refusing to register for the camps.
Fortunately for Henry, the Goodwin matriarch — an elderly ex-slave known as Mama Janie (CeCelia Antoinette) — is on hand to overrule the inclination of her older son Jodie (Dwain A. Perry) to turn Henry over to the authorities. She points out that her own uncle was a runaway slave who was turned in and met a dire fate as a result.
So Henry continues hiding in the house, until the family’s younger son Felix (Aaron Jennings) arranges for him to work as a supposedly Chinese-American photographer at the local jazz club where Felix himself has found a job as a musician.
Meanwhile, Jodie and his wife Alice (Kellie Dantzler) are shocked to discover that signs of a romance are beginning to glimmer between Henry and their daughter “Princess” (Iman Milner).
This is director Ben Guillory’s third take on the play. In between the 2009 original and the current revival, he also took a troupe to a weekend of performances in the interpretive center at the Manzanar park in east-central California, near the site of the famous World War II-era internment camp.
Guillory has polished the production to a fine-grained consistency. It packs a powerful punch. Let’s not overlook a brief but poignant appearance by Dana Lee as Henry’s father, or Dave Iwataki’s masterful music and sound design.
However, although I’m grateful for its return and I appreciate the extreme intimacy of the LATC Theatre 4 where it’s again taking place, isn’t it time for Bronzeville to move up to a larger venue, where the actors could be paid on an Equity contract?
A natural move would be to East West Players, whose home is located in the same neighborhood where the fictional events took place. But perhaps that’s too close to LATC, in terms of drawing in new audiences. Furthermore, let’s face it, the group’s David Henry Hwang Theater, with its relatively narrow stage and lack of a proper rake in the audience section, isn’t exactly the warmest or most flexible midsize venue in town
Why not the Kirk Douglas? Center Theatre Group artistic director Michael Ritchie’s initiative to bring productions from LA’s smaller theaters into the Douglas began with a Robey co-production of Permanent Collection, but that was more than seven years ago. Enough time has passed that I don’t think anyone would look askance at another Robey co-production there, especially if it’s Bronzeville, which could help Center Theatre Group return to its long-lost identity as a company that cares about stories and subjects from within its own community.
I have just one suggestion that might help this play make its transition. The script currently opens with a scene involving a character who never re-appears and also closes with a scene involving a different character who appears only then. I don’t want to give away what’s happening in that final scene, but the play could benefit with a rewrite in which the character who appears in the first scene is the same character who now appears at the end..
While the playwrights think about that, let’s hope that potential producers from larger theater companies are among those who see this play in its current incarnation at LATC.
**All Bronzeville production photos by Tomoko Matsushita.
Bronzeville, Los Angeles Theatre Center, Theatre 4, 514 S. Spring St., LA. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 3 pm. Also Thu July 18 8 pm, Sat July 20 3 pm, Sun July 21 7 pm. Closes July 21. www.robeytheatrecompany.com/events.php#bronzeville. 213-489-7402.
Chris Phillips’ revolver, at Celebration Theatre, isn’t about LA specifically, but it is mostly set in West Hollywood, which is part of LA County and “Greater LA.” In fact, has a play ever made a bigger deal out of its locale’s appearance on a map? When the boundaries of West Hollywood are highlighted on a map, points out Phillips, the shape of the city resembles — yes, a revolver, with the long barrel of the gun pointing eastward along Santa Monica Boulevard, a grip centered around San Vicente and a trigger jutting eastward just south of Melrose.
Unless I blinked and missed it, I didn’t see this visual phenomenon spelled out on a map in the theater, which is a little surprising. But then the exact meaning of why the play is titled revolver isn’t exactly spelled out either, beyond the fact that a revolver figures in just about every scene and that play might be said to “revolve” around that image.
But this isn’t a gun control play — or a gun advocacy play, or a play that concludes that West Hollywood itself is potentially deadly, like a revolver. Its main subject is forgiveness or its lack. It explores how gay men respond to grievous insults and injuries, from fellow gay men as well as from straight bullies.
It manages this over the course of six largely unrelated vignettes. These playlets range in style from realism about West Hollywood characters a few years ago (don’t look for anything that reflects any recent Supreme Court decisions) to two scenes that are set in a Christian afterlife instead of West Hollywood. Except for a little confusion resulting from some voiceovers that are difficult to decipher at the top of the show, the pieces are performed with precision and power — and the cumulative effect of seeing these various responses adds up to a sum greater than its parts in Ryan Bergmann’s staging, choreographed by Janet Roston.
It’s a fitting valedictory for the final show in the current Celebration space and also in the company’s current 30th anniversary season, and revolver should make its audience members eager to follow the company to its next destination.
revolver, Celebration Theatre, 7051B Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Closes July 27. www.celebrationtheatre.com. 323-957-1884.
Has there been a more distinctive, dramatic personal saga in recent LA history than the odyssey of Haing Ngor — from doctor to Cambodian holocaust survivor to immigrant to Academy Award-winning actor to murder victim?
Sweet Karma, a Grove Theater Center production, was inspired by Ngor’s saga, but playwright Henry Ong carefully fictionalized it with different names. The Ngor character here (Jon Jon Briones) is named Vichear.
Naturally, this raises a lot of questions in my mind — and probably a lot of other spectators’ minds — about what is fiction, what isn’t, whether this event or that remark actually was drawn from the real-life story of Haing Ngor. No program notes help clarify these matters, so if they really nag, you’re probably going to be reading the Ngor article in Wikipedia soon after you get home — if not trying to locate a copy of Ngor’s memoir.
The story identifies Vichear as having been plagued by a couple layers of survivor’s guilt. Not only did he survive and become famous as a result of playing another survivor in a Hollywood movie, but he also suffered pangs of guilt over the death of his wife during childbirth, while the couple was in one of Pol Pot’s camps. He was trying to disguise the fact that he was a gynecologist — fearing that if he were identified as a doctor, both he and his wife would probably have been killed by the anti-intellectuals within the Khmer Rouge. But as a result, he felt helpless as his wife lay dying.
Yes, I looked this up in Wikipedia when I got home, and the part about his wife dying in childbirth is accurate. But I couldn’t quickly find out whether what was seemingly the most implausible scene in Sweet Karma was based in fact — when Vichear and his wife make a conscious decision to have a baby, even though they’re already in the most desperate straits, as prisoners in the camps.
At any rate, Ong and director Kevin Cochran’s cast create some scenes that nicely evoke the mixed feelings of a character who lived a life that many observers might have regarded as a remarkable triumph. At other times, however, Ong becomes too caught up in noting the relationship of the concept of karma to Vichear’s story. The karma here never seems as “sweet” as the title suggests. I wish the play might have filled in a few more of the details of Ngor’s actual story instead of pondering the role of karma in that story.
Sweet Karma, Grove Theater Center, 1111-b W. Olive (but you can also approach from Magnolia Blvd), in George Izay Park, Burbank. Closes July 20. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 3 pm. www.gtc.com. 800-838-3006.