Somewhere in the middle of Bryonn Bain’s soulful one-of-a-kind show, the playwright/poet/performer recounts an interview between himself and a public defender. Their talk takes place in an interrogation room in a New York City police precinct, where Bain has been wrongly detained on criminal charges. The Nuyorican Grand Slam Poetry champion and teacher of incarcerated youth explains to the legal aid attorney that the situation at hand is a case of mistaken identity, and patiently introduces himself as a professional individual — a graduate of Columbia, teaching at NYU and studying law at Harvard.
The attorney — the second he’s spoken to after the first one brusquely and indifferently dismissed his claims — seems empathetic, but wears a surgical mask and gloves, and identifies herself as a professional nurse (a certification she holds in addition to her law degree). Instead of accepting Bain’s word, she suggests that he is lying about his degrees, or that he may be confusing reality and fantasy, and needs help.
Bain’s tale of this run-in with New York City law enforcement is a single thread in a multilayered multimedia work that highlights racial profiling and the unjust incarceration of hundreds of thousands of Americans — the majority of whom are poor and people of color. The show, a fusion of music and spoken word against a backdrop of stunning images, illuminates this national stain in a profound way. It’s at once a personal story and an all-embracing one.
Directed by Gina Belafonte, Lyrics From Lockdown starts out low-key — on a proscenium, absent the performer, but with the melancholic refrain of Sting’s “How Fragile We Are” reverberating as the statistics of incarceration in the U.S. (which have mounted from decade to decade) are projected onto an overhead scrim. Then Bain appears, descending from a high balcony, voicing his own lyrics to Sting’s haunting score.
Once face to face with the audience, he begins a parable about Beauty and Ugliness. (The latter once stole Beauty’s garments and wore them, leaving Beauty bereft — and ever since some people have confused the two.) The tale is a preface to his theme that “things are not what they seem” — and to a subsequent parade of hip-hop and spoken word that juxtaposes personal anecdotes, anthropomorphic parables (reflecting his Trinidadian heritage) and social and political commentary that speak to the empowerment of people of color, the importance of personal freedom, and the distinction between religion and spirituality.
One of his most vivid portrayals is of his mom, a dedicated church–goer whom he describes as “the tallest 4’ 11” tree in the forest.” She once threatened a bully with knife in defense of her elder sister, and her notion of following in Jesus’ footsteps was to take up a sword rather than turn the other cheek.
The most heartrending element of the show are the “death row” letters of Nanon Williams, now a writer and prison activist, whose open, handsome face we observe on a back screen, as we listen to his words in voice-over. Williams, aged 17, was convicted of murder in 1992 and placed on Death Row in Texas, where he remains, despite numerous legal appeals, the vacating of his death sentence in 2005 and a judge having ordered his release on the grounds of ineffective counsel. (Amnesty International had cast doubt on his guilt in a report issued in 2004.)
Though I can tell you what Bain’s show is about and what he strives to share, it’s more difficult to convey the combined artistry of this production, its skillful blend of poetry, music and image, constructed around this singular talent. The live band — Isaiah Gage on cello, Click tha Supa Latin on beatbox and John B. Williams on bass — are integral to the performance, best described as art, in the service of justice, at its best.
The Actors Gang, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City; Thurs., 8 p.m. (pay-what-you-can; arrive before 7:30 p.m.); Fri., 9 p.m., Sat., 8 p.m.; through February 25. (310) 838-4264 or theactorsgang.com
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.”
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.
Cornerstone Theater Company Delivers More Food for Thought
Playwright Michael John Garcés’ labyrinthine plot follows two sisters through a myriad of fantastical scenarios involving a mega-corporation that aims to control worldwide food production.
Magic Fruit is the latest (and last) offering in the Cornerstone Theater Company’s Hunger Cycle of nine plays exploring “hunger, justice and food equity issues.” It opens with sisters Tami (Cristina Frias) and Kiko (Rachael Portillo), frantic and bedraggled, stumbling through a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles in search of refuge from a shadowy serpentine monster — hunger itself. Their quest for salvation transports them through a myriad of fantastical scenarios in which the prime adversary is a mega-corporation that aims to control worldwide agricultural production. Produced through a partnership of artists and community members, a Cornerstone hallmark, the show features major life-or-death themes, ecological warnings and some spectacular tech — but the story is convoluted and much of the acting too weak to ignore.
Directed by Shishir Kurup, playwright Michael John Garcés’ labyrinthine plot takes inspiration from Mozart’s The Magic Flute. In this rather loose adaptation, Tami, a former gang member, and the younger Kiko become separated after Kiko is abducted by the temperamental Queen of the Rain (Page Leong). The spine of the story is Tami’s search to rescue Kiko, which can happen only if she can recover the Queen’s missing heart. This organ (named Corazón and depicted by Bethany Nava in a sparkly blue costume) has been captured by the bad guys, who plan to use her blood to make seeds that require no rain — an enormous plus in a world ravaged by drought.
Page Leong and Bethany Nava.
The main storyline is interspersed with minor characters: a trio of desperate farmers, another threesome of 21st century skateboarders, a triad of gardeners and so on. A rapscallion named Mondiablo (Peter Howard) who works for the company plans to extort the board of directors, but they fire him first. The show’s comic highlight is the Flaming Hot Cheeto (Lee Maupin), a bright-orange, misshapen figure who won’t divulge information unless he’s bitten (beware that one).
The most interesting (and least whimsical) scenes depict the machinations of this Monsanto-like corporation to gain and retain power. Eight actors represent this monolith, whose most vocal spokesperson, curtly played by Bahni Turpin, is suitably and incisively ruthless.
As Tami, Frias provides a strong and likable anchor for the disparate narrative; the world is coming apart around her, and her desperate resistance is charismatic. Portillo, whose character, unfortunately, is off-stage for quite a while, is another strong and sympathetic presence to root for.
But other performances drain the production of energy. Inexplicably, Kurup has cast the major role of Pageni, a free-spirited Native American who befriends the women, with an inexperienced actor (Courage) whose delivery underscores the character’s airheaded blandness. Nava and others also appear to be relative newbies onstage. I understand that, by design, not everyone here is supposed to be professional, but characters essential to moving the action forward should be played by one.
The production’s most striking aspect is the accomplished work of its tech team — most notably video designer Sean Cawelti’s absolutely stunning apocalyptic imagery, but also the intricate sound and artful lighting by John Nobori and Geoff Korf respectively, and the droll imaginative costumes by Meghan E. Healey. It is these combined elements which best relay Magic Fruit’s haunting message.
Cornerstone Theater Company at the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles, 138 W. First Street, Los Angeles; Wed.-Thurs., 7:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through December 10. cornerstonetheater.org
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.
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?
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.
‘Yerma’ Update Suffers From Weak Ensemble
Inspired by Federico Garcia Lorca’s 1934 classic play, Yerma, this one-act by Oliver Mayer is set in contemporary Los Angeles where Yerma (Jean Murillo) labors as part of a janitorial team at an elite university.
Anthony Bryce Graham and Jean Murillo. (All photos by Luis Kelly-Duarte.)
In Yerma in the Desert, the desert is less an external place than the state of mind of the title character. Written by Oliver Mayer, the play is inspired by Federico Garcia Lorca’s 1934 classic Yerma, whose central character, the wife of a shepherd, is childless and unhappy.
Mayer’s one-act is set in contemporary Los Angeles where Yerma (Jean Murillo) labors as part of a janitorial team at an elite university. She’s an amiable pleasant-tempered woman who works hard — prompting the scorn of her fellow workers, put off by her willingness to undertake double shifts and good-naturedly scrub toilets. Yerma’s husband Juan (Anthony Bryce Graham) also looks down on her occupation; he’s an ambitious man who has just joined the police force, a move he regards as upwardly mobile and empowering. While he values their marriage, their intimacy is passionless and he doesn’t want children. Yerma, however, is desperate for a baby, and while she isn’t looking to have an affair, she does have this old friend Victor (Paul Tully ) to whom she’s uneasily drawn.
Jean Murillo and Marilyn Fitoria.
Running in tandem with the main story is a subplot in which Yerma’s boss Trini (Brenda Banna) schemes to wreak revenge on a snooty student who has disparaged one of her workers. Her plan is to plant dope in the student’s dorm room, then tip off the authorities to have him expelled. The take-no-prisoners Trini has also taken Yerma under her wing, hooking her up with the university’s fertility expert, Professor Stallworthy (Spencer Weitzel), in order to bring her wish for a child to fruition, with or without her husband’s participation.
Written specifically for this company, Urban Theatre Movement, Mayer’s soundly constructed and fluid script has considerable dramatic potential. But Lorca’s Yerma — a barren woman in a pastoral community where female personhood can be attained only by having kids — doesn’t translate all that aptly to our modern era. Inconsistencies in Juan’s character are also problematic; he’s possessive of Yerma and wants to stay married to her but doesn’t want to touch her or be touched. (He’s always been this way, he tells her.) Again, this story element plays fittingly against the backdrop of a primitive patriarchal culture, with its strict code of honor and its emphasis on appearances, but it’s harder to buy in the here and now. (The most likely explanation for this character’s disparities is that he’s in in the closet, but that’s not suggested in the script or developed otherwise in the production.)
