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James Donaldson: An Organizer’s Long Legacy

The author Sam Keen once told me that James Donaldson was the only person he ever knew who became a social worker because he needed the money. But when Donaldson shaped this city – and changed my life – social work was still in his distant future.

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Rev. Jim Conn

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James Donaldson organized supply trucks that brought essentials from his Valley church to Watts during the 1965 riots.

Some of the wealthiest, most famous and most powerful figures in the world call Los Angeles their home. No one would mistake James Donaldson for one of those. Sam Keen, the author and writer for Psychology Today, once told me that Donaldson was the only person he ever knew who became a social worker because he needed the money. But when Donaldson shaped this city – and changed my life – social work was still in his distant future.

James Donaldson came to Los Angeles from the publishing world to be Theologian-in-Residence at a mainline church in Woodland Hills, when that was the western edge of the suburbs. A seminary graduate from Texas, he involved his affluent congregation in reflection using the tools of the culture – films, museums, books. And he connected the suburbanites to an African-American church in South Los Angeles.

During the curfew that followed the Watts Riots in 1965, the link between those two churches became a pipeline of survival. Short on water, food, diapers and other goods people needed to live, the Valley church filled a truck every day and delivered these staples into South Los Angeles. It changed the lives of those people – especially the ones in the truck.

It also led to the next change in Donaldson’s Los Angeles sojourn. Following those social upheavals, the National Council of Churches’ Commission on Religion and Race put money into Los Angeles to empower the black community through a network of congregations. There are several of those networks now, but none then. The Corridor Ministry took its name from the swath of jet noise from the flight path into Los Angeles International Airport. The Corridor started at what was then the eastern segregation line of Alameda Street and moved west across South Los Angeles to the mostly-all-white, but already changing, Inglewood.

Donaldson used his energy, intelligence and charisma to organize a hundred congregations in a short time, packed with intense meetings and several notable successes, including a commitment by the Los Angeles Community College system for a campus in South Los Angeles.

During both his Valley and South Los Angeles time, he recruited participants for a series of weekend theological trainings run by the Chicago-based Ecumenical Institute. The workshops aimed to radicalize clergy and church people. I am sure I met Donaldson during that time, but he came after me one day in Claremont, where I was a seminary student. Because we were exempt from the Selective Service, he wanted us to support draft resisters at the downtown Los Angeles induction center. We did.

Then as I began an internship year in the city, he asked me for more. Donaldson had shifted gears again, forming a branch of New Adult Community in Los Angeles and orchestrating its signature event, the Urban Plunge. New Adult Communities were a national network of experiments by major denominations to connect with the emerging youth culture. The Urban Plunge, created by people in Chicago, immersed college youth and suburban church people in the urban scene. Donaldson asked me to coordinate the logistics of a Plunge here.

So I did. Eighteen months in a row. Over a weekend, the Plunge took 100-some participants at a time from an urban church basement to the bars and peep shows of old Main Street and Hollywood, to the Black Congress in South L.A. and to meet with Brown Berets in East L.A., then to church with a rock band (unheard of in those days) and dancing on the pews (still unheard of). Not much on sleep, it mirrored the intensity of the late 1960s itself.

The Plunge became an organizing tool, which led to communal living experiments, participation in war protests, efforts to stop the nuclear power plant at San Onofre, leafleting grocery stores for the farm workers, and a white presence on the street during the Black Panthers/LAPD shootout. Meanwhile Donaldson assisted draft card burnings on college campuses and helped smuggle draft resistors into Canada.

Then it was over. Donaldson headed “back to the land” as people said in those days. The man who told me I was intelligent and taught me to read books – not just for grades but for the meaning they gave my life – and who shoved me into leading, walked out of my life for two decades. First to Glorieta, New Mexico, then to Twisp, Washington.

That’s it. No fame or fortune or power. On January 7, he died – a retired social worker, yes, but a theologian, activist and organizer to the end – surrounded by friends who joined him in caring for the earth and one another.

Sometime back, maybe a decade, a hundred or so mostly-white clergy were packed into a room at one of the union halls in Los Angeles. The facilitator asked us to introduce ourselves and say how we experienced our political awakening as faith leaders. One by one it became apparent that for most of us of a certain age in that room, it was the work of James Donaldson that had formed our lives through one project or another. He lived here a brief time, but he left a long legacy.

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Environment

How L.A. Helped Its Homeless During the Wildfires

During Los Angeles County’s recent wildfires, local organizations that aid the homeless have been working overtime to help those in need.

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A Santa Rosa evacuation center during Northern California's October fires. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

The devastating impact of wildfires exploding across swaths of California is captured nightly in dramatic television footage. Largely unseen, though, is how those same fires affect Los Angeles’ growing homeless population, many of whom have abandoned menacing urban streets for the relative safety of woodland encampments.

Fires that consumed parts of Northern California in October destroyed thousands of homes and put many already homeless residents in the path of danger. The story is no different in Southern California, and local organizations that aid the homeless have been working overtime to help those in need.

Colleen Murphy, coordinator of outreach at the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authorities, told Capital & Main that her agency started working to locate homeless encampments the second they learned the fires had started. She knew there were only so many beds in so many shelters they could use, so they had to redouble their efforts to make sure they found space for everyone.

“One of the things that was a little challenging at the time was that L.A. opens up winter shelters on December 1, and some of the winter shelters were pretty close to the fire area,” Murphy said. “So we were also trying to navigate whether we needed to close the shelters, because that is normally where we would send people.” Their winter shelters were closest to the Rye Fire near Santa Clarita, and in Pacoima near the Creek Fire in the hills above Sylmar. Luckily, none of the shelters the organization needed had to close due to the fires, and they were able to help find beds for the homeless they could locate.

Patrick Justice, an outreach coordinator for LA Family Housing, said he sent support teams to known homeless encampments in the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys as quickly as he could. He estimated that hundreds of homeless individuals were in evacuation areas. “Some of the encampment locations were directly in the fire evacuation zones,” he said. Reaching those people wasn’t always easy, because sometimes routes to these locations were blocked by the fires. “There were areas we weren’t able to get to right off the bat,” Justice said. “We had to find alternative ways in.”

The homeless population in Los Angeles County has risen by nearly a quarter since last year, a rise traceable to skyrocking rents and stagnant wages according to a Zillow report. There are nearly 60,000 homeless residents in the county, and officials have been struggling to help this vulnerable group of people.

Getting that population into shelter and out of woodland areas protects them and nearby residents. The Skirball fire that destroyed six very expensive homes in Bel-Air and damaged a dozen more was started by a cooking fire in a homeless encampment in a canyon just off the 405 Freeway in the Sepulveda Pass.

As destructive as the blaze was to property in one of the most affluent communities in the country, the fire’s cause “makes a tragic event even more tragic,” Los Angeles Councilman Paul Koretz told the Los Angeles Times. “The saddest thing is that we have so many homeless people,” said Koretz, whose district includes Bel-Air. “And they are everywhere in the city. And that sometimes causes serious problems.”

Los Angeles officials hope to develop ways to evacuate homeless populations in woodland areas once fire conditions—high winds and accumulated dry brush—arise. But Mayor Eric Garcetti said a lot of people could still be missed, given all the hills in the city. “Just like ramping up efforts to try to anticipate terrorist incidents, you can never get to zero risk,” he told the Times. “And I think it would be a mistake to think we could.”

Murphy and Justice pointed to Measure H, approved by voters last March, as being a major help in their efforts to locate homeless encampments during the fires. Measure H imposed a one-quarter percent county sales tax for 10 years “in order to fund homeless services and prevention,” Ballotpedia explained. Murphy and Justice believe the response to the fires would not have been nearly as effective without the funding and services Measure H delivered.

“I think this is showing the importance of Measure H, which pays for outreach coordination and those outreach teams,” Murphy said. In areas like the Sylmar Hills where the Creek Fire broke out, “we were able to mobilize and had the infrastructure to utilize, as well as the actual teams who knew these places,” Murphy said. “That couldn’t have been done without expanded Measure H funding.”

“Seeing the way the county is moving with all of the Measure H funds, we’re starting to see really strong infrastructure countywide and trickling down into these service planning areas,” Justice said. “I was getting a lot of support from the county level. Having that infrastructure is really amazing.”


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Culture & Media

Tom Morello: Making America Rage Again

“We’re at a crucial historical juncture, where literally the fate of the planet hangs by a thread,” says rocker Tom Morello. “We are musicians, so our message is in the mosh pit.”

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Prophets of Rage: Tom Morello (right) onstage in 2017 with bassist Tim Commerford (far left) and rapper Chuck D (center). Photo: Steve Appleford.

Tom Morello knows something about Trump Country.  The hard rock guitarist for Rage Against the Machine and, most recently, the rock/hip-hop supergroup Prophets of Rage, grew up in small-town Libertyville, Illinois, nearly an hour outside of Chicago. The mostly white enclave went dependably Democratic in the 2016 presidential election, but it’s still fly-over country, where Morello grew up in the only household among his friends that could be described as politically radical.

He knows there are Trump voters among his listeners and across the Rust Belt that helped send the real estate billionaire to the White House. “The people there are not bad people,” says Morello. “They’ve just been dumped on by both political parties and their towns have been robbed of their jobs, and their kids have been [taken] for awful immoral foreign wars, and they’re looking at a very uncertain future for themselves and their families. So they turn their backs on politics as usual and turn towards a racist demagogue.”

“From our vantage point as cultural warriors, if we’re going to go down,
we’re going to go down swingin’.”

Morello’s politics have remained consistently loud and radical since his youth, drawing inspiration as a musician from both the metal guitar pyrotechnics of Randy Rhoads and the biting punk rock militancy of the Clash’s 1980 album London Calling. With Prophets of Rage, he’s back to spreading the gospel against war and for human rights, for organized labor and environmental sanity — to some very large audiences. The band formed in Los Angeles during last year’s tumultuous election season, with an all-star lineup: Morello, bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk from the dormant Rage Against the Machine; with vocals from the rappers Chuck D of Public Enemy and B-Real of Cypress Hill; plus Public Enemy’s fiery turntablist DJ Lord.

The new band toured under the banner “Make America Rage Again,” and found an audience ready to hear the old Rage Against the Machine songs performed once more. Last month, the Prophets played songs old and new to thousands of heavy metal faithful at Ozzfest Meets Knotfest in San Bernardino, and this Saturday they face an altogether different crowd at the KROQ Almost Acoustic Christmas concert at the Forum in Inglewood.

At the beginning of each show, band members gather at the front of the stage to raise their fists in solidarity and defiance, but Morello says they demand no political litmus test from fans, other than, “It’s a No Fascists Allowed Zone.” (Morello did ridicule future House Speaker Paul Ryan when he declared himself a Rage fan in 2012: “He is the embodiment of the machine that our music has been raging against for two decades.”)

“It’s music, first and foremost,” says Morello, 53, who frequently wields electric guitars with the slogans “Arm the Homeless” and “Soul Power” scrawled across the surface. “We set out to be a devastating rock & roll band. That’s Job One. That’s the spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down. With Prophets of Rage – as with Rage Against the Machine – we strive to make the music compelling, and people of all political persuasions are drawn to compelling music.”

On the group’s debut album, Prophets of Rage, released in September, songs erupt with wild funk and attitude while confronting ongoing social crises and U.S. political leadership. The music video to “Radical Eyes” is a montage of news clips documenting American history repeating itself across 50 alarming years, while Morello’s guitar wails with eccentric melody and muscle. The song “Living on the 110” examines poverty along a freeway cutting through South Los Angeles, as Chuck D raps: “There’s no end to the poverty, stopping me/You pretend there’s democracy, hypocrisy/This is the reality.”

“This record feels as timely as anything we’ve ever done,” says Morello. “We’re fond of saying ‘Dangerous times demand dangerous songs,’ and we’re in extremely dangerous times. From our vantage point as cultural warriors, if we’re going to go down, we’re going to go down swingin’.”

The work he did with Rage Against the Machine was distinctive and searing, but Morello notes that the bulk of that band’s career (and all of its recorded output) unfolded during the Bill Clinton administration. The need now for defiance and expression is even greater, he says:

“We’re at a real crucial historical juncture, where literally the fate of the planet hangs by a thread – from the threat of imminent nuclear exchange to the environmental tightrope we are walking, staring into a dark abyss. Each one of us in our own vocation desperately needs to weave our convictions into what we do before it’s too late. We are musicians, so our message is in the mosh pit.”

For the Prophets, that’s also meant spending quality time during their first year together not simply performing concerts, but taking action on the causes they share. During the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, the revolution rockers performed a free concert and led a protest march across the city. They also performed on L.A.’s Skid Row and on a stage just outside the prison walls of the California  Rehabilitation Center in Norco.

For the guitarist, it’s a tradition of activism that began with his schoolteacher mom, Mary Morello. He was arrested protesting sweatshop labor conditions at a Santa Monica factory in 1997 and at a 2006 UNITE HERE labor rally.

“There has been a ferocious class war being fought in this country over the last 40 or 50 years, and it’s the rich against the poor,” says Morello, whose family has included union coal miners in Central Illinois. “A crucial part of that war is dismantling the power of labor unions. In the battle of us versus them, that is the most effective way for us to have, share and wield power. They know that, and that’s why they’ve done everything they can to undermine it.”

He came to Los Angeles after graduating from Harvard to follow his hard rock dreams and ultimately found a sound and message through Rage, which delivered radical ideas to mainstream radio (via the hits “Killing in the Name,” “Bulls on Parade,” etc.), won Grammy Awards, toured arenas and went on hiatus soon after a performance protesting the American two-party system outside the 2000 Democratic Convention in Los Angeles.

He’s called Los Angeles home for nearly three decades, raising two kids here, but warns that California is not immune from the forces roiling the rest of the country. “While it’s heartening to live in one of the few zones in the world where overt racism and homophobia are not evidenced on the streets, we can’t be lulled into any sense of comfort,” he says. “We are really in the fight of our lives during this Trump-Pence regime.”

With the rest of Prophets of Rage, Morello at least has a means to get that message to a broad range of people. They recorded the new album in only a month with producer Brendan O’Brien, working side by side on new songs. It continues on the road.

“Before our first record came out, we had played in front of two and half million people,” he says. “It’s the best of both worlds. We have the gravitas of our histories and then we’re able to draw on the catalogs of Rage and Cypress and PE – but we also have the chip on our shoulder of a new band. We go out there every night to prove ourselves.”

KROQ Almost Acoustic Christmas, with Prophets of Rage, Muse, 30 Seconds to Mars, Queens of the Stone Age, others. Saturday, Dec. 9. Forum, Inglewood.

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Society

Wells Fargo Plays Scrooge to Atwater Village

Wells Fargo, which spent $281 million on corporate philanthropy in 2016, is choosing to curtail a holiday tree-lighting event — at the very moment it is seeking to generate goodwill in the communities it serves.

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Worker prepares Atwater Village’s holiday tree. (All photos: Jessica Goodheart)

Wells Fargo & Company has decided to evict a popular tree-lighting festival from the parking lot of one of its branches, a move coming at a time when the bank is working to rebuild its image in the aftermath of a scandal involving the opening of accounts for millions of customers without their permission.

The company’s decision riled neighbors so much that they collected almost a thousand signatures on petitions, as well as letters from children, before assembling outside the bank with handmade signs and kids in strollers.

Bank officials told the all-volunteer festival group it needed to buy a $5 million liability insurance policy, one organizer said.

Video footage of the November 9 demonstration at the Atwater Village branch shows bank security forcefully shutting the door on protesters. “It just makes no sense,” said community resident Bahar Tolou. A bank of Wells Fargo’s size and influence, she explained, “could figure out some way” to work with the local community and “have this sweet little event that happens for two hours once a year.” The Tree Lighting Festival, which attracted about 1,300 people last year, typically features Santa Claus, fire trucks, children’s activities and local dancers and musicians.

Wells Fargo released a statement Monday underscoring its work to help the group find another site and its commitment to Atwater Village, where the bank has “been a long-standing community partner” and has “actively supported the tree lighting event.”

But the bank stood by its decision to discontinue hosting a gathering that it says was becoming a safety hazard. It “violates our parking lot’s legal capacity limit, closes our business to our customers, and places our customers’ and the community’s safety at risk,” its statement said.

Shelli-Anne Couch, a festival organizer, said the group had offered to hold the event on a weekend so it would not interfere with bank business.

“Had we known back in August, if they’d been forthright and just honest about not using this space, we would have had ample time to shift the event,” Couch said. “But they kept dragging us along. We were left scrambling.”

As Couch spoke, a worker in a cherry picker strung lights around the festival’s focal point, a dusty and towering evergreen that sprouts from a median strip on Glendale Boulevard. The bank parking lot is ideally situated to allow residents a space to gaze at the lit tree from across the street, she said.

Residents’ frustrations also stem from the fact that bank officials offered shifting explanations for why its parking lot could not accommodate the tree-lighting ceremony after organizers met with the company in August, Couch said.

When event organizers proposed moving the tree lighting to the weekend so it would not interfere with customer traffic through the ATM lane, bank officials said the all-volunteer group needed to buy a $5 million liability insurance policy, organizer Courtney Morris said.

“We told them that we would try to secure a sponsor to pay for it, but could not in fact buy the insurance before we even knew if the branch would host,” Morris said. “They seemed to want us to put the cart before the horse.”

Luanna Lindsey, the banking district manager, who has reportedly led ongoing talks with community members, declined to comment for this story. Councilman Mitch O’Farrell’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

As of Monday, the plan was to hold the tree lighting festival on December 10, from 5 to 7 p.m., on the lot of All’Aqua, an Italian restaurant located next door to the Wells Fargo branch. Its parking lot is a fraction of the size of the original spot, and so organizers had hoped to secure permission to close Glendale Boulevard, a potentially costly move that will be hard to accomplish on short notice.

Wells Fargo, which spent $281 million on corporate philanthropy in 2016, is choosing to curtail this event when it is seeking to generate goodwill in the communities it serves. Wells Fargo revealed in August that it may have created as many as 3.5 million deposit and credit card accounts without customers’ permission over the last eight years. In July, the U.S. District Court in San Francisco approved a $142 million settlement in a class action lawsuit brought over the unauthorized accounts.

Some Wells Fargo critics have speculated that the bank is punishing City Councilman O’Farrell, who represents Atwater Village. O’Farrell filed a motion in March requesting that the city explore options to divest its $40 million holdings from the bank. Wells Fargo’s contract for providing banking services to the City of Los Angeles is coming up for renewal in June 2018. The motion cites the city’s 2015 lawsuit over the sham accounts, which was settled for $50 million in civil penalties, and the bank’s financial support of the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline running through a sacred Native American burial ground and the tribe’s water source.

“Any allegation that our decision is related to any specific activity by any member of the L.A. City Council is false,” the bank said in Monday’s statement.

Wells Fargo’s liability concerns related to community events at its Atwater Village branch parking lot predate O’Farrell’s motion.

Last spring, the L.A. Griffith Park Lions Club, which sponsors an annual pancake breakfast, was asked to increase its liability insurance from $1 million $5 million, at an increased cost to the club of $2,700, according Louis Buono, the club’s vice president.

“I just think the property management people don’t want the liability, not that anybody has ever gotten hurt,” Buono said.

James Haydu, executive director of SEE-LA, said he began having conversations with the bank more than a year ago about the need to find another space for an event that has grown over the past dozen years. The Farmers Market, he said, has known “we would outgrow that space.”

Wells Fargo Co. is continuing to host a weekly farmers’ market in its Toluca Lake branch’s parking lot. In June, the bank reportedly allowed tethered hot air balloon rides in its parking lot in Allentown, Pennsylvania at a “Blues, Brews & Barbecue” festival.

The events Wells Fargo hosted at its Atwater Village branch fostered a small-town feeling that can help neighborhoods cohere in a vast metropolis that can often feel isolating, supporters said. “It is a splendid event,” resident Tricia Russo wrote on Facebook.

This year, Couch jumped up from a parking lot wall where she had been sitting and pointed to the tree. “Look,” she said, “they are doing color this year.”

It was just after 4 p.m. and the tree’s newly-installed lights were beginning to glow. “I want to get a shot of that,” she said before snapping a picture of the tree.


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Culture & Media

Hunger Is No Game in This Theater Experiment

Structured as a radio play, Pang! is made up of three stories of struggle and survival distilled from real-life accounts of impoverished families, including one from Los Angeles.

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Deborah Klugman

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Pictured above: Natalie Camunas, Donna Simone Johnson and Christopher Rivas. (Photo: Will O’Loughlen)

It’s a Monday evening in a University of California, Los Angeles lecture room, and multidisciplinary artist Dan Froot has brought together an ensemble of actors and musician/composer Robert Een to preview his upcoming show Pang! — which will be staged in Los Angeles for two performances this weekend.

Structured as a radio play, Pang! is made up of three narratives distilled from the oral histories of three impoverished families — one in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, another here in L.A., and a third in Miami, Florida. These are stories of struggle and survival. The first is about a Burundian immigrant who bicycled to safety as he fled a genocidal militia that wiped out his entire family. The second — a very Los Angeles story — is of an African-American family who lose their home to a con artist. And the third, relayed from the point of view of a 7-year-old boy, reflects the challenges of growing up in a violence-ridden community where the lives of all citizens, regardless of age or lifestyle, are always in peril.

This isn’t the first time Froot has applied his many talents to creating art involving poverty and hunger. A dancer, actor, writer, choreographer and puppeteer, he spearheaded two earlier projects, Who’s Hungry – West Hollywood (2008) and Who’s Hungry – Santa Monica (2012). These were short puppet plays drawn from the oral histories of people engaged in an ongoing struggle to procure sufficient food for themselves and their families. Pang! was also begun with the idea of spotlighting food insecurity, but it soon became obvious to Froot and his team that there were other wrenching dilemmas — having to do with immigration, lack of housing and the proliferation of guns — that poor folks wrestled with on an ongoing basis, and which they wanted to frame in their work.

Donna Simone Johnson (Photo: Will O’Loughlen)

That evening at UCLA, the versatile cast — Natalie Camunas, Donna Simone Johnson and Christopher Rivas — perform behind music stands, where, accompanied by Een and augmented by a plethora of sound effects, they deliver an excerpt from each of the stories. Afterward Froot, currently an adjunct professor at the university’s Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance, explained to the attendees his aims and methods, and his mixing of art with his passion for economic justice. He later spoke to Capital & Main.


Capital & Main: What is Pang! ’s origin?

I have always felt a strong link between food and theater. My first performance works in New York City in the early ’80s were “performance meals,” in which the preparation and service to the audience of a full meal was part and parcel of the theatrical actions. Theater and cooking both take disparate ingredients and I put them together alchemically, so that they become something else, which is then consumed by people, which hopefully nourishes them.

What is the main purpose of the project?

Dan Froot. (Photo: Joanna Eldrege Morrissey)

Froot: The work aims to decrease the stigma associated with hunger and poverty, and to foster cross-class dialogue on income disparity in America. [Also,] by connecting at the personal level and building relationships with community members, I hope to make Pang! more relevant for people who might not normally attend the theater, because they may now feel a personal connection.

What do you mean by “cross-class dialogue”? How is that done, specifically?

Froot: It’s really done in the weeks, months and years leading up to the performances. In all cities where we are performing, we lower barriers to low-income residents by providing cheap or free tickets, childcare and transportation where possible. We provide free food at intermission. We reach out to our social service partners to let them know about the production. In many cases I know their clientele personally.

What agencies have you been involved with here in Los Angeles?

Froot: I volunteered for about a year with Community Services Unlimited, working with teens on their urban mini-farm, and selling locally grown fruits and vegetables at their pop-up markets. I also volunteered with Hunger Action Los Angeles, handing out Market Match vouchers at the St. Agnes Church farmers’ market in South Central. I taught performance workshops with the staff and clientele of LIFT Communities Los Angeles, and participated in their annual simulation of the social services system for municipal leaders.

But you also foster this dialogue onsite following the performance, when audience members are invited to the stage, to sit at a table and engage in a dialogue with the performers and families.

Froot: [Yes.] The kitchen table dialogue at its best is simply an exchange of unlike perspectives. Here is a quote from the Cedar Rapids kitchen table:

“I just think when people hear stories like this, for me it’s just having that part where you can relate to and have that humility so that if you ever see somebody at Walmart, or if you ever see somebody at a store or on the street who’s an immigrant, you don’t just have an assumption that this person is having a good life, and they should be thankful and grateful — I think you’re going to have a little empathy and a little bit of humanity. “

How were the families chosen?

Froot: I developed partnerships with social service organizations in each city where we are working. [They] pre-screened their clients’ families, provided liaison services between me and the families, and also have provided safe, quiet, neutral spaces in which to conduct the oral history interviews.

Tell me something about the writing process

Froot: I generally start with the verbatim oral history text and try to draw out the rhythms and melodies and thematic issues. I call it a violent process, because you are drawing a single thread out of the fabric of a family’s lives. The entire adaptation process is a back and forth with the families. I bring in a draft of a scene or two, we read it down and talk about it. Suggestions are made, and I come up with a new draft for the next rehearsal. This is a slow, painstaking method, but we are very happy with the results.

Did the stories evolve in the process?

Froot: Yes! Very much. For the Cedar Rapids episode, we were initially going to tell the story of the family’s escape from Burundi into Tanzania, but over the course of the process, we developed a meta-narrative about the way that stories like that get co-opted by well-meaning people.

Why the radio play format?

Froot: We want our audiences to feel that they are “between the ears” of the families whose stories we are telling. We want them to do the work of imagining the scene, so we give them the sonic dimension. That is an active, empathic position for the audience, and that’s exactly where we want them to be.

How did you come to work with Robert Een?

Froot: I’ve known Bob since 1980 in New York City, when he was in Meredith Monk’s ensemble and I was her intern. Bob and I were both part of the dance/performance art scene in downtown [there] throughout the ’80s and ’90s, sometimes getting to play music together. We have co-taught classes at UCLA. This is the first time we have collaborated.

What is the process for integrating the sound with the text?

Froot: We experiment a lot in rehearsal with different sound effects objects, until we find the right one. I have consulted with several sound effects or Foley artists in L.A. for this project, have read a lot of books on the subject, and watched a lot of instructional YouTube videos. Generally, we got the text to a pretty complete draft before integrating sound effects and music.


Pang! at the 24th Street Theater, 1117 W.  24th St. (at Hoover), Los Angeles; Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; (213) 745-6516.

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Culture & Media

Persistence of Vision: The Autry Museum’s ‘La Raza’ Photo Exhibition

A photographic exhibit reveals long-unseen images of the Chicano community at a time of political upheaval and demands for civil rights.

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1970 Chicano Moratorium March (Luis C. Garza/Chicano Studies Research Center at UCLA)

After 47 years, the old black-and-white news photograph can still shock: A helmeted Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy points a teargas gun toward a small unarmed group crowded in the doorway of the Silver Dollar Café, a tavern on Whittier Boulevard in East L.A. It’s a local pub, next door to a wig shop, with an outer wall advertising itself as a swinging destination with a collage of cartoon martini glasses, musical notes and topless women. But that afternoon in 1970, it was just someplace to grab a beer for journalist Ruben Salazar before heading back to the office.

He’d spent the day covering the National Chicano Moratorium March against the Vietnam War, which ended with deputies breaking up the demonstration and clashing with protesters. But Salazar, 42, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times and news director at the Spanish-language station KMEX-TV, never made it out of the Silver Dollar. Moments after the photograph was taken by Raul Ruiz of the underground La Raza newspaper, the deputy blindly fired a teargas canister into the bar, striking Salazar in the head and killing him instantly.

(Maria Varela/Chicano Studies Research Center at UCLA)

(Maria Varela/Chicano Studies Research Center at UCLA)

That picture is now at the center of LA RAZA, a photographic exhibition at Los Angeles’ Autry Museum of the American West that was culled from an archive of 25,000 images created for the publication between 1967 and 1977. During those years, La Raza evolved from a small tabloid newspaper into a slicker magazine, but the mission never wavered: representing the Chicano community at a time of political upheaval and demands for civil rights.

The exhibition, which runs through February 10, 2019, shares La Raza‘s photographic collection for the first time with the public. It is now part of Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, the Getty’s countywide exploration of Latin American and Latino art, where the recently unearthed photographs offer an essential document of a movement too often overlooked.

“The purpose of the newspaper-magazine was that of an organizing tool, first and foremost,” says Luis Garza, who was then a young photographer on the all-volunteer staff, and co-curates the Autry show. “There was little representation whatsoever of the Chicano community … within the body politic of Los Angeles. Decisions were being made affecting our community that we had no voice in.”

Many of the images at the Autry depict a community newly engaged with the political moment, filling city streets in protest and carrying signs that confronted issues of immigration, cultural identity, civil rights and foreign wars that remain relevant a half-century later. In one picture, protesters march past the stately Times building in downtown L.A., with one sign reading, “Stop Nixon’s racist deportation raids.”

Other photographs document marches through rural California, beneath banners for the United Farm Workers and the slogan “Be Brown & Be Proud.” Teenagers take to the streets in pictures from a series of walkouts and “blowouts” at several L.A. high school campuses named for presidents Wilson, Jefferson, Garfield, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. Also at the Autry: A row of large blowups of police officers on rooftops and bridges, watching with binoculars, cameras and rifles as the demonstrations unfolded. La Raza was there to report on a community speaking out and under siege.

There were consequences for the mostly young staff. One prominent photograph at the Autry captures a little girl in braids, yelling into the lens while holding a stack of La Raza newspapers with an alarming headline: “La Raza Raided — Editor, Staff Imprisoned.” Another picture shows La Raza photographer Ruth Robinson being handcuffed along with a Brown Beret activist.

“They got arrested all the time,” says Amy Scott, chief curator at the Autry and co-curator of LA RAZA. “For them, activism and photography were not two separate things. The photographs were a way of making these arguments and putting them out there.”

The mission was not simply to document the era’s homegrown political uprising, but to capture something of the culture asserting itself as “a much more complex and dynamic community than had ever been portrayed in the mainstream media,“ adds Scott.

La Raza began life in the basement of an Episcopalian church in Lincoln Heights, debuting September 4, 1967, as a modest eight-page publication. By the time it had grown to more than 60 pages, its focus had expanded beyond local issues to concerns about Vietnam, indigenous land rights, immigration and Latin America. Mainstream media in the late 1960s was dependably conservative and “gave no coverage to our community whatsoever except to depict us in a negative light,” says Garza.

Police in front of Lincoln High School. (La Raza/Chicano Studies Research Center at UCLA)Police in front of Lincoln High School, 1970. (La Raza/Chicano Studies Research Center at UCLA)

The photographers at La Raza provided their own cameras and 35mm film, while editors struggled to keep the no-budget operation afloat. “We tried at first to be bi-monthly, then it became monthly, then it became whenever you had the funds to print,” recalls Garza, a University of California, Los Angeles student at the time. “It could be weeks, months or even a year before the next issue came out.”

The paper’s most dramatic moment of recognition came with the Moratorium March and the death of Salazar. After working as a foreign correspondent in Vietnam, the Times reporter returned to Los Angeles to find a vibrant subject in the growing Chicano movement. He was often critical of police — and was one of four fatalities on a violent day of deputies clashing with protesters. Pictures at the Autry show police clearing streets with batons and shotguns, and of squad cars with shattered windshields.

After Salazar’s body was carried out of the Silver Dollar, the L.A. Sheriff’s Department denied any role in his death, even suggesting that snipers were responsible. It was La Raza‘s photographs of the shooting, also published in the Times, that revealed the truth. Some suspected Salazar had been targeted for assassination. Whether through malice or utter incompetence, the incident was a bleak example of law enforcement’s posture within East L.A. The deputy who fired into the bar was never charged.

In 2012, Garza and others began an effort to go through the La Raza photographs, which had been largely unseen and stored in multiple three-ring binders by one of the founding editors. Images had to be identified and cataloged, a process Garza describes as “photo-forensics.” The archive was placed at the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, and with a grant from the Getty, the pictures were digitized, culminating with the Autry exhibition.

“I view it as karma and the blessings of the gods,” Garza says of the successful effort to bring the pictures back into circulation after four decades in storage.

“The reaction from everyone is very positive, it’s very emotional,” adds Garza, who went on from La Raza to documentary work for KABC-TV. “For the first time we’re getting recognition of who we are, what we accomplished and what we attempted. It isn’t just about our community as Chicanos. It is about Los Angeles. It is about this country as a whole.”


LA RAZA, Autry Museum of the American West, 4700 Western Heritage Way, Los Angeles; through Feb. 10, 2019.  theautry.org

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Paroling the Mind: A College Program Opens New Doors for Former Convicts

Romarilyn Ralston’s life became a dramatic example of redemption after being convicted of murder when she was 24.

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Charles Davis

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Project Rebound’s Romarilyn Ralston. (Photo by Christian Cook)

Founded by a formerly incarcerated man in 1967, Project Rebound has grown from one school, San Francisco State University, to eight other Cal State campuses.


As fires blazed across California last month, killing 43 people, scorching more than 210,000 acres and causing $3.3 billion in damage, about 250 female inmates were sent to the front lines to battle the flames.

“Who doesn’t want to get out of a prison?” asks Romarilyn Ralston, program coordinator for Project Rebound at California State University, Fullerton, an effort aimed at helping former inmates gain access to higher education. Fighting fires while incarcerated is a coerced choice, she adds, with wages capped at a couple of dollars a day.

“You go through a couple weeks of training and then you’re sent off to fire camp to go protect other people’s lives and property at the expense of your own. And you do that because you want to prove to yourself and your family that you’re not the worst thing that you have ever done in your life — that your life is redeemable.”

Ralston’s life became a dramatic example of that redemption after being convicted of murder when she was 24. “I was involved with drugs,” she says, seated at her desk in a cozy two-person office on campus. “I shot a woman, and she died.” Now in her 50s, her long dark hair pulled back to reveal gold hoop earrings, she says she does not define herself by her crime. She spent 23 years in prison before she was paroled in 2011 and has earned a bachelor’s degree from Pitzer College in Claremont and a master’s from Washington University in St. Louis.

“Education is something
people cannot take away from you.”

Ralston is now program coordinator for Project Rebound at Cal State Fullerton, helping other former inmates get the education she believes saved her life. That can mean helping people behind bars apply to take part in the program that advertises in the San Quentin News. Once they are released, the program gives them access to financial aid, money for books and food, counseling, health care, academic and career advice, tutoring, legal assistance and a community of formerly incarcerated people who have made it out of the same traumatic experience.

“I believe that change is possible,” Ralston says. “Redemption, reconciliation, forgiveness, rehabilitation. All those things happen.”

By the time she was released, Ralston had spent half of her life in prison. “Am I always going to be viewed by the crime I committed 30 years ago?” she asks. “Should it negate the rest of my life?” There had always been the chance of Ralston writing another chapter. “I wasn’t sentenced to life without parole,” she says. “So that was one thing. I knew at some point I might have a chance to go home.”

Growing up, she had wanted to be an astronaut. Instead, she found herself “going into the system — and it was the first time I had ever been arrested. That trauma was so severe to me that I thought, ‘It’s not going to happen to me again.’ Of all the things I wanted to be in life, prisoner number W32881 was not one of them. And so I had to look at some of the things that had put me on that path, and then reconnect with the things that I wanted to be as a child.”

She never made it to outer space but, this being the 1980s, she was able to make it to a classroom, with a real-life instructor, inside the California Institution for Women. That was before the 1994 federal crime bill passed by a Republican Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton, a Democrat. That measure took away the grants that had subsidized (and in most cases, made possible) in-person, university-level courses for incarcerated students.

The impact of depriving human beings of the ability to better themselves is predictable enough. Nearly half of those released from prisons in California are locked up again within three years, according to the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. And that’s progress. A little over a decade ago, two-thirds of those released were back in a cell 36 months later. Part of that is due to “tough on crime” policies from the ’90s slowly giving way to less punitive approaches to a law enforcement — some imposed by voters, like Proposition 47, which reduced many drug felonies to simple misdemeanors, and some imposed by courts, like the federal mandate that California release prisoners to address severe overcrowding.

A RAND Institute study found that incarcerated people who participate in educational programs are 43 times less likely to recidivate within the next three years.

These reforms have meant fewer people being put in cells in the first place, and fewer people being sent back to them for minor parole violations. But despite renewed interest in rehabilitating those inside, a prison is a prison.

Prison is not a place where most people can rehabilitate themselves,” Ralston says. “The majority of folks who enter prison are coming from a place of severe trauma. “It’s not a supportive environment where people come to heal and become their best selves. Prison is overcrowded. There’s a lot of abuse and violence, and it can be a place where folks learn to check out.” Those conditions can lead to dulling the senses with drugs, or even acting out, as it were, so as to experience sensory deprivation in solitary confinement. “A lot of times folks just don’t want to deal with it,” Ralston says.

And when they get out? Not even those who fought fires for pennies an hour have much to bank on. The vast majority, like the vast majority of other prisoners, walk out poor and unemployed. Some make it, but the system that treats them like numbers does not put them in a position to succeed. That system, says Ralston, is “why we see a lot of people leaving prison worse off.”

“That’s the beauty of Project Rebound,” Ralston says. “We actually walk people out of being an incarcerated student to being a CSU student.” Founded by a formerly incarcerated man in 1967, the program expanded last fall from one school, San Francisco State University, to eight other Cal State campuses, from San Diego to Fresno.

The key, in Ralston’s experience, is giving people more than just the narrow technical skills to survive financially, but the language to describe their own experiences as well.

“Education is that transformative practice that people can own and have agency,” Ralston says. “Education is something people cannot take away from you. At some point within your education, the more education you have the less likely you are to recidivate. It opens up new pathways, new career opportunities. But education also helps to change the way that you see yourself in the world. That’s what it did for me. The more education I gained, I saw myself doing other things — different things, better things. I found myself in spaces with people that had no clue I had spent 23 years in prison and still don’t have a clue that I spent 23 years in prison.”

Twelve Fullerton students are now enrolled in Project Rebound, ranging in age from 23 to 54. Some have served just a few months in a county jail and others a couple decades in a state prison. There are many more who would like to participate. There is no lack of ex-prisoners in a state that imprisons roughly 130,000 people on any given day. Many are non-violent drug offenders, and many others committed property crimes. But there are also those who committed violent crimes. It’s no excuse for what they did to note that rehabilitation, of which education is a vital component, is in the interests of all — perpetrators, victims and neighbors.

A RAND Institute study found that incarcerated people who participate in educational programs are 43 times less likely to recidivate within the next three years. “This study demonstrates that education programs can help adults get back on their feet upon release from prison,” they wrote. Project Rebound encourages and enables that participation to continue, with internal data showing “only three percent of its students return to prison,” the Los Angeles Times reported.

“People don’t know there’s more people like me who have incarceration experiences in the community than folks like they see on television,” Ralston says. “Ninety-five percent of the folks that go into an institution come out. We’re everywhere. We’re serving your food, we’re riding in that Uber with you if you’re Uber Pooling. We’re flying on airplanes. We’re in classrooms with you. We’re everywhere.”


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Students Blast USC’s Handling of Sexual Harassment Case

Less than a week after a graduate student sued the University of Southern California for allegedly failing to adequately protect her from a professor who she said had sexually harassed her, students in USC’s School of Social Work told administrators they did not feel safe.

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68 faculty members signed an October 28 letter that questioned the university’s handling of Fenwick’s complaint against Guerrero.


Less than a week after a graduate student sued the University of Southern California for allegedly failing to adequately protect her from a professor who she said had sexually harassed her, students in the university’s School of Social Work told administrators they did not feel safe.

“Our main message to the administration was that we don’t feel safe the way things are right now,” Social Work doctoral student Robin Petering said after what she described as a “tense” but productive meeting on Monday where she said students covered the room’s windows to ensure their anonymity.

In her suit filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, USC doctoral candidate Karissa Fenwick said Social Work Professor Erick Guerrero, her dissertation advisor, tried to kiss her, causing her to flee his hotel room in January when they attended a conference in New Orleans. The next day, the suit said, Guerrero warned her not to tell anyone about the incident, saying, the Dean “has invested a lot in me and would never take your side.”

Fenwick said she wrestled with whether to report Guerrero. “On the one hand, reporting him felt like I was sabotaging my whole career,” she told CBS news after filing her lawsuit. “And on the other hand I felt like I could not stand back and just wonder if it was going to happen to somebody else if I never said anything. I felt I had to do it to protect other students.”

The university said in a statement that it took Fenwick’s complaint “very seriously” and “thoroughly investigated the claims.” Based on its findings, the statement said, USC disciplined Guerrero. “A financial penalty was imposed, he was barred from leadership positions, his office was relocated away from students, and he will not teach classes or supervise students for the current academic year and beyond,” the statement said. “And he was warned that any recurrence or retaliation could lead to dismissal.”

The statement also said USC “sought to support” Fenwick by providing a new dissertation advisor and prohibiting Guerrero “from any and all contact with her.”

Guerrero has denied the charges in Fenwick’s suit and has filed a grievance against the university for its handling of the case. He alleged in court papers responding to her complaint that Fenwick is retaliating against him for confronting what he called her inappropriately flirtatious dancing at a piano bar they and other colleagues visited before returning to his hotel room where he went to charge his phone. He said he also suggested that she find another supervisor for her dissertation.

“I would never put myself in a compromising situation that can take away all the things I have worked so hard to accomplish,” Guerrero said in a statement to CBS news.

Fenwick has denied Guerrero’s accusations, and her lawyer, John Winer, called his characterization of the evening in New Orleans as “slut-shaming.”

Fenwick’s lawsuit contends that a second student, identified only as “Student X,” also received unwelcome sexual attention from Guerrero about six years ago with invitations to the opera and compliments about her hair and outfits. Guerrero, the complaint alleges, once told Student X’s boyfriend at a dinner they attended, “You have good taste, and I’m not talking about your plate of food.”

Sixty-eight faculty members signed an October 28 letter that questioned the university’s handling of Fenwick’s complaint against Guerrero.

“We simply cannot reconcile the limited sanctions imposed by the university in light of our Office of Equity and Diversity’s determination that this colleague not only sexually harassed two students, but also then attempted to dissuade a complainant from reporting the incident,” the letter said. It also called on the university to consider dismissing Guerrero.

Fenwick and her supporters would like to use her case to make university-wide changes that result in more stringent discipline for harassment and more transparency about the results of investigations.

The lawsuit and university investigation are playing out against the backdrop of a rash of media reports of sexual harassment and other improprieties at USC, raising the question for some whether the university is doing enough to create a safe environment on campus. The Los Angeles Times has reported that USC Vice President of Advancement and Health Sciences Development David Carrera left his job in the wake of allegations that he sexually harassed female colleagues.

The Times reported in July that the former Keck School of Medicine Dean, Carmen Puliafito, had engaged in illegal drug use and consorted with prostitutes. Puliafito’s replacement, Rohit Varma, resigned as dean in early October after the Times revealed that he had been disciplined after a sexual harassment allegation from a young researcher in 2003.

These administrators were in high-profile positions and responsible for raising millions of dollars for the university. Guerrero, an associate professor, is an important figure his field, according to Fenwick, who has published with him.

The university has taken some steps in response to the harassment cases that have come to light over the past year. It has created a task force to oversee and implement workplace standards and a new vice provost of leadership development is being established to oversee hiring processes and work environment, according to the Daily Trojan, the campus newspaper.

Fenwick, who does not know if she will continue to pursue a career in academia, told Capital & Main she was asked to keep the investigation confidential even after the university found that Guerrero had violated the school’s sexual harassment policy. That sends the wrong message, she said.

“It’s hard to prevent sexual misconduct if people don’t ever see any deterrent to those behaviors,” Fenwick added. She said that while she can understand the impulse to want protect the professional reputation of someone found to have engaged in harassment, it is more important to the overall culture of an organization to send a message that the behavior will not be tolerated.

“I think we need to have more open conversations about what went wrong in my case,” Fenwick said. “We need to discuss what zero tolerance really means for anyone who is found to have engaged in sexual misconduct.”

Guerrero’s attorney, Mark Hathaway, said this case represents what’s wrong with having university administrators enforce Title IX rules governing sexual misconduct cases that can have such dire consequences for the accusers and the accused.

Hathaway said his client was unable to examine the evidence used to support the university’s sanctions against him. “The use of secret evidence in the 21st Century of the United States” for making important decisions is “unfathomable,” Hathaway said. The university did not respond to Capital & Main’s request for a response to Hathaway’s comments.

On Monday, School of Social Work Dean Marilyn Flynn released an open letter to students, faculty, staff and friends of the school in which she addressed the broader discussion around sexual harassment taking place across the country.

“The situation we find ourselves in today is sadly playing out in greater numbers and far beyond the walls of our institution,” Flynn wrote. “I am proud that the shame or fear that drives these incidents into secrecy is being replaced by the courage to come forward and say, ‘This happened to me and I won’t be silent about it anymore.’”


Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article incorrectly ascribed Erick Guerrero’s quote to Student X’s boyfriend as having been made to Karissa Fenwick’s boyfriend. We regret the error.

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Culture & Media

Epoch Story: A Stage Chronicle of Watts

A new historical play looks at a disputed tract of land that would eventually become Watts.

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Cheryl Umaña and Jeff Torres as Toya and Enrique. (Photo: Grettel Cortes Photography)

Early on in Evangeline Ordáz’s engaging and arrestingly mounted historical melodrama, an altercation ensues between Toya (Cheryl Umaña), a proud and angry Indian princess, and Enrique (Jeff Torres) the amiable son of a Mexican landowner. The year is 1843 and the issue is water; Enrique’s father, who was “granted” the land that had belonged to Toya’s Tongva people, has built a dam to detour water to his fields, leaving little for the Indians. Toya, whose chieftain dad (Richard Azurdia) is being held prisoner in the local mission, rages in her own language at the bewildered Enrique who, smitten, later marries her and tries, without much success, to make amends.

The story of Toya and Enrique is among five interwoven threads in this fictional tale that spans the 1840s to the present. Most of the events, which are contextualized by historical fact, take place in Watts, which Rancho Tajauta, the disputed tract, would later become. Over the years, the land was developed and came to be settled by white families, black families and then Hispanic ones. Directed with skill and sensitivity by Armando Molina, with the various characters depicted by seven performers, Ordáz’s script follows several generations of kin as they struggle to overcome racial tensions and defend their homes against gentrification and the wiles of unscrupulous buyers.

One bridge-building relationship evolves between two women: Leola (LeShay Tomlinson), an African-American widow who, in 1949, relocates from the South in search of a life with more dignity, and Maeve (Johanna McKay), her white neighbor who, unlike the bigots in their community, welcomes Leola with coffee and cake. Their friendship lasts for decades. Leola has a daughter, Leslie (Niketa Calame), who is a political activist in the ‘60s but later becomes a drug addict. She in turn has two daughters: Sharon (Tomlinson), a tough-talking gal who works at the DMV, and her younger half-sister Mel (Calame), a sweeter soul who, defying her sister’s prejudice against Mexicans, falls happily in love with their new neighbor, Fidel (Azurdia). Meanwhile, Maeve’s son (Ian Alda) has moved to Pasadena, changing his name so as not to appear Jewish like his father; his own son (Alda) becomes a land developer who returns to the old neighborhood to buy up property.

Johanna McKay and LeShay TomlinsonJohanna McKay and LeShay Tomlinson as Maeve and Leola. (Photo: Grettel Cortes Photography)

Some of the characters are sparely drawn, a by-product of an extended time frame and multiple scenarios compressed into about two hours. But under Molina’s direction, the ensemble steps to the plate, with textured portrayals that make up for any lack of depth on the page. Umaña is lovely as the spirited and then spiritually splintered Toya, while Tomlinson’s forthright matriarch is warm and familiar; she’s even better as the bossy and opinionated Sharon, whose scenes with Calame as her more spontaneous sister evoke the droll intimacy of people who know each other well. Both Calame as Mel and Torres (the latter in various roles, but especially as Toya’s kind and loving suitor, then spouse) project the winning charm of guileless individuals. These are people you like.

Time changes take place against an artfully conceived bleached landscape (set designer Justin Huen), effectively elaborated on by shifting lighting (Huen) and Benjamin Durham’s videography. Rebecca Kessn’s sound design aptly punctuates the drama.

One caveat: I would have appreciated a chyron to indicate at the beginning of each sequence what decade I was in. In some places, it took me a couple of minutes to get it. In particular, Calame’s transitions from the upbeat Mel to the depressed and angry Leslie could use sharper delineation in terms of costume or wig.


Company of Angels, 1350 San Pablo St., Los Angeles; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through Nov. 13. www.companyofangels.org

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Environment

South L.A. Residents Demand End to Urban Oil Drilling

Los Angeles is the most densely populated city in the country with oil drilling within its borders. It sits on top of one of the largest oil fields in the country, and oil fields are peppered throughout the region, usually hidden from sight.

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Neighbors: Oil platform in the middle of a residential neighborhood. (Photo: Larry Buhl)

At a site known simply as Jefferson, 36 oil wells are pumping closely – too closely, residents say — to occupied multi-unit apartment buildings at a drilling site on Jefferson Boulevard, just west of the University of Southern California. There is no noise buffer, vapor capture or enclosure around the site, and at one point there is no more than three feet between a resident’s bedroom window and the drill site wall. An Environmental Impact Report has never been done. Because the land was bought by Union Oil in 1965, the Jefferson drilling site predates the Environmental Protection Agency.

Corissa Pacillas said she has lived in a Craftsman-style building across from the Jefferson site for four years, and the oil production has made her sick at times.

“The noise pollution is severe when they’re putting pipes into the ground,” Pacillas said. “The chemicals that they use smell like rotten eggs. The area around here just stinks. The fumes give me headaches, and the neighbors have experienced that too.”

The Jefferson site’s operator, Denver-based Sentinel Peak Resources, doesn’t notify residents when toxic chemicals are being used in the neighborhood, said Niki Wong, a neighborhood resident and member of Redeemer Community Partnership, a community development nonprofit in South Los Angeles and a group opposed to urban oil drilling. “Sometimes we’ve seen four or five tanker trucks containing 5,000 gallons of hydrochloric and hydrofluoric acid,” Wong said. “After one of these acid jobs, all the plants downwind of the facility died.”

“There are studies that say explosions from sites like this could result in a 750 foot crater,” Wong added. “We are standing in a blast zone.”

Pacillas claimed she has to diligently monitor the company’s website to learn when production is underway. “The website that tells you when it’s going to happen is this long obscure [web address] that you wouldn’t be able to find if you didn’t know where to look,” she said.

Los Angeles is the most densely populated city in the country with oil drilling within its borders. It sits on top of one of the largest oil fields in the country, and oil fields are peppered throughout the region, usually hidden from sight. Some of the region’s biggest names, including Getty, Doheny and Bell, made their fortunes from oil after it was discovered that the area contained a huge stock of crude.

A 2014 report from the Natural Resources Defense Council estimated that one in three Angelenos live within a mile of an active drilling rig. The report also found that in Los Angeles County, more than half a million people live within 1,320 feet of an oil or gas well and that the vast majority of those residents are people of color.

A report from the Los Angeles-based Community Health Councils estimated in 2015 that 5,000 active oil and gas wells, spread across 10 oil fields and 70 different sites, were embedded in neighborhoods, parks and commercial districts throughout the city.

Though oil production slowed in the 1970s, new techniques like fracking (the injection of highly pressurized, chemical-laced water deep underground to break up rock formations containing fossil fuels) have returned some oil fields to production.

“Increased oil and gas production using these new technologies can bring more contaminants—many of which have been linked to respiratory and neurological problems, birth defects and cancer—to backyards, communities and cities,” the Natural Resources Defense Council report said.

In the wake of the Aliso Canyon natural gas blowout in 2015, which forced thousands to evacuate their homes in the San Fernando Valley, oil and gas development has been under greater scrutiny throughout Southern California.

For Angelenos living near drill sites, the battle is about health and safety, racial justice and, for some, faith and religion. For regulators, the issue is more about who is in charge of oil field operations within the city and what departments can hold drill site operators accountable.

In 2013 EPA investigators called a facility operated by Los Angeles’ AllenCo Energy “shoddy” after investigators who toured the site reported sore throats, coughing and severe, lingering headaches. Their experience prompted U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer to call for the site to be shut down. The Los Angeles City Attorney’s office demanded in 2016 that the company stop operations until it could meet stricter conditions, and AllenCo was also ordered to pay a $1.25 million.

Earlier this month, the city hit the Jefferson site and Sentinel Peak Resources with some of the toughest restrictions yet on an urban drilling. The Planning Department decision gave the company with 90 days to install new systems to continually monitor noise and vibration and to record video. The company must also measure air quality on the property’s perimeter, install new systems to capture emissions and build its walls higher to better enclose the site.

The decision was a response to a 2016 petition by the environmental law firm Earthjustice, which found that other sites in the city were quieter and had better protections for residents’ health.

Advocates for shutting down, or at least curtailing, drilling in Los Angeles are also enlisting faith leaders in their fight. And those leaders have found themselves arrayed against their colleagues of the cloth in  Los Angeles’ Roman Catholic Archdiocese.

The AllenCo drill site, near the University of Southern California, and the Murphy site in the historic West Adams district, sit on land owned by the L.A. Archdiocese. At a rally outside the archdiocese offices in early October, dozens of residents and faith leaders from South Los Angeles called on Archbishop José Gomez to terminate his church’s lease with the owner/operator of both sites, AllenCo Energy.

Rev. Oliver E. Buie of Holman United Methodist Church said he attended the rally because “God has called us to be good stewards over the earth. Many of the residents are not aware of these oil wells in their communities. People are . . . being harmed by these big oil companies that don’t care about the people, only the profits.”

Faith leaders attending the rally also pointed out that 40 Catholic organizations had recently pledged to divest from fossil fuels, and that Pope Francis stressed the importance of a carbon-neutral economy in a 2015 encyclical.

The archdiocese responded to protesters in a letter claiming it was not directly involved in the permitting process and does not operate the site. The letter also said the archdiocese was “working with the Mayor’s Office, the City of Los Angeles Oil Manager and AllenCo to explore possible alternative uses for the site in our continued commitment to the health and well-being of the entire community.”

Eric Romann, an organizer with STAND-LA (Stand Together Against Neighborhood Drilling), said the Archdiocese continues to avoid taking responsibility by not breaking its lease with AllenCo.

The archbishop “could shut down the AllenCo site with the stroke of a pen,” Romann said. “We want the church to be a good neighbor and not profit financially from something that’s poisoning residents.”

Ultimately, Romann said, STAND-LA and other community groups want urban oil drilling to end. Until that happens, they are demanding a 2,500-foot buffer between active drilling sites and homes, schools, churches and hospitals. The distance was determined after consulting experts in environmental burdens, the group said. That kind of setback could be difficult to achieve unless 90 percent of the city’s 322 active wells are shut down, according to the California Department of Oil Gas and Geothermal Resources.

Sabrina Lockhart, a spokeswoman for the California Independent Petroleum Association, which represents small oil producers, said shutting down wells on private property would be legally risky and, if successful, would lead to increased imports of oil and gas to meet the region’s needs.

“Los Angeles grew up around oil drilling, but recently producers have changed production techniques to have a much smaller footprint,” Lockhart said.

Industry opposition aside, there are indications that city and county officials are beginning to take the issue of urban drilling more seriously, even if it’s not clear exactly what can or should be done.

In 2014, on a 10-0 vote, the City Council passed a new ordinance ordering city staff to draft regulatons to ban hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and other well-stimulation activities, but those regulations have yet to be developed. Even so, Wong and other advocates say they are less concerned with the methods used – enhanced techniques versus traditional oil extraction – as much as they are about the proximity of the sites.

In 2016 Mayor Eric Garcetti appointed Uduak-Joe Ntuk as the city’s petroleum administrator, a position the mayor’s office said had been vacant for more than 30 years. It’s considered largely an advisory position, but earlier this year, the city council demanded that Ntuk study how the city could phase out oil and gas drilling near homes, schools, hospitals, parks and other public places.

In June the city council adopted a motion to study the health impacts of oil drilling in neighborhoods. A report is expected late this year. The county is reviewing existing studies and papers to identify what is known about oil and gas exposures and impacts on health.

Wong said recent efforts to look into problems associated with drilling are encouraging but that pressure must be brought on the mayor, city council and the city planning commission to scale back and phase out drilling in the city.

“We believe that oil drilling is fundamentally incompatible with urban life.”

Sentinel Peak Resources and the L.A. Archdiocese did not respond to a request for comment by publication time. AllenCo Energy said they had no comment on L.A. drilling sites.


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Culture & Media

Dick Gregory: A Stand-up Activist

This illuminating stage work about Dick Gregory, the late iconic comedian and civil rights activist, receives a powerhouse performance from Joe Morton as the stand-up comic.

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Deborah Klugman

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Joe Morton as Dick Gregory. (Photos by Lawrence K. Ho)

Before Dick Gregory, black entertainers weren’t allowed to sit on the Tonight Show ’s couch. A talk with Gregory and Jack Paar changed that.


In his powerhouse performance as Dick Gregory, the stand-up comic who rose to fame in the 1960s, Joe Morton tells the following story: He was civil rights organizing in the South with his good friend Medgar Evers, when he received a call informing him that his infant son had died. Gregory packed up and went home to comfort his grieving wife. Two weeks later a white supremacist shot down Evers in his own driveway as his family watched — an end, reflects Morton’s Gregory, that might have been his had not fate intervened.

The anecdote is one of many that emerge in Gretchen Law’s Turn Me Loose, an illuminating work about this iconic comedian who passed away last August at age 84. Directed by John Gould Rubin, the play shifts back and forth from the 1960s, when Gregory was a trailblazing black entertainer — widely regarded as the first African-American comic to successfully perform before both black and white audiences.

Turn Me Loose isn’t a chronological narrative, but we do learn about Gregory’s background, confided to us in the course of his stand-up routines. Born dirt poor in Alabama in 1932, he grew up exposed to racism at its rawest: When he was 10, he had two front teeth knocked out for touching a white woman’s leg. (He was shining shoes.) He made it to college by dint of skills as a runner, but left before graduating to pursue his career as a stand-up. Hugh Hefner spotted him and gave him a gig at the Playboy Club, where he performed before groups of white Southerners who heckled him viciously, shouting out “nigger” and other epithets. In the play, reminiscences like these are vividly re-enacted, with supporting actor John Carlin (spot-on in multiple roles) depicting these bigots with frightening credibility.

The play also highlights a turning point in Gregory’s career when, in 1961, he was invited to appear on the Tonight Show with Jack Parr. At the time, black entertainers might be invited to perform, but they were never permitted to “sit on the couch” with the host and chat as equals. On principle, Gregory refused the invitation numerous times — even hanging up on some of the calls. One particularly intense scene re-imagines Gregory’s frenzied frustration at turning down an opportunity that might change his life. In the end Parr personally called, and after the two men spoke, Gregory became the first guest of color to sit on the couch.

Some of the mid-20th century riffs are a “blast from the past” and not in a good way: They take you back to when racism was everywhere crude, overt and systemic, and the threat of violence was ever present. But these same elements underscore the courage of this smart, talented man who put himself out there, on the theatrical stage and the public one. The play actually becomes more powerful when it draws away from Gregory the entertainer to Gregory the activist and thinker, who warns us that our focus on Middle Eastern terrorists or on political skirmishes based on religion or ethnicity are merely distractions foisted on us by powerful oligarchs who stand to gain from our squabbling.

Morton is just terrific: Beautifully paced by Rubin, his portrayal is an uplifting tour de force that begins modestly and gradually grows more emotionally encompassing. His physical energy is inspiring. As Gregory, his moments of rumination on the death of Evers are especially moving. Reportedly, Evers’ dying utterance was “Turn me loose” — an apt title surely for Law’s play about someone who told it like he saw it, and held nothing back.


Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2:30 p.m.; (310) 746-4000 or TheWallis.org/TML; through Nov. 19.

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