It was in the midst of the presidential debates of 2016, and Robert Schenkkan was alarmed. Though both the pundits and the polls seemed to assure that Hillary Clinton would soon become the 45th president of the United States, the Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist felt that the rabidly racist, anti-immigrant cant that spewed from the mouth of the Republican nominee had already brought familiar if discredited ideologies, supposedly long ago settled by war and safely consigned to the past, harrowingly close to the highest office in the land.
So Schenkkan, perhaps best known for The Kentucky Cycle, his epic nine-play saga of three Appalachian families’ violent and avaricious quest for the American Dream, sat down to write. One week later, he had the first draft of Building the Wall. The playwright believed that his taut political suspense drama, which fast-forwards Trump’s immigration policy of mass arrests and deportations to the incarceration of several million detainees, would be merely a dark cautionary tale of dystopian fiction, a national bullet narrowly averted. With November’s electoral upset, however, Schenkkan’s speculative chiller had suddenly taken a leap towards becoming real.
Building the Wall, which is set in the meeting room of a maximum-security federal prison in the Fall of 2019, tells the story of an encounter between two characters: Rick, a middle-aged, white manager of a private immigration prison who’s been convicted of an unspecified atrocity and is awaiting sentencing; and Gloria, an African-American history professor, who’s trying to understand what exactly happened to Rick and why.
With its opening on March 18 at Los Angeles’ Fountain Theatre, the first of a five-production, five-city rollout by the National New Play Network, Building the Wall will mark the American theater’s first literary response to Trump’s polarizing and divisive presidency. Capital & Main spoke by phone to the New York playwright about his hopes for the play and its place in the growing cultural resistance to the Trump agenda.
Capital & Main: What was the germ of Building the Wall?
Robert Schenkkan: I was focused on Trump’s comments, his commentary about border security, immigration, and the implicit and sometimes explicit or racist demagoguery implying in all the above. I had read, months earlier, quite by accident, a rather extraordinary book called, Into That Darkness about several interviews with an individual who was high up in the Nazi death camp mechanism. And I was very struck by the story that was relayed there, and so I sat down, and what I did was take Trump’s rhetoric and extend it in quite a logical, and rational way, with an eye towards how might this not work out so well.
C&M: You wrote Building the Wall in a single week in October, which seems both extraordinarily quick as well as remarkably prescient. Did you at that moment expect Trump to be president?
Schenkkan: You know, I was nervous about it, but I thought that even if the election turned out in the way in which I had hoped and in which so many of the so-called experts had predicted, I thought the damage that he had done to the political environment —the operating rules under which we have functioned as a representative democracy for almost 200 years — was so extraordinary that it needed to be spoken to. We’ve been down this road before in this country, and certainly internationally, we’ve seen this before. The authoritarian playbook is pretty well established. And I think this play would be relevant even had he not won. Now that he has, it becomes more relevant and critical every day.
C&M: How much time do you usually spend on a play text?
Schenkkan: Well, typically, my plays require a fair amount of research and then there’s a great deal of sort of introspection and just sort of mulling it over. And then I sit down and it takes anywhere from three months to four or five months to knock out a first draft. In this instance there was almost no research, really.
C&M: What happened after November 8? Did you have to do a rewrite?
Schenkkan: I absolutely continued to revise the script. Structurally it’s virtually the same, but I continued to refine within those parameters. I’m very fortunate that the very first production out of the box with the rolling world premieres is the Fountain Theater in Los Angeles. We’ve got a fantastic cast and a wonderful director; it’s a great theater to be working in, lots of smart people. So I’m doing what I would always do in a situation like that, which is just respond to what we’re discovering in rehearsal, what the actors are bringing in, what the director’s observing.
C&M: What do you hope that audiences will take away from the piece that they might not have considered before seeing the play?
Schenkkan: The next 18 months are critical in the history of our republic. I think we are really at a crisis point and everybody — and I mean every body — has a part to play in this. You may feel helpless or isolated, impotent, without power, that’s not in fact the case. And everybody will be making critical decisions to act or not act, to speak or not speak. What I hope the play provokes is the recognition that we need to be very conscious about the decisions we make, and we need to make these decisions from a moral perspective. These may feel like very small choices that you make. They’re not. Cumulatively, they’re huge.
If the theater is going to remain relevant, if we are going to actually have this critical national conversation that we must be having, if we’re going to be a part of history and not just curate history, then theater needs to become much more flexible, much more rapid in its response. This play and the production of this play, the way it’s rolling out, is creating a new paradigm that other artists, theater artists certainly, but all other artists can potentially emulate.
C&M: So in a sense, Building the Wall is a rallying call to fellow playwrights?
Schenkkan: Yes, absolutely, it’s a rallying call to citizens, regardless of who they are and what they do, but certainly it’s also a rallying call to my colleagues and the art form that I love and have been a part of for 40 years. This is not a time to be silent. This is a time, especially, when storytellers, when playwrights, screenwriters, television writers, writers of all kinds need to speak up, because what we’re fighting over is the narrative, we’re fighting over the story of who we are as a people.