While these issues might have been ironed out in performance, sadly, that would have required more depth and skill than this ensemble displays. Co-directed by Edgar Landa and Marlene Forte on a dreary set (by Sarah Steinman), the performances for the most part come off as non-professional. Graham, as the conflicted controlling Juan, has the most interesting role, but there’s no real life to this performer’s delivery — he’s in over his head. Murillo’s Yerma exudes an appealing aura, but her desperation is more presentational than palpable; there are no layers here, nor are there among most of the supporting players. The exceptions are a crisp and lively Marilyn Fitorina as Yerma’s reluctantly pregnant co-worker, and Weitzel, whose patronizing man of science is credible and solid.
Mayer’s inclusion of class conflict in his drama is its most intriguing and significant aspect. In the program notes, he writes of wanting to highlight the interior lives of working people — like the maintenance people in this story — whose humanity is often barely recognized by everyone else; they’re perceived as part of the supporting apparatus of our lives, with no independent lives of their own. This effort to illuminate their perspective is a vital and all-too-rare dramatic goal, and with better direction and a more seasoned ensemble it easily could be accomplished with more power and grace. I do hope it is, down the line.
Years of Infamy: A New Documentary About the Japanese-American Internment
And Then They Came For Us is not the first film to tell the story of Executive Order 9066. Rarely, however, has any account of this shameful history been presented with such persuasively contemporary urgency.
On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized the War Department to declare much of the West Coast to be military exclusion zones, resulting in the arrest, removal and incarceration of 120,000 law-abiding residents — including roughly 70,000 birthright American citizens — for the offense of being of the wrong race during wartime. Civil rights vanished for Americans of Japanese descent who were forcibly uprooted and deprived of their property without due process.
Social justice filmmakers Abby Ginzberg and Ken Schneider’s powerful new documentary, And Then They Came For Us, is not the first to tell the story of one of modern America’s most ignominious mass violations of civil rights. Rarely, however, has any account of this shameful history been presented with such persuasively contemporary urgency.
From Ginzberg’s opening shots of protest at San Francisco Japantown’s February 19th Day of Remembrance march, to the film’s concluding call for solidarity between the survivors of 9066 and the Muslim immigrants who now find themselves targeted by yet another baldly racist executive action, it is always harrowingly apparent who is behind today’s clear and present danger to bedrock civil liberties.
In fact, as Ginzberg explained to Capital & Main, it wasn’t until the days following Donald Trump’s 2016 election victory that she became convinced she had a compelling enough hook on which to hang an otherwise oft-told tale. That’s when she saw Trump surrogate Carl Higbie appear on TV and cite the wartime internment as a precedent for candidate Trump’s calls for a “complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” which included surveillance against mosques and establishing a database for all U.S. Muslims.
“I could suddenly see the politics of the film, I could understand its importance to today,” she recalled. “It didn’t become [a] dry history based on post-World War II analysis. It made me get very excited about it and decide that this film had to be done. We needed to find a way to get it out into the world as quickly as possible.”
Her idea was to approach the internment as if it were a breaking news story. By keeping it lean, forgoing lengthy fundraising or complicated locations, the film might get from script to screen while the headlines were still fresh enough to have an impact. That’s when the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, which funds progressive investigative journalism, ponied up for the entire budget — a rare stroke of fortune in the social justice filmmaking world: “I was able to create a budget, give it to them and say, ‘I will do this film if you pay the bills.’ And they did. We started filming in October of 2016. And we finished it kind of mid- to end-of-April, 2017. For me that is record time.” (Disclosure: The foundation is a financial supporter of this website.)
The heart of And Then They Came for Us lies in the trauma and unreconciled anger of the incarcerated — including the articulate testimony of former camp children like actor-activist George Takei. The experiences of now-deceased adults survive in an extraordinary trove of documentary images taken by photographers hired as government propagandists by the War Relocation Authority (WRA). The photographers, among them Ansel Adams and the magnificent Dorothea Lange, were carefully monitored by minders lest they violate rules against taking photos of camp barbed wire, guard towers and heavily armed military police. The prisoners themselves were forbidden cameras of any kind, and it is ironic that the only images of the Japanese-Americans behind barbed wire are those taken by internee Toyo Miyatake, using smuggled equipment and film.
“We tapped into a reservoir of stories,” said Ginzberg, “and we were able to kind of cobble the film from everybody contributing something. But the two people who lead the film are George Takei and Satsuki Ina, who really have spent a lot of their lives working on this. … A third person, who’s not related at all to George, is Barbara Takei, who’s part of the Tule Lake Committee.” Local authorities, she added, “are now threatening to build an airfield sorta smack in the middle of the Tule Lake camp, which would mean that any notion of sacred space, or being able to [honor] it as a historical site, will go to hell.”
Eschewing the usual newsreel footage, Ginzberg sought — and was given — unrestricted access to recently unearthed and previously unpublished photographs, and research culled by photo historians Richard Cahan and Michael Williams for their 2016 coffee-table tome Un-American: The Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War II. The book includes 170 images drawn from a 7,000-shot archive of the “evacuation.” Ginzberg mostly narrows that to the work of Adams and Lange. And it is the unwavering gaze of the Lange portraits — part of an almost legendary, 800-image cache that was immediately impounded and “lost” for 60 years by the U.S. Army — that drives home the human scale of the tragedy. Many of Lange’s photos were impounded for too truly reflecting the emotional reality of the camps.
“We try to let the photos in a certain way speak for themselves,” Ginzberg pointed out. “We’re letting people sort of read it in the faces of the Dorothea Lange [images], and something — “magical” is not the right word — but something deep happens in the experience of looking at those photos that are up there a little bit longer than they might be in some other setting. [Audiences are] able to read, as Takei says, the resilience and the stress. And so there’s something happening that becomes a first-person experience.”
In one of the most haunting scenes, internment historian and filmmaker Satsuki Ina, who was born in 1944 at the Tule Lake Segregation Camp near the Oregon border, a maximum security facility reserved for “troublemaker” activists, pensively encounters a Lange portrait of her mother, Shizuko, taken in 1942. Capturing an attractive, immaculately dressed young woman, the picture freezes a moment when her features are visibly drawn in worry as she waits with other first- and second-generation Japanese-Americans on a long sidewalk queue underneath government posters announcing their imminent removal.
Other speakers describe remarkably similar memories of the pain of witnessing their parents undergo the humiliation of gradually being shorn of their freedom and independence. Within a matter of weeks, the WRA froze bank accounts, limited movement and finally stripped internees of their automobiles and other property through forced sales. Los Angeles families were shipped to the Santa Anita racetrack and housed in horse stalls. Orwellian euphemisms ran through a government narrative that spoke soothingly of “evacuations” and “relocation centers,” rather than forced removals and concentration camps.
According to Ginzberg the film has been well received by audiences at the handful of film festivals it has entered since its May premiere. She’s been offering it for sale on the movie’s website for activist groups that have already hosted a number of screenings around the country, and it has played particularly well with teachers. Ginzberg’s strategy is to market the film as a classroom-friendly component (the runtime is 46 minutes) to lesson plans about the incarceration.
“Let’s see if we can’t educate people, organize people and have this film be as relevant as possible to what is going on, particularly with the Muslim travel ban, and then with other really repressive immigration policies.”
The November 27 Los Angeles premiere for And Then They Came for Us, at the Downtown Independent Theater, is sold out. Other screenings can be found at thentheycamedoc.com.
Copyright Capital & Main
The Dark, Funny & Thorny Stage of ‘Caught’
Christopher Chen’s play is partly inspired by the real-life controversy surrounding playwright/performer Mike Daisey’s 2011 solo piece, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.
Louis Changchien and Jessica Kaye. (Photo: Vincent Madero)
Unfolding like a set of Russian nesting dolls, Christopher Chen’s intensely clever play points to our penchant for accepting whatever we’re told, and the equivocacy of what we commonly refer to as “the truth”
A dark comedy that deals with cultural appropriation, the tension between journalism and art, intellectual obfuscation and a host of other thorny themes, Caught is partly inspired by the real-life controversy surrounding playwright/performer Mike Daisey. Daisey’s 2011 solo piece, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, addressed the exploitation of Chinese workers in factories manufacturing Apple products. In 2012 a judgmental uproar ensued after it came to light that the writer had fictionalized elements of his narrative. Sturm und drang spun around his manipulation of the particulars of his account, distracting people from one hard, cold fact: Most of what he talked about was true.
Directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskandar, Caught is staged in an upstairs warehouse space on an intimidatingly dark deserted street in Los Angeles’ garment district. The obscure doorway leads up a flight of stairs to a sprawling set of rooms with a small art exhibit. The work on display is credited to Lin Bo (Louis Ozawa Changchien), identified as a Chinese conceptual artist jailed for two years for having organized a protest in China — albeit a virtual one, since no gathering of demonstrators ever actually took place. After some mingling, it’s announced that the artist will give a speech. His monologue recounts his history as a dissident and two years spent in a Chinese prison, where the inmates survived on watery cabbage soup, whose dregs they fed to rats in the toilet.
For Scene 2 the audience is guided to a room with a small platform for a stage, and the show shifts gears. We are no longer idling spectators at an exhibition but audience members watching a play — an exchange between Lin Bo and an up-and-coming journalist, Joyce (Jessica Kaye), doing a piece on him for the New Yorker. Jessica is accompanied by her editor, Bob (Steven Klein) and the two are combing Lin’s account for its veracity. In subsequent scenes, the narrative morphs further as we’re introduced to another artist, Wang Min (Jackie Chung), whose serpentine connection to everything that’s gone before would be a spoiler to reveal. Suffice it to say that, when interviewed by an art curator (Kaye), Wang decimates that lady’s aplomb with brilliant double-speak, reducing her to tears. The takeaway from her discourse is that attempts at intercultural communication of any kind are always futile and pointless.
Caught is the sort of acerbically entertaining work whose pointed irony reflects the nausea-inducing convolutions current on our nation’s public stage — making the plentiful laughs rueful ones indeed. Iskandar directs a smart, assured ensemble, but of particular note is Chung as an intellectual dragon lady you absolutely do not want to mess with, while Kaye seems born to play a bright-eyed ambitious young writer — both privileged and vulnerable.
The tech — Stephen Gifford’s set, Derrick McDaniel’s lighting and Cricket Myers’ sound — aptly frames the show, but it is Chen’s savvy writing that is the true star of this immersive event.
Think Tank Gallery, 939 Maple Ave., Downtown Los Angeles; Thurs.- Sun., 7:30 p.m.; through Dec. 10; www.thinktank.gallery
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Water and Power: Fracking Meets Magical Realism in a New Play
Playwright Josefina López appropriates the basic construct of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, tosses in large dollops of magical realism and transforms the lead character from a 19th-century Norwegian doctor into a 21st-century Mexican curandera.
In An Enemy of the Pueblo, playwright Josefina López appropriates the basic construct of Henrik Ibsen’s classic, tosses in a few large dollops of magical realism, and transforms the lead character from a 19th-century Norwegian doctor into a 21st-century Mexican curandera. The result is a stirring adaptation that features a luminous Zilah Mendoza as an earthy, compassionate, albeit flawed, woman of principle.
As in the original, the bone of contention between the “enemy” and everyone else is the contamination of local water. Ibsen’s hero, Dr. Stockmann, uncovers pollution in the public baths which, if revealed, will damage the town’s tourist trade. The good doctor’s predilection to tell the truth alarms government and business interests, not least of whom is his brother, the town mayor.
In López’s version, Magda (Mendoza), a midwife and shaman with supranatural gifts, dreams that water in her small rural village has turned toxic, killing all her neighbors. Later, awake, she learns that poison really has been generated by a U. S. company’s fracking , and that her own twin brother Pedro (Arturo Aranda, Jr.), also the mayor, has approved this violation of the land.
Magda has other problems. Her past accomplishments include vanquishing the narcos that had been plaguing her people; she did this by casting a not-quite-kosher curse on their leader, El Sapo (Paul Renteria). He now haunts her, as does her dead husband Eugenio (Javier Ronceros), who met his end pursuing this same evil dude — but with a gun, rather than a magic spell. Magda’s losses and regrets have driven her to a cozy relationship with tequila; a bottle is always on hand, and she sometimes shares it with the gringo O’Connor (William Jaramillo), who’d happily take care of her if she’d let him, which she won’t. Magda keeps O’Connor at a distance not only because she’s still mourning her husband but because her life’s priorities lie elsewhere. “I serve God,” she tells those who would castigate her as a bruja —and her actions, along with her fearless tongue, give you little reason to doubt it.
Directed by Corky Dominguez, An Enemy of the Pueblo is one of those still-too-rare dramatic vehicles fashioned from a female perspective, with a strong insightful female character driving the story. Magda’s most vital relationships are arguably with her daughter (Laura Bravatti), her granddaughter (Angiee Lombana), who has inherited her gifts, and the other women in her town who continually seek her help.
The plot’s melodramatic elements are unabashed, but it doesn’t matter because they are counterbalanced by the importance and respect the characters lend each other. As to the narrative’s magical elements, it’s to the credit of both playwright and Mendoza’s performance that their authenticity is never in question. When Magda lifts her arm, then lowers it in one commanding swoop, you do believe something supernatural has taken place. These moments are intensely enhanced by Kevin Eduardo Vasquez’s fluid lighting, as well as the visuals (that rain!) created by tech director and special effects designer Sohail e. Najafi.
Designer Marcos De Leon’s set aptly conjures Magda’s humble yet somehow runic abode, while J.D. Mata’s music wraps the story in a befitting ballad of the desert. Abel Alvarado’s costuming of Mendoza enhances the character’s charm.
The production’s weak link is the supporting ensemble, which includes cast members with little or no on-stage experience. This company has proud visible roots in the surrounding community, so the use of non-professionals may be a conscious directorial choice — but the bottom line is the show is not as good as it might have been with more skilled actors. Among the secondary characters, Aranda makes the best impression as Magda’s sellout brother.
Still, I do recommend An Enemy of the Pueblo: A charismatic lead performance, strong feminist themes and pleasing production elements are more than ample reason to see it.
Casa 0101, 2102 E. First St, East L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m.; through November 12; (323) 263-7684, email@example.com, or www.casa0101.org.
Copyright Capital & Main
The Art of the Border: Searching for Kikito
Co-published by The American Prospect
Kikito, an enormous photograph of a 1-year-old child, pasted onto plywood sheets, stands 65 feet high on Mexico’s side of the border. Viewed from the U.S., he is a giant black-and-white toddler, his chubby hands appearing to grip the top of the border wall as he looks over it, into the mysterious United States.
All Photographs by David Bacon
A French artist’s colossal installation on Mexico’s side of the border may make the invisible visible, but other subjects carry a sharper critical edge and pose deeper questions.
Co-published by The American Prospect
For almost an hour Laura, Moises and I drove through the dusty neighborhoods of Tecate, looking for Kikito. Tecate is a small border city in the dry hills of Baja California. It’s famous for a huge brewery, although today most workers find jobs in local maquiladoras.
When we asked for directions, a couple of people had heard of Kikito, but couldn’t tell us where he was. Most didn’t know who we were talking about.
We figured that if we kept driving along the border fence we’d find him. In these neighborhoods the second stories of large comfortable homes, mostly built in the 1940s and ’50s, rise above adobe walls enclosing their courtyards. But unlike downtown, with its colorful bustle, there was no street life on the hot streets here, hardly anyone on the sidewalk.
Finally we passed the one man who could surely tell us how to find Kikito — the cable guy. He even volunteered to lead us in his van part of the way. Using his directions, we bumped along a dirt road next to the border fence, up and down a couple of hills where the city fades into scrubland. Then we found Kikito.
He was much larger than I’d imagined.
Kikito is an enormous photograph of a 1-year-old child, pasted onto plywood sheets. The assemblage is mounted on a huge, complex metal scaffold, 65 feet high, much like what painters erect to embrace the buildings they work on. Kikito’s scaffolding, however, doesn’t embrace anything. Instead, it pushes the enormous photograph towards, and above, the border wall’s severe vertical iron bars.
The structure is so big that to bring the photo into position, part of the hillside had to be excavated, and a hole dug deep into the ravine at the bottom. I felt like Dorothy going behind the curtain to confront the Wizard as he manically pulls levers to present his fierce, disembodied face to the world. Like the Wizard’s, you can only see Kikito’s visage the right way from the other side of the curtain — in this case, the metal fence separating Tecate from the U.S.
Virtually every family has a member or friend who’s crossed to the U.S., where over nine percent of the country’s population now lives.
Viewed from the U.S. side, Kikito becomes a giant black-and-white toddler, his chubby hands appearing to grip the top of the border wall as he looks over it, into the mysterious United States. He has a slight smile.
If we’d been on the U.S. side, driving east from San Diego, we could have followed the directions Kikito’s creator, the French artist JR, posted on his website. There you can even see JR’s photograph of two U.S. Border Patrol agents staring at the baby. Apparently they often help visitors find the right spot.
We now have 20,000 Border Patrol agents, whose parked vans dot the desert all along the border wall from California to Texas, as they wait to grab someone trying to cross. Helping visitors find Kikito must provide a welcome break in the tedium of watching and waiting, and sweating in vans on shadeless hills, where the temperature climbs to 105 degrees and above.
At this spot along the border wall between Mexico and the U.S., Border Patrol agents fired through the wall and killed Ramsés Barron-Torrés. His portrait and a cross are on the wall of the building in Mexico below, where he fell. Agents say they were justified in shooting because people were throwing stones at them, but the street is far below and there is little danger that a stone could even pass through the iron bars at such a distance.
It’s obvious that Kikito’s audience is located in the U.S. “The piece is best viewed from the U.S. side of the border,” JR’s website explains. In fact, the optical effect can only be seen from that side — Mexicans standing in Tecate, where it’s actually located, can’t see it the right way. JR says Kikito is looking “playfully,” but then admits, “Kikito and his family cannot cross the border to see the artwork from the ideal vantage point.”
I took a photo of Laura on a nearby hummock, just to give an idea of the structure’s immense scale. She seems diminutive next to it. In her classes at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte (COLEF) in Tijuana, and in her books and research about the migration of Mexico’s indigenous people to Baja California and eventually to the U.S., Laura Velasco is hardly dispassionate. She advocates for migrants, and has no love for the wall and its unsubtle messages of “Keep Out!” and “Stay in Mexico!”
“We are the invisible people. In this life, no one counts for less than a deported Mexican.”
That’s one reason she liked Kikito. “He shows us to be human beings,” she said, looking up at his half smile. “That’s a good message for people in the U.S. And he does it without shouting, just by being who he is.” If people in Mexico can’t see him properly, she thinks, they’re not the ones who need to get the message anyway.
When the installation went up, President Trump had just issued his threat to terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA ) program, withdrawing the legal status of 800,000 young people brought by their parents to the U.S. without visas as children. Many of those youth — the Dreamers — saw a baby looking over the border wall as a symbol of their own humanity in the face of fear and possible deportation.
Yet my visceral reaction, as I looked down the hillside at this immense toddler, was more skeptical. In a desert where hundreds of people die every year of thirst and exhaustion, trying to dodge Border Patrol agents, trekking on foot across the wall in the intense heat, is it enough to simply say, “Immigrants are human beings”? Why such a soft message in such a harsh context?
Migrants found dead on the border between the U.S. and Mexico, in the area of the Imperial Valley and Colorado River, are buried in a potters field graveyard in Holtville. The identities of many are not known, and are buried as “John Doe” or “Jane Doe.” Immigrant-rights and religious activists have made crosses for many of the graves, most of which say “No Olvidados,” or “Not Forgotten.”
The wall, and the border militarization of which it is a part, is exacting a terrible cost. It’s paid by uprooted Oaxacan farmers needing work and money to send home, by parents and children desperate to reunite families fractured by earlier migrations, by Honduran refugees fleeing violence. When many die crossing the desert (232 in the first seven months of 2017), they’re buried in the Holtville cemetery, 89 miles east of Kikito in the Imperial Valley.
Successive U.S. administrations have beefed up the Border Patrol’s numbers, built multiple walls, handed out contracts for high-tech surveillance devices, detained hundreds of thousands of people in for-profit detention centers and then deported them. It’s a big media story, and produces a fascination with the border among U.S. photographers and artists, who then create photodocumentaries and art projects currently popular in the mainstream media. The border sells, in other words. Kikito is part of a growing genre.
Richard Misrach, a well-known photographer, produced a large book of photographs, Border Cantos, which shows the absurdity of a wall of iron bars that suddenly stops at a golf course, allowing real estate agents to play through. He communicates an atmosphere of violence in images of spent shells on the range where Border Patrol agents practice shooting, and the possibility of death from thirst in images of flags signaling the water cans left by immigration activists and Good Samaritans along the migrant trails. But like Kikito, his audience is in the U.S. The photographs, almost all without people, look at the border wall from the northern side.
Some projects are less documentary. In the New Yorker, writer Jonathan Blitzer recounts how Magnum photographer Carolyn Drake “set out for the U.S.-Mexico border just after Donald Trump won the Presidency.”
“Where is Drake taking us?” Blitzer asks. “This is an American project, she told me. She’s less concerned with who’s crossing to or from Mexico than she is with who’s already on the American side, living alongside the border as though wedged between two worlds.”
The New Yorker labeled Drake’s work “Haunted Photographs of America’s Borderlands,” a phrase that signals that we’re only looking at the border from the U.S. side. “Our obsession with the border has a lot of fantasy involved,” Drake explained to Blitzer. ”You’re searching for something, but it’s not really there.” Her 22 photographs on the magazine’s website are all taken in the U.S. — Mexicans only exist once they’ve arrived in the north.
“When did this contemporary diaspora become a ‘fantasy’?” asks Don Bartletti, who in his years at the Los Angeles Times probably took more photographs of the border than any other U.S. photographer. “The border is certainly clearly defined for millions of people searching for something better on the other side.”
Another New Yorker writer, Alexandra Schwartz, calls JR “a magician who conjures people onto walls.” She notes that he’s done other photographic projects on the same scale, pasting black-and-white portraits of immigrants onto buildings and walls in Europe and elsewhere. He too got his impetus from Trump. “When Trump started to talk a lot about a wall along the Mexican border, one day I woke up and I saw a kid looking over the wall,” JR told Schwartz. “We know that a 1-year-old doesn’t have a political vision, or any political point of view. He doesn’t see walls as we see them.”
I’m sure JR doesn’t see Mexicans as 1-year-olds. But the way the border is objectified and used can make people in Mexico suspicious about how people on the other side of the wall see them, when they see them at all.
“The subject of the border is profitable for artists,” Enrique Botello, a photographer in Ensenada and founder of Galería 184, told me. “I think most U.S. photographers don’t understand the price we’re paying on the border, in terms of the number of people dying. They’re motivated mainly by self-interest because the subject of the border is easy to sell. A lot of photographers only want to come and take pictures without being very critical — just exploit the subject.”
A fter looking at Kikito, we drove over to Tecate’s new municipal art center for the presentation of a book about California farmworkers, published jointly by COLEF in Tijuana and the University of California Press in Oakland. Afterwards we went to drink wine at a local restaurant with friends — poets and artists.
“Kikito means nothing to me,” announced Francisco Morales, Baja California’s celebrated poet and activist. (See his poems that follow this article.) His partner, Rocio Hoffmann Silva, is a portrait painter. Between them, they live project to project, book to book, and often have a hard time putting together the income to pay the bills. “I look at the resources needed to create Kikito, and think about what we could use them for here,” she said. “There’s so much available in the U.S. When we want to create art that looks at our lives here, support is hard to find.”
