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Honoring Martin Luther King Jr.: A Georgia Memoir

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Courthouse, Newton, Georgia

Georgia. Summer 1965, there were 17 of us walking in an orderly line, as directed by the Deputy Sheriff of Baker County. I recognized some of the faces from church and some were new to me. No one was talking. We didn’t know what to expect. We were all nervous and all wanting to appear strong.

Just a few moments earlier we had been on the sidewalk in front of the Baker County Georgia Courthouse walking carefully and singing freedom songs quietly. Some of us, I among them, had attempted to walk into the courthouse with the people who were going to try to register to vote.

I was a white, 18 year old college student from California working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. I was there to give witness and to support the people trying to register to vote.

Newton GA, the capitol of Baker County, was a poor town. Its red brick courthouse sat in the center of a small city block of unhappy grass, a telephone booth on the front lawn, and not much else.

We had been arrested for ‘disturbing the peace’ and “creating a public nuisance.” The jail ahead of us was a concrete box with openings where the windows were meant to be. The cells were metal bars of walls, divided into four, inside the concrete block structure.

Typically for the time of year the day was hot, dusty, and without a breeze. I looked at the others, looking for clues as to how to act. And I looked at the sheriffs, wondering what they were thinking and worrying that, as the only white person, I would get singled out for ‘special’ treatment, which might be worse than the others or it might be better, but in either case it would isolate me from the others and I didn’t want that.

We weren’t booked right away. Instead we were put directly into the cells. In the cell I was in people were curious about me. They all knew there was a white girl come to be a civil rights worker, but they didn’t all know me.

One woman, a very large and solidly strong black woman called AJ, was put in a cell by herself. She was known to the sheriffs and I thought they were afraid of her. I’d heard her speak in church and had heard her say she could paint a house in a day and pick cotton better than any man.

Our cell was crowded. We took turns lying down on the dirty, uncovered mattresses. June bugs, huge beetles, came in through the openings where the windows should have been and competed for room in the cell. The toilet was a hole in the corner. I thought not eating was a good idea and eagerly joined in when a hunger strike was called.

Each morning the Deputy Sheriff would come in with a plate for each of us with a large spoonful of grits, one slice of Wonder Bread and a tin cup of dark water he labeled “coffee.” Each evening he again brought a plate for each of us. Beans replaced the grits in the evening meal. Everything else stayed the same. That made it real easy to stay on the hunger strike.

But not AJ, she ate the plate of food brought to her and then we passed our plates through the bars to her and she ate most of ours.

We sang, we tried to sleep, and we talked. It was the beginning of my conscious understanding that while we all lived in the same geographical world and at the same time in history, there are a multitude of cultural worlds in the United States.

At first I did more listening than talking. There was so much to see and to hear and to think about. It was all consuming.

On about the third day my hair, which I had put up on my head and tied a scarf around, came down. I had no brush, no way to put it back up.

The Deputy Sheriff came into the jail with our usual morning plates and practically dropped the plates when he saw me. “You’re white!” he said.

I hadn’t realized he hadn’t known this already. It was an “aha moment’”for me as I realized his prejudiced belief system had interfered with his ability to see the person who was right in front of him.

“I don’t have another cell. What am I going to do?” he was genuinely concerned. I think for me, because from his point of view, how could I be okay with sharing a jail cell with “n…s.” (The word all the sheriffs used when they talked to any of us.) And concerned for himself as he was sure to get into trouble with his boss, Sheriff L. Warren Johnson.

L. Warren Johnson was a man so mean it was hard to believe. He used to boast that he’d killed 49 people. When he was younger he was part of a posse that had brutally tortured and then hanged a black man. That lynching trial went all the way to the Supreme Court in the notorious Screws Case.

I answered the deputy’s worries and said I would stay in the cell with my friends but that he needed to bring us food we could eat. I asked for fresh water with ice, for apples and, still being a teenager, I asked for cookies.

Unbelievably, he started to bring better food and he brought the water, the apples and cookies. I talked to him and was as friendly as I could be and still be honest.

During the time I was in jail my parents were understandably terrified. My mother and her friends decided they would call the Congress in Washington every day. Their message was, “Susan is in Baker County GA in a jail cell because she is doing the work the American government should be doing. What are you doing to keep her safe?”

One Congressman set up a daily telephone call with me. At noon the deputy sheriff would take me out of the cell and walk me across the street to the lone telephone booth in front of the Courthouse. I would wait outside, in the noontime sun, for the phone to ring. The routine was the same every day. He would answer the phone and then he would get me and tell me to go into the phone booth and that I should tell the Congressman I was okay. He would then walk me back to the jail.

The news of these daily phone calls got out and I became a spectacle for some of the local white men. They would wait for the sheriff to bring me out and then they would say terrible things to me.

Like in fairy tales, they looked as evil as they were mean. One stringy elderly man had stained teeth and mouth from chewing tobacco. Brown spittle would drool down his face as he was jeering me. Another, father and son I think, both had huge bellies that hung over their belts, belts that were needed because they had no hips and spindly legs.

The jeers were usually sexual. In any case, that’s all they talked about to me. Following civil rights/non-violence training I kept silent and didn’t engage with them in any way.

Then there was a day when the talk became menacing and violent, “you are going to end up at the bottom of Flint River and no one will ever find you.”

When I went back to the jail cell I thought about what I might do. I decided to talk to them. I was not putting anyone but myself at risk.

I had the confidence of a young woman who had been respectfully treated all her life and I thought, that if I really talked to the small group of miserable looking men who had been taunting me for days, it might make a difference.

Something about all the hatred was so wrong. Not wrong in the moral sense, which, of course it was, but wrong in the sense of being “off.”

How could it be that people of color could be trusted to raise white babies, be the nannies to white children, cook and care for white families in sickness and health, be on such physically intimate terms and still not be “clean” enough to share a public bathroom or drink at a public drinking fountain, or eat in a public restaurant?

The rules of Jim Crow were not only immoral they made no sense. To me it was a surreal world. I didn’t know most of the “rules” and so was forever doing something “wrong.”

The next day at noon the taunting started again. I was ready to do something else that broke the surreal rules of the Jim Crow South.

“You’re hurting my feelings,” I said in a soft and sad voice.

“We are?” I had startled them. I had broken my silence. My voice was unhappy but not angry. In that moment I began to make myself a person to them.

They were curious about me, in a bad way. They began to ask personal questions about my life. Mostly mean questions.

I talked about going to college and how I loved reading. I talked about California and movies and museums and beaches and parks and restaurants – all things they didn’t have in Baker County.

I told them black people could register to vote in California without any problem of any kind. In fact everyone was encouraged to vote.

At that moment I realized that, yes I could teach people how to read and I could walk with them into the courthouse to register to vote, but my real value was I was able to show everyone in the South, black and white, the possibility of a different world.

I do know that, in 1965, not one person of color was registered to vote in Baker County GA. As much as we demonstrated and sang and called Washington and went to jail, we never could get anyone registered to vote in that summer of 1965.

I also know that, in 2008, half of the registered voters in Baker County GA were African-American and that Obama carried the County when he won the Presidential election.

(Susan Cloke is a columnist for the Santa Monica Mirror, where her feature first appeared. We repost it here with permission.)

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Award-Winning Reporter David Sirota to Lead National Investigative Desk on Inequality for Capital & Main

The New York Times has credited Sirota’s Wall Street reporting for showing “that secrecy can hide high fees, low returns, excess risk and the identity of politically connected dealmakers.”

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LOS ANGELES — Capital & Main announced today that award-winning reporter David Sirota will lead a new national investigative desk for the California-based publication. His coverage will focus on the country’s historically high level of economic inequality, and the role of Wall Street, the private sector and government policy in perpetuating income disparity.

“I am thrilled to join one of the most promising young investigative publications in the country,” said Sirota. “There has never been a greater need for aggressive nonpartisan reporting that scrutinizes how corporations, lawmakers and the super-rich wield political and economic power. Capital & Main has established a reputation as an intrepid source of hard-hitting investigative reporting. I am excited to expand their capacity to shine a spotlight on how and why America now has the highest level of economic inequality in the country’s modern history.”

Sirota will join Capital & Main as a full-time reporter this summer, and prior to that will consult with the publication on editorial content and partnerships. The new position was made possible in part by a grant from the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation in Oakland, CA.

Capital & Main is a non-profit publication founded in 2013 and its reporting has been co-published by (among others) The Atlantic, Time, The Guardian, Reuters, The Daily Beast, Slate, Grist, Fast Company, The Huffington Post and Newsweek. Capital & Main’s reporting has won recognition from the Society of American Business Editors & Writers, the Southern California Journalism Awards and the Best of the West contest. Its reporters have been featured on (among others) PRI’s The World, WNYC’s The Takeaway, as well as on programs on KQED and KCRW.

Sirota has reported extensively on the relationship between money and politics, and has gained a reputation as a journalist willing to scrutinize public officials of both parties. During his career, he has become one of American journalism’s most authoritative experts on complex financial systems including taxes, hedge funds, private equity and public pensions. He is a two-time winner of the Best in Business award from SABEW – most recently for his coverage of the 2017 Republican tax bill and its controversial “Corker kickback” provision. Before that, he won recognition from the Columbia Journalism Review for his reporting on how conflicts of interest shaped how Democratic Gov. Dan Malloy’s administration oversaw a proposed health-care merger. Sirota has also won Ithaca College’s Izzy Award and has been a finalist for UCLA’s Gerald R. Loeb Award and Syracuse University’s Mirror Award.

The New York Times has credited Sirota’s Wall Street reporting for showing “that secrecy can hide high fees, low returns, excess risk and the identity of politically connected dealmakers.” In one of its awards, SABEW said Sirota has produced “original, tenacious reporting that displayed a mastery of scouring documents, analyzing data and holding public officials accountable.” The legendary late columnist Molly Ivins said, “Sirota is a new-generation populist who instinctively understands that the only real questions are ‘Who’s getting screwed?’ and ‘Who’s doing the screwing?’”

“David Sirota is one of the finest investigative reporters in the country, and he promises to take Capital & Main’s reporting on inequality and related issues to a whole different level,” said Capital & Main board member Rick Wartzman, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, Los Angeles Times business editor and the author of four books, including The End of Loyalty: The Rise and Fall of Good Jobs in America. “David’s fearless approach to holding the powerful to account is precisely what we need at this moment in time.”

From 2014 to 2018 Sirota led International Business Times’ investigative reporting team, where he broke major stories on how President Trump’s top adviser evades ethics laws as he shapes policies that could enrich his firm; CFPB chief Mick Mulvaney’s ties to the financial industry — and how he pressured regulators to back off predatory lending rules at the same time he was raking in cash from payday lenders; how Equifax lobbied against consumer protection rules just before its huge data breach; and how chemical companies that spewed toxins after Hurricane Harvey had worked to reduce safety regulations in the lead-up to the disaster.

In 2014, Sirota’s investigative series for PandoDaily about public broadcasting compelled a PBS flagship station to return a $3.5 million contribution from a hedge fund billionaire. That same year, Sirota’s investigative reporting about pensions for PandoDaily and then for International Business Times led the New Jersey state government to open a formal pay-to-play investigation and to divest state holdings in a venture capital firm. Sirota’s reporting for International Business Times also led San Francisco officials to delay a proposed $3 billion investment in hedge funds.

“We have been longtime admirers of David’s work, and couldn’t imagine a better fit for our reporting on inequality,” said Capital & Main publisher Danny Feingold. “David will give us the capacity to break important national stories on one of the country’s great existential threats.”

Sirota is also the author of two New York Times best-selling books, Hostile Takeover and The Uprising, as well as Back to Our Future, which became the basis for the National Geographic Channel’s miniseries “The ’80s: The Decade that Made Us.” He appears frequently on MSNBC and CNN, and is the host of a podcast on economic, political and social issues.

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Concert for Martin Luther King Jr.

The Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles’ Wednesday concert reflects on M.L. King Jr.’s times, struggle and sacrifice, with the orchestra’s musical setting of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

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Bobbi Murray

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Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles.

Today, April 4, marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death by an assassin’s attack in Memphis. The social justice leader had traveled there to support a strike by sanitation workers, who toiled long hours in sweltering heat for abysmal pay — a workforce that was virtually 100 percent black and whose work status would later be described as “the lowest of the low” by a former Memphis city council member.

“Fifty years ago, Dr. King was organizing with sanitation workers demanding a decent living wage, safe working conditions and recognition of their humanity and dignity,” William D. Smart, a former organizer of Los Angeles port truck drivers and the current CEO and president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Southern California, told Capital & Main.

“Today, we are organizing with L.A. Port warehouse workers and truck drivers with the same demands.”

Smart is part of an April 4 celebration at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion hosted by the SCLC and the Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles, the largest African-American-majority orchestra in the nation. The Wednesday concert event reflects on King’s times, struggle and sacrifice, with the orchestra’s musical setting of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

It connects solidly with present-day events in the multi-choral work by Atlanta-based composer Joel Thompson, The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed.

The piece is performed in seven movements to mark the final words of seven unarmed African-American men killed by police or vigilantism.

“As we commemorate Dr. King’s sacrifice,” Smart said, “it’s not beyond us [to know] that while some progress has been made, [it’s] not nearly enough, so the struggle for economic and racial justice continues.”

Event tickets are free but may be scarce now that supporting organizations have been distributing them for the past several days. Doors open 5 p.m. at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown Los Angeles, with a silent tribute at 6:01 p.m. The program starts at 7 p.m. Contact ICYOLA for tickets at 213-788-4260 or www.icyola.org


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A Spiritual Mystery Play Fails to Enlighten

Yusuf Toropov’s drama, set in a contaminated, cancer-ridden community, involves a publisher and his brother — a priest struggling against the local archdiocese.

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Deborah Klugman

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Ann’Jewel Lee and Matthew Gallenstein. (All photos by Darrett Sanders)

Directed by Chris Fields, Yusuf Toropov’s An Undivided Heart, co-produced by the Echo Theater Company and the Circle X Theatre Co., is an aspiring work that aims to be deep but doesn’t get there.

The play, running at the Atwater Village Theatre, unfolds on several levels. First, it tells the story of a young Catholic priest who must decide whether or not to publicly expose the pedophiles among his fellow clerics. Second, the work deals with our human struggle to understand why bad things happen with seeming random cruelty (a conundrum whose answers are regularly dispensed by spiritual leaders of all faiths, not very satisfactorily). On yet a third level, the play seeks to express the paradoxical wonder and mystery of life, with an assist from the supernatural.

That’s a lot to cover in a little over two hours and, while the production is handsomely staged, its ambitious narrative is diminished by dangling threads, one major improbable setup near the end and too many bits of opaque dialogue.

Tim Wright, Alison Martin and Alana Dietze.

The setting is Holbrook, Massachusetts — a community whose residents have been exposed to contaminants, so cancer is rampant — in the summer of 1992. The story revolves around two brothers, both good guys: Mike (Matthew Gallenstein), a local priest who’s written a revelatory book that his superiors want him not to publish, and Max (Tim Wright), an editor, who’d like to help his brother proceed.

When Max arrives at some sort of civic facility (the background particulars of this scene are unclear), he promptly tangles with an angry pregnant clerk named Lynne (Alana Dietz). A few minutes into their altercation, she goes into premature labor, and he rushes her to the hospital — the beginning of a nurturing romance.

Mike, meanwhile, is having strange dreams involving a burning typewriter and a cryptic little girl (Ann’Jewel Lee) who appears to him brandishing a dead cat. The same young person manifests in the dreams of Janice (Tracey A. Leigh, alternating with Jennifer A. Skinner), Max’s Buddhism teacher, who is fond of posing riddles. Her favorite: If I am preparing to slice a cat in two, how would you prevent me from doing it?

The narrative shifts between Mike’s struggle with his archdiocese, personified by its Cardinal (John Getz, alternating with William Salyers) and Lynne’s problems with her dying mom Ruth (Alison Martin, alternating with Sigute Miller), a devout Catholic still in denial over her son’s abuse by a priest when he was a youth.

These two storylines are interposed with the baffling dream sequences and Max’s (and later Mike’s) sessions with the inscrutably smiling Janice and her eschatological brain teasers. One crucial scene that leads to the dramatic climax has Mike looking to entrap an abusive priest (Jeff Alan-Lee, alternating with Jesse Bush) by attending confession with him and pretending to be a pedophile himself. The interchange, in which the priest probes for salacious details, is awkwardly plotted and escalates into over-the-top melodrama.

Cricket Myers’ superlative sound design hints at the depth and scope that the playwright himself perhaps had in mind but was unable to attain. Amanda Knehans’ set is an effective arrangement of wooden beams, tables and chairs that lighting designer Rose Malone smartly shades with a reddish-orange chroma, like the hues of hell. Elsewhere, she spotlights the players well.

Wright’s warm and empathetic Max is highly likable, and he keeps you interested in the scenes he’s involved with. Getz is appropriately unctuous as the Cardinal, and Martin draws a richly textured portrait of a not terribly educated housewife, who, buffeted by adversity, still clings to her faith. Michael Sturgis steals the limelight as a singing, simpering cleric. A couple of the other lead performances need refining.

Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Los Angeles; Mon., 8 p.m.; Fri.- Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m.; through April 22. www.EchoTheaterCompany.com


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Recounting the Japanese-American Internments in a Musical

Stamped by their government as enemy aliens, the Kimura family is uprooted from their home and re-housed in a barracks-like setting where they are treated like criminals.

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Janelle Dote and George Takei. (All photos by Michael Lamont)

Produced by East West Players at the Japanese American Cultural Center, Allegiance features noted performer-activist George Takei, and draws inspiration from his personal experience in a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II.

One of the more shameful, racially-motivated episodes in U.S. history, the forced internment of approximately 120,000 people of Japanese descent commenced in February 1942 on the executive order of President Franklin Roosevelt, and only terminated seven months after Japan surrendered and the last of 10 relocation centers shut its gates.

The internees, two-thirds of whom were American citizens, were stripped of their property and dignity, and required to fill out trick questionnaires to assess their loyalty. Failure to comply or give the politically correct response often resulted in imprisonment. Young men of draft age filled out a separate form, indicating whether they were willing to serve in the military — in a segregated unit. Some said yes, others did not. The questionnaire — how to respond and even whether or not to do so — further rent an already divided and disheartened community.

Allegiance aims to recount these injustices, and it does so in a stirring and entertaining way. Directed by Snehal Desai, with music and lyrics by Jay Kuo, and book by Marc Acito, Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione, it’s a high-caliber musical melodrama that relays history as it impacts on the fictional Kimura family. Uprooted from their home, re-housed in a barracks-like setting where they are treated like criminals, members of the family are torn further apart when father and son bitterly fall out over whether to pledge loyalty to a government that has stamped them as enemy aliens.

At the top, Takei plays an elderly retired soldier, Sam Kimura, who receives news of the death of his sibling, from whom he’s been estranged for years. That prompts him to recall his youth as the son of a prosperous, widowed farmer (Scott Watanabe) in Salinas, California. Sammy (Ethan Le Phong) is his family’s first college graduate, and dearly beloved by his elder sister Kei (Elena Wang).

The scenario darkens as the family and their neighbors are packed off to Wyoming’s barbed-wired Heart Mountain Relocation Center. Eventually, Sammy joins the army and distinguishes himself in battle, while his future brother-in-law, Frankie (Eymard Cabling), angrily challenges the government and goes to prison. So does Sammy’s dad for his defiant answers to the questionnaire. Father and son never reconcile.

Kuo’s 26 songs are a euphonious mix of ballads, upbeat dance numbers (choreography, Rumi Oyama) with a terrific 1940s swing, and elegiac melodies. Despite the weighty theme, the show’s pace is brisk, as the music sweeps the narrative to its poignant conclusion. The vocals, solo and ensemble, are strong across the board, with Le Phong’s powerful lyric tenor soaring above others, especially in his rendering of the ethically-themed “What Makes A Man.” A live 11-piece orchestra, under the musical direction of Marc Macalintal, lends superlative support throughout.

The non-musical aspects of the performances may not go deep, but like the story they’re telling, they never ring false. Special kudos to Jordan Goodsell, who so effectively portrays every nasty white bully and bigot the targeted Japanese-Americans encounter.

JACCC’s Aratani Theatre, 244 S. San Pedro Street, Los Angeles; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; no performance March 18; through April 1. AllegianceMusical.com.


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“Happiest Song” Stage Production Hits Sour Notes

Playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes pays special homage to the folk music, food and familial culture of the Puerto Rican community, but her story winds through a mountain of prosaic exposition.

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Deborah Klugman

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Peter Pasco and Vaneh Assadourian. (Photo: Gio Solis)

The Happiest Song Plays Last ends happily for its pivotal characters —and also, perhaps, for discerning theatergoers, who can’t wait to flee this lemon of a production.

Produced by the Latino Theatre Company and directed by Edward Torres at the Los Angeles Theater Center, this is the final installment in Quiara Alegría Hudes’ Elliot trilogy. (The two earlier titles were Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue and Water by the Spoonful, produced by Center Theatre Group at the Kirk Douglas Theatre and Mark Taper Forum, respectively). Here, the playwright pays special homage to the folk music, food and familial culture of the Puerto Rican community. She also spotlights the current protest movements on the left (in the U.S., Mexico and Puerto Rico), tips her hat to the Arab Spring, critiques the American health-care system, and alerts us to the careless slaughter of Iraqi civilians by American soldiers and the problems of Iraqi expatriates. And that’s just the background stuff.

The story begins in 2010. As in Water by the Spoonful, it revolves around the fortunes of two cousins, who stay in contact via email: Elliot (Peter Pasco), an Iraqi war vet turned actor, and Yaz (Elisa Bocanegra), a music professor now living in poverty-blighted North Philadelphia, where she cooks for, and otherwise assists as many of her struggling neighbors as she can.

Elliot (who was played by a different actor in Water by the Spoonful) has undergone a transformation. In Spoonful, the character walked with a pronounced limp, the result of a war injury, and spoke with someone’s erroneous idea of how Philadelphians talk. Here, however, he’s been miraculously healed and is as spry as any athletic 20-something. Fortune has smiled on him; hired as a film’s combat consultant because of his military experience, he’s now starring in a movie about the Iraqi conflict, replacing the original lead who proved to be too truculent and unfit. His friends include Shar (Vaneh Assadourian), a young American actress of part Middle Eastern descent, and Ali (Kamal Marayati), a native Iraqi who’s emigrated with his family to Jordan for a better, safer life.

The three shoot their takes and chat about their pasts and news of the Arab Spring, which Elliot is itching to observe first-hand. Meanwhile Yaz, glimpsed in her kitchen amidst a pile of pots, is contemplating a fling with Agustín (Al Rodrigo), a guitarist and longtime married friend who wants her to have his child. She’s also playing mother hen to Lefty (John Seda-Pitre), a mentally displaced homeless person who addresses her as “mom” and relies on her for emotional support as well as for food and sometimes shelter.

Shifting between narratives, the play winds through a mountain of prosaic exposition as the characters talk about where they’re coming from and where they’d like to be (or in the case of Yaz, about neighbors and acquaintances whom we never see). The emails between the two cousins are about as exciting as the ones you may have received from your accountant cousin in Buffalo. Under Torres’ direction, the performances, which can often salvage and even elevate a so-so drama to great heights, lack texture and credibility. Only Marayati garners empathy as a kind and open man looking to bridge cultures and build friendships.

The staging (scenic design by Se Hyon Oh) does not help. The desert scenes are played out on the floor of the proscenium, without an effective backdrop to add ambience. The kitchen, always visible, is positioned upstage on a rise, in a cramped space that allows for little movement and makes for poor visibility. All I could see of Bocanegra much of the time was her back.

The best moments in the production are the musical interludes played by accomplished Puerto Rican guitarist Nelson González.

LATC, 514 S. Spring St., downtown Los Angeles; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; Mon., 7:30 p.m.; through March 19. Thelatc.org.


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The 2018 Oscars Are Woke, But Hollywood Can Get Woker by Recalling Its Past

In the Golden Age of Hollywood, producers knew that social issues sold tickets. It’s a lesson the film industry might be ready to re-learn.

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Universal Pictures/Alamy

At first glance, this year’s Academy Awards ceremony and nominations seems as woke a lineup as the Oscars has ever offered. Films and actors honored touch on topics as varied and vital as LGBTQ love (Call Me By Your Name), veterans and overt racism (Mudbound), liberal covert racism (Get Out), police corruption (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), and the importance of the press (The Post). Jimmy Kimmel returns as host, after a year where he eased into the working-class champion role his bro schtick always aspired to but never quite nailed until now.

Expect much self-congratulation for these Brave New Oscars during the show, along with shoutouts for #TimesUp and digs at Trump (even as the show’s producers want it to be “a giant commercial for the movie business” instead of anything political). But the nominees also show that Hollywood will practice punch-card progressivism until it realizes what the Louis B. Mayers, Jack Warners and other movie moguls of yesteryear never forgot: social issues sell.

The 2018 nominations show we’re in a golden age of African-American characters, stories, and talent, and that a purge of the industry’s toxic masculinity translates into better films. But it’s as if Hollywood feels that tackling those two longstanding problems absolves it of trying to address anything else. Just look at today’s pressing issues that big-budget films in 2017 ignored: homelessness, class inequity, the housing crisis, gentrification, climate change and more.

And in an age where diversity matters more than ever, Hollywood’s depiction of Mexicans remain problematic. The touching Pixar film Coco (nominated for Best Animated Picture) notwithstanding, Hollywood still doesn’t seem to want to cast Mexicans as anything else than the maids, janitors and security guards that executives and screenwriters encounter in their public and private lives, and the criminals that the media and politicians obsess over. Chris Rock’s ruthless 2014 Hollywood Reporter essay on the lack of representation still rings true: Hollywood keeps Mexicans in a “slave state.”

The studios need to look at their own past to see that reflecting society’s people and problems are an easy moneymaker. Consider the films of the Great Depression, more relevant than ever. Films like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, The Grapes of Wrath, Sullivan’s Travels, Gold Diggers of 1933 became beloved because they openly attacked the institutions that dared afflict the afflicted. Same with the 1970s: Rocky, Saturday Night Fever, Coming Home, Network and others harshly depicted the Me Decade all the way to the Oscars and massive ticket sales.

Two of this year’s most prominent Best Picture nominees show a way forward for producers. The Shape of Water (directed by proud Mexican Guillermo del Toro) used a supernatural parable to critique our federal government’s xenophobia. Get Out similarly used the horror genre to deliver its message. Both are in some ways the most Old Hollywood of the Best Picture bunch, as they recalled Universal Studios’ historic monster movies (imagine a ride based on Get Out? Actually, you don’t have to: it’s called South Orange County).

The Shape of Water and Get Out each grossed over $100 million worldwide despite tiny budgets. Couple that with this month’s record-breaking Black Panther, and the studios should realize that progressive films ought to be the norm, not a niche.

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A New Documentary Unspools the Life of Malcolm X

Most people know that Malcolm X began his public career by calling for black separatism. Lost Tapes: Malcolm X reveals surprising details that have not been seared into our collective view of the martyred activist.

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Photo by Ed Ford

At the end of the Smithsonian Channel’s Lost Tapes: Malcolm X, Ossie Davis delivers a stirring eulogy for Malcolm X, the fallen Muslim minister and human rights activist. “And we will know him then for what he was and is,” Davis intones, “a Prince – our own black shining Prince!”

The haze of history has obscured some of the finer details of this remarkable leader’s life, one cut short by assassination at the age of 39 in 1965. Schools go into far greater detail about the life and times of another spiritual leader, Martin Luther King Jr., but in the shadows behind King’s narrative lurk remarkable stories of a prince that have been largely ignored. That’s why this episode from The Lost Tapes documentary series rises above almost anything available in mainstream media.


Above: Malcolm X in Los Angeles, 1962

Most know that Malcolm, as the dominant star in the Nation of Islam, differentiated himself from King and other African-American leaders by calling for blacks to break off from, rather than assimilate into white society. At the outset, Lost Tapes: Malcolm X, which debuts tonight at 5 p.m. PST/8 p.m. EST, and repeats Tuesday, underscores how his incendiary speeches and philosophy sparked both outrage and fear by showing footage from The Hate That Hate Produced , a 1959 Mike Wallace-narrated documentary shown on New York’s educational WNTA-TV that introduced the Harlem minister and the Nation of Islam to a wider (and whiter) audience.

Much of this doc treads on familiar turf: His meteoric rise and popularity, which caused NOI membership to swell exponentially; how Malcolm’s philosophy deviated from other civil rights leaders’, the rift with NOI leader Elijah Muhammad that led to Malcolm leaving the organization. Filmmakers Tom Jennings and David Tillman weave a fine story, thankfully bereft of any narration, using never-before or rarely seen footage to tell Malcolm’s story, only resorting to simple white text on a black background to deliver essential information. The result seems more urgent and intimate, powerful and profound.

But where Lost Tapes really triumphs is in revealing details that have not been seared into our collective view of the martyred activist. First there is the matter of Cassius Clay. Few know that the boxer’s conversion to Islam was mired deep in the divisions between Malcolm and the “prophet” Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm had grown to overshadow his mentor, and became a close friend to the charismatic contender. But soon after Sonny Liston failed to answer the bell in Miami on February 25, 1964, and Clay was crowned heavyweight champion of the world, Elijah Muhammad bestowed upon the boxer a Muslim name (an honor Malcolm had not been given) under one condition. The new champion had to end his friendship with Malcolm (something that Ali later publicly admitted was a mistake).

Later, there is an interview in which Malcolm publicly exposes Elijah Muhammad’s fathering of eight children by six underage women who were his personal secretaries. This footage makes it seem more understandable why the NOI allegedly waged such a persistent campaign to kill Malcolm, first unsuccessfully by firebombs and then, purportedly taking down their target in a hail of bullets.

The documentary also chronicles Malcolm X’s personal transformation shortly before his tragic death, which resulted in a revolutionary change in his outlook. After leaving the NOI, Malcolm went on a global spiritual journey that included a pilgrimage to Mecca in April of 1964, where he had a profound epiphany. Malcolm speaks of seeing Muslims of all colors interacting as equals and how the whites he had met there were not like those found in America, that their dedication to God allowed them to believe in the oneness of all people.

Inspired by this trip he started the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), a secular group that advocated Pan-Africanism, and promoted internationalizing the plight of African-Americans. This broadening of his views also made him make amends to those he criticized in the past. We see footage of an interview in which he not only forgives black leaders for having attacked him, but also apologizes to all he had ever attacked, culminating in him preaching solidarity and cooperation between leaders.

It’s a huge moment that seems to have been lost as the years have passed, and it makes this venture all the more invaluable.


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Weak Stage Production Mars Drama About Returned Vet

The second drama in playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes’ trilogy juxtaposes one soldier’s post-war tribulations with stories generated by a group of recovering drug addicts.

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Deborah Klugman

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Luna Lauren Vélez (All photos by Craig Schwartz)

A 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner, Water by the Spoonful is the second in Quiara Alegría Hudes’ trilogy revolving around Elliot, a young war veteran from a Puerto Rican family living in Philadelphia. The first play, Elliot: A Soldier’s Fugue, is an interweaving of several narratives that relays the experiences of war from the standpoint of the working-class soldier. It’s a strong, lyrical work (although the production, at the Kirk Douglas Theatre through February 25, doesn’t fulfill that potential).

In this second, less compelling installment at the Mark Taper Forum (yes, I know it won a Pulitzer, but that goes to show how subjective literary prizes can be), the playwright juxtaposes Elliot (Sean Carvajal)’s post-war tribulations with the stories generated by a group of recovering drug addicts. The play’s fractured narrative proves a liability, with problems related to the writing compounded by Lileana Blain-Cruz’s lax direction, weak performances, and an unimaginative scenic design (Adam Rigg) that drains the show of whatever dynamic a couple of the performers manage to scrounge up.

The story takes place in 2009, six years after Elliot, haunted by a ghost and nursing a pronounced limp from a war injury, returns from Iraq. He’s working at a Subway and hoping for a career as an actor, while maintaining a mutually supportive friendship with his cousin Yazmin (Keren Lugo), a music professor. Elliot is struggling with his PTSD but managing to cope until his world spins out of control when his adoptive mom Ginny, much loved by her family and the community, nears death.

Keren Lugo and Sean Carvajal

These scenes involving a family in crisis alternate with others that depict the online squabbling of the members of the recovery group, who bear the pseudonyms of Chutes&Ladders (Bernard K. Addison), Orangutan (Sylvia Kwan) and Fountainhead (Josh Braaten). Haikumom (Luna Lauren Vélez), the site leader, is (we later discover) Elliot’s biological mother, Odessa, and she also is in recovery. The play takes its title from a recollection by Elliot of an event in his childhood: He and his baby sister were ill and needed a spoonful of water every hour – something Odessa failed to administer, with tragic results. Elliot has never forgiven her.

Much of Act 1 is taken up with the repartee among the group, but these characters never physically interact, and these “online” sequences are long-winded and static. It doesn’t help that the actors are positioned willy-nilly about the proscenium, fronting a drab living room interior unrelated to their dialogue. Why these scenes were not mounted in a separate area of the stage and with a different lighting design is a puzzlement.

The play gets more interesting in the second act, with Elliot’s emotional crisis intensifying and brought to a head in his confrontation with Odessa. Unfortunately, the drama is done in by subpar acting. Carvajal, employing a weird pseudo-street dialogue (it’s as if he has marbles in his mouth), sounds an unconvincing one-note. (As someone born and raised in Philadelphia, I can personally testify that that is not how residents of Philly speak.) Lugo’s Yazmin lacks personality of any sort — she seems to be there just for Elliot to play off of. Vélez’s performance in a linchpin role projects neither charisma nor clarity.

The best work is by Addison as a 50-something white collar guy emotionally invested in the group and with a growing attachment to Orangutan, a much younger woman, and Braaten as a well-heeled cokehead, desperately trying to hold his life together. These actors bring a certain heft to their roles that the other performances are missing. It’s too bad we don’t get to see them perform at their best.

The third play in the trilogy, The Happiest Song Plays Last, opens at the Los Angeles Theatre Center on Feb. 22, with an entirely different ensemble. Here’s hoping they can do better.

Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sunday, 1 & 6:30 p.m.; through March 11. Centertheatregroup.org.


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Young Marx in Love

A revolutionary buddy film from the director of I Am Not Your Negro.

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August Diehl as a 20-something Karl Marx. (All Photos by Kris Dewitte.)

Actor August Diehl’s Marx is part revolutionary, part young Mick Jagger.


 

Among the best films about revolutionaries are 2000’s Lumumba, which documented the life of the Congo’s murdered independence leader, and last year’s I Am Not Your Negro, a brilliant reintroduction to James Baldwin’s revolutionary writing. Now the director of those acclaimed films, Haitian Raoul Peck, has once again trained his lens on revolution, but this time in a largely unexpectedly way.

While Peck’s past work has been marked by intensity and grit, The Young Karl Marx instead relies less on invention and on more conventional tropes. That approach is not necessarily a bad thing. It allows the filmmaker to make accessible the seemingly daunting challenge of documenting the young life of a philosopher/writer whose work takes place mostly in his head and on paper.

Dynamic Duo: Marx (August Diehl), right, and Engels (Stefan Konarske).

Written by Peck and Pascal Bonitzer, the film begins in the mid 1800s, when Europe’s Industrial Revolution has underscored the economic disparity between the ruling class and the working poor, or proletariat. This inequality has spawned a slew of young writers and thinkers who are circling philosophically, individually and collectively, what they hope will become a better society. Among them are journalist Marx (August Diehl) and his wife (Vicky Krieps), who live a meager existence–escaping creditors and cops, sleeping in and screwing when not discussing socioeconomic theory. The couple is soon exiled from Germany to France, where they meet Friedrich Engels (Stefan Konarske), a factory owner’s son who has been the first to study and write about the plight of the working class. An instant bromance Between Marx and Engels ensues.

Most of the film follows the duo as they argue and pontificate their way through Europe, honing their philosophy until it can all be memorialized in 1848’s The Communist Manifesto. Diehl has incredible charisma and his Marx is part revolutionary and part young Mick Jagger. With Konarske’s Engels as his more grounded Keith Richards, they aren’t quite enfants terribles, but they do shake things up, quickly rising as leaders of those trying to understand the world around them. And what a glorious world that is. Production designers Benoit Barouh and Christophe Couzon have fashioned a stunning representation of 19th-century Europe. What emerges is a costume buddy film, as if Merchant Ivory produced Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Ultimately, though, viewers’ personal views of Marx, and their political views in general, will probably decide whether they enjoy the film. By focusing on the genesis of Marx’s ideological oeuvre, Peck avoids having to deal with the man’s ultimate mixed legacy. Regardless, some will undoubtedly find the filmic fuss over Marx misplaced. But for many, The Young Karl Marx will be a fulfilling view of a time when young idealists were trying to make sense of the world in a far more robust way than the current political spewing of modern-day television pundits.


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A Combative Immigrant Fights Her ‘Ironbound’ Destiny

Born in Poland and brought up in New Jersey by an immigrant mom who cleaned houses for a living, playwright Martyna Majok has fashioned her experience into a compelling feminist work.

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Deborah Klugman

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Bruised and bleeding in America: Marin Ireland's Darja. (All photos by Chris Whitaker)

In American theater, as in life, not all voices receive equal airtime — one reason why Martyna Majok’s pitch-black dramedy about a Polish-born factory worker/cleaning lady is so poignant and arresting. The play, first produced by New York’s Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre in 2016, is currently running at the Geffen Playhouse under Tyne Rafaeli’s direction.

Majok’s insightfully written, unabashedly woman-centered tale is set at a bus stop in a squalid industrial neighborhood in Elizabeth, New Jersey. The central character is a hardscrabble female survivor. We first meet combative, down-on-her-luck Darja (Marin Ireland), an immigrant, in 2014, as she confronts her live-in lover, Tommy (Christian Camargo), over his sexual liaison with the wealthy woman she works for. Vulnerable beneath his swagger, Tommy pleads remorse and begs Darja not to leave him, to which she responds with an unsentimental demand for hard cash — money she needs to track down her missing wayward son, a drug addict. The pair negotiate; in the end, sexual attraction and codependence best rage and resentment, and they lock in fierce embrace, each extending a finger to the intrusive honks of passing motorists.

Marcel Spears and Marin Ireland, as Vic and Darja.

Scene 2 flashes back to 1992 and a more tender exchange between Darja and Maks (Josiah Bania), her Polish first husband and the father of her child. Maks is a musician, and the conflict between the couple revolves around his desire to relocate to Chicago to pursue art and fame — a move that makes Darja fearful (better the hell you’re living in now….). So, Maks departs on his own, leaving Darja to an uncertain and, and as it turns out, far more purgatorial future.

That fate manifests later, in 2006, when (in this production’s finest, most memorable scene) a teenage hustler, Vic (Marcel Spears), happens on a bruised and bleeding Darja, lying under a bench after a beating from her abusive second husband. A rich kid out at night sowing down-and-dirty oats, the youth is appalled by Darja’s appearance and wants to help. But Darja, who doesn’t know how to say thanks, rejects this offer of assistance, though she desperately needs it — till Vic points to the moon and offers a gift of surprising generosity.

Ironbound, which claims its title from a slum area in Newark, offers an illuminating portrait of a vulnerable, volatile woman most middle-class Americans would probably never look twice at. Yet Darja is no fool; despite being a stranger in a strange land, with limited language skills, she understands how the capitalist system operates to her disadvantage, and what she must do to get by. Her actions and choices, made in anger, fear or frustration (she sets fire to her fornicating employer’s clothes), work against her.

Ireland, who commanded the role to accolades in New York, performs with energy and commitment (her character never leaves the stage) but without the fresh edge that must have brought down earlier houses. Some of that may have to do with Camargo, with whom she has the most stage time. As with Darja, Majok has drawn Tommy as a complex ambivalent figure, but instead of exploring why this two-faced lothario still needs Darja to be his woman, the actor storms about, relying on heated dialogue and comic gesture to define his role.

Bania, who also reprises his role from the original production, is warm and likable — and especially on target in moments when he pleads with Darja to let him have his dreams. Spears’ glowing performance as a compassionate youngster determined to aid an abused, beleaguered stranger is the evening’s highlight.

Born in Poland and brought up in New Jersey by an immigrant mom who cleaned houses for a living, Majok has written about what she knows, fashioning her experience into a compelling feminist work.

Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., West Los Angeles; ; Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; through March 4.


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