C&M: Much of Trump’s electoral victory has been attributed to his narratives of race, fear and economic despair that masked another narrative of extreme neoliberalism that, arguably, will be a disaster. Do you think that artists can address those kinds of underlying narratives in a way that journalists were unable to?
Schenkkan: I think we have to. Trump is a shrewd politician, who is for certain, with very conservable skills in terms of his ability to message. The populist tide that he correctly observed and astutely managed is driven by real economic and sociological issues that the experts from both parties have been ignoring for 20 or 30 years. It’s finally caught up with us and it has bit us in the ass in a very big way. What I’m saying is that those who supported our current president did so not because they were horrible racists, although some of them share feelings that you would describe as racist, but largely out of what they perceived to be their own economic interests and their own considerable frustration. I think that’s on us; certainly it’s on Democrats who have prided themselves on being the voice of the workingman. We took our eye off the ball, and we’re going to pay a terrible price for that.
C&M: Will Building the Wall be your last word on Trump?
Schenkkan: Oh no. And I have another new play that I was just working at on at Denver at the Summit Theater Festival called Hanussen, which deals with the Erik Jan Hanussen, who was the leading headliner on the Berlin stage in the last days of the Weimar Republic. It’s a wonderfully, theatrical, entertaining and very cautionary tale about the dangers of avoidance and denial … that’s expressing itself certainly in our presidential politics, but also in our politics regarding the most important issue facing the world, which is, of course, global warming.
C&M: Currently there are five theaters in the National New Play Network rollout of Building the Wall. Will more be added to that list?
Schenkkan: We put up a website just after the New York Times article dropped, and we’ve had over 200 requests for the play from the widest possible range of theaters — small theaters, big theaters, community theaters, political action groups — across the United States, but also internationally, from Canada, Mexico City, Belgium, Germany, Austria, France. So we have begun licensing all of those requests. I’ve put no [production] holds on the play, which again is unheard of. In other words if you want to produce this play, I’m going to say, “Fine, go produce it.”
Two Cousins and a Magical Ice Cream Truck Figure in Leon Martell’s New Play
Although not all of ICE‘s comedy clicks, Martell’s story has both weight and charm. The production’s overriding plus is its successful rendering, fashioned with humor and craft, of the difficulties immigrants face.
ICE, Leon Martell’s family friendly play, takes place in 1988 and follows the misadventures of two undocumented immigrants: Chepe (Jesús Castaños-Chima), an avid baseball fan who dreams of making a fortune selling gourmet tacos; and his cousin Nacho (Tony Dúran), whom the beleaguered Chepe summons from Mexico to assist him in setting up his business. Directed by Debbie Devine at 24th Street Theatre, the show displays plenty of heart, not all of it realized in this premiere production. Despite this, there’s enough political relevancy, moral truth and human comedy packed into the show’s 65-minute time frame to overlook its shortcomings.
The core of the humor is the difference in personality between the two cousins. The ambitious Chepe is bitter and frustrated about his experience in America, where he’s been cheated and lied to by bosses who exploit his labor and pay him next to nothing. Yet he’s bought into the American Dream of money and fame, and to achieve that he’s purchased a dilapidated old ice cream van to convert into a taco truck. It doesn’t run, though, and the secret family salsa recipe is with his kin in Mexico. So, he phones home and implores his mechanic cousin to head north, bringing the salsa recipe as well as his skills.
Cousin Nacho, by contrast, is a sweet old-fashioned guy. He wants success too, but making money isn’t the only thing he thinks about. He juggles tomatoes to make kids laugh and indignantly admonishes Chepe for his desperate inclination to do what it takes (steal tomatoes, for example) to score success.
Into the mix Martell tosses a blind, disgruntled priest (Davitt Felder), who plays guitar and wants to launch English classes for children in his parish (the archdiocese turns him down). Then there’s Chepe’s truck, which has opinions of its own. It breaks out in jingles at random intervals; later, it communicates with Nacho via blinking red letters that eerily appear on the side of the vehicle, furnishing the two men with simple directives and essential advice. When ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) shows up, it alerts them to run.
Although not all of the comedy clicks, Martell’s story has both weight and charm. The production’s overriding plus is its successful rendering, fashioned with humor and craft, of the difficulties immigrants face. Its main weakness is Castaños-Chima’s technically skilled but somewhat chilly depiction of his character, which leaves us wishing for more warmth and complexity. Felder appears awkward in his role of the blind priest, but proves versatile on video as Chepe’s various nemeses. Dúran’s naïve Nacho is a lovable presence from first to last.
Displayed on a monitor, Matthew G. Hill’s video slides add historical and social perspective, and his backwall projections, in tandem with Dan Weingarten’s lighting and Chris Moscatiello’s sound, help conjure a magical aura to this parabolic piece.
24th Street Theatre, 1117 West 24th St., Los Angeles; Sat., 3 & 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through June 10, (213) 745-6516 or 24thstreet.org.