Oscar Contreras, a sociologist at COLEF born in Tecate, thought Kikito didn’t have to make an overt political statement. “It can exist in its own right,” he argued, “and we can appreciate it or not based on how well it communicates its aesthetic ideas.” Kikito, however, and photographs of the wall and the “borderlands” are created as social documents, not just art abstracted from reality. That’s the basis for their media popularity — why photographers and artists get the funding needed to create them. “If they’re measured against social reality, I think that’s fair,” he added. “After all, can Kikito exist without the wall?”
Morales isn’t angry at Kikito in particular, but like many of his colleagues believes Tijuana’s vibrant culture is ignored in U.S. media coverage of the border. Mexican artists create their own art about the migration experience, because it is such a fundamental aspect of Mexican life. Virtually every family has a member or friend who’s crossed to the U.S., where over nine percent of the country’s population now lives. One famous work mounted crosses on the border wall’s metal plates, where it runs along the road past the Tijuana airport. Gallon jugs symbolizing the water carried by border crossers were stacked against it, each with the name of someone whose body had been found in the desert.
At the ironically-named Friendship Park (Parque de la Amistad) in Playas de Tijuana, the graffiti on the wall’s bars is itself an art project. The wall, both there and on the fence leading to Mexicali’s crossing gate, has become a venue for photographers and artists. Their art is sharp, critiquing mass deportations and the hard lives of migrants on the other side. And these works can only be shown on the Mexican side — the Border Patrol will not allow art installations on the side they control.
Much of the Mexican art about the border focuses on the wall and its human cost, but photographers like Botello also insist that the coverage has to include the roots of migration. “The problem of the border is bilateral,” he says. “U.S. policy toward the border is becoming very radicalized, causing the death of so many migrants. But the problem of the border is also that of the countries exporting those migrants.”
To Enrique Botello, the problem of Kikito is that he is too distant, both from the deaths at the border and from the reasons people risk it — what they are migrating from. “JR says that he has no political position!” he exclaims. “His interest isn’t in making a commitment, just in his art.”
Bartletti is angrier. “Many photographers who parachute in to the U.S.-Mexico border portray its cultural anthropology as simple theater,” he argues. “‘The Border’ has become a convenient stage, with little documentary evidence of the causes and consequences of migration for survival. But it’s probably good for their bottom line.”
Art or photography can help change the world, if it arises from the political commitment and involvement of the artist and photographer. “We should strengthen solidarity on all the borders of the world,” Botello urges, “so that that someday all those borders will disappear.” Therefore photography projects, he believes, should be produced in cooperation across the border, in active solidarity.
While there are few examples of this today, it is an idea with historical precedent. In the 1930s and ’40s Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco came to the U.S. and created radical murals that were cultural weapons of that era in movements for social change. They inspired a generation of radical U.S. painters in the process. Rivera’s Rockefeller Center mural, “Man at the Crossroads,” was viewed as so dangerous that its patron, Nelson Rockefeller, had it demolished. Tina Modotti, born in Italy and raised in San Francisco, and Mariana Yampolsky, born in Chicago, created photographs that became part of the revolutionary cultural upsurge in Mexico from the 1920s to the 1950s.
In making Kikito, a Mexican child visible to the United States, JR has created a border-focused project. But if part of its purpose was to make the invisible visible, other subjects carry a sharper critical edge, and pose deeper questions about the reality people experience on the border. What happens, for instance, to those pushed back through the gate in the border wall, once they’re deported from the U.S.?
Today scores of young people live in the concrete channel built to contain the floods of the Tijuana River, which runs through the middle of the city near the border between Mexico and the U.S. Like the Los Angeles river channel, it is mostly a featureless cement expanse, but in Tijuana it is filled with deportees with no money and no homes.
Juan Manuel Barragan Corona, recently expelled from the U.S. and living in the river bottom, has a wife and two teenage children in Las Vegas. “We are the invisible people,” he says. “In this life, no one counts for less than a deported Mexican.”
Two poems from San Ysidro Zone, by Francisco Morales
Translated by Iliana Hernández Partida
words had left me dry
the hate helicopter flies again
looking for migrants through the wired.
at the crackling corner of hunger
a patched tunnel
fears and mastiffs are after feeble dogs.
The coffee and the chipping bowl got cold
Ah, these men! :
How many fences they build!
how much misery
for so many nomadic skeletons!
More common than shadows and noise
a wall rises upon us.
That humidity scented wall
does not scream nor crackles
no groans come from it.
It cuts maliciously
the Psalms history that we traced
our elucubrations fiercely built
like a coastline without sowings
or a private lilies swamp.
The silence wall.
The seed growing missing a life seed
along the sunset working as a watchman
and the stubborn eyes browsing
from the chiaroscuro grid.
The seven vigils bitch
giving birth to new sarcasms.
Epoch Story: A Stage Chronicle of Watts
A new historical play looks at a disputed tract of land that would eventually become Watts.
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.
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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