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‘Ameryka’ a Biting Commentary on Our National Psyche
A new staging of Nancy Keystone’s award-winning political play comes to the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City.
In 2009, Ameryka’s writer/director Nancy Keystone was perusing a catalogue, Western Amerykański: Polish Poster Art and the Western, when she spotted a 1989 poster that celebrated the first democratic elections in Poland since World War II. The central image was a black-and-white-photo of Gary Cooper in the 1952 film High Noon. Keystone’s curiosity was piqued over the odd connection between Polish elections and classic American cinema, and her subsequent research helped spark this sprawling political piece that spans two countries — the U.S. and Poland —and several historical time periods.
A collaborative effort of Keystone’s Critical Mass Performance Group, the play speaks to the struggle of ordinary citizens for a voice in their destiny and the tactics and hypocrisy of the powerful forces that would silence them. Originally staged in 2016 at the Shakespeare Center Los Angeles, here it’s played out on a large spare proscenium (set by Keystone) at the Kirk Douglas Theatre as part of Center Theatre Group’s “Block Party” project, which supports smaller LA. Companies. The patchwork narrative shifts back and forth among the American Revolutionary War period, the 1950s under McCarthyism, the 1980s, when a two-faced Reagan administration fired striking air traffic controllers while supporting the striking Polish Solidarity movement abroad, and the early years of this century when the CIA, obsessed with the war on terror, established a base in Poland, sweetening its presence with American dollars.
These scenarios are peopled with both fictional and historical personages, including Tadeusz Kosciuszko (Jeff Lorch), a Polish military officer and passionate democrat who fought with the colonists against the British, his friend Thomas Jefferson (Curt Bonnem), who spoke against slavery but kept his slaves, and Kosciuszko’s military aide during the Revolutionary War, Agrippa Hull (Lorne Green), a free black man and soldier whose accomplishments inspired Kosciuszko to champion abolitionism, in contrast to Jefferson (who was charged by Kosciuszko to use his estate after he died to help free slaves, and promised to do so but never did). A scene where Kosciuszko and Jefferson dine at Monticello and discuss the evils of slavery, while being catered to by Jefferson’s slave (Ray Ford), is only one of the pungently ironical moments the play serves up.
Twentieth century personages include a pious William Casey (Russell Edge), who leads a prayer vigil with his underlings before plotting to implement a national directive challenging the Soviets through Poland (“Fuck Yalta”), Anna Walentynowicz (Valerie Spencer), a colleague of Lech Walesa, and Father Jerzy Popieluszko (Lorch), the pro-Solidarity priest assassinated in 1984.
After opening with the rough-handed arrest of Walentynowicz by Polish security agents, the play harks back to 1959. (Fictional) jazz musician Gene Jefferson (Ford) visits Poland, where he discovers that Poles love jazz and other things American, including Westerns and Gary Cooper. An African-American who steels himself daily against condescending racism (illustrated by his prior interview with a State Department official) he’s taken aback at their rah-rah America enthusiasm. That same cultural disconnect manifests in a scene from the ’80s; a gay American man named Ray (Ford) recounts meeting this terrific Polish guy in a bar, only to be put off when the Pole sings Reagan’s praises for supporting Solidarity. To Ray, Reagan’s legacy are the thousands of AIDS victims.
A complex entangled piece, Ameryka packed a punch when it was staged at the Shakespeare Center nearly 18 months ago (winning the Stage Raw award for Production of the Year) but loses some of its edge in the larger space at the Kirk Douglas. Less than optimal acoustics seem to be part of the problem. Many of the original ensemble members are reprising their roles; one exception is Lorch, recently brought in to replace the original actor. His work is fine, as is everyone’s, but I did wish for more distinctive and distinguished ardor from this character in particular.
Still, Ameryka remains a substantive, historically informative work, a biting commentary on the contradictions and illusions that bedevil not only our own national psyche but others. It’s the sort of drama we need more of.
Critical Mass Performance Group, Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City; (213) 628-2772, online at www.CenterTheatreGroup.org; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 p.m;, Sun., 1p.m.; through April 29.
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A Woman’s Art Is Never Done: The Feminae Exhibition
A striking juxtaposition between the past and present courses throughout the small gallery. Celia Blomberg’s “International Women’s Day March 8” can’t help but make one think of 2017’s Women’s March, which occurred 37 years after the print’s first appearance.
Among the 50-plus works in the Feminae: Typographic Voices of Women By Women exhibit is Yolanda Lopez’s “Women’s Work is Never Done.” Lopez’s title is particularly ironic, given the exhibit’s gender-based subject matter. The show spans work from the past 50 years, making it easy to understand how much society is still grappling with its themes of gender inequality. Culled from the archives of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics, the graphic images of protest, persuasion and empowerment are truly works of art in their own right.
However, political posters aren’t made to merely spruce up walls, but to help figuratively bring barriers down as well.
Two silkscreens from the 1970s, Liliana Porter and John Schneider’s “This Woman is Vietnamese” and See Red Woman’s Workshop’s “So Long As Women Are Not Free People Are Not Free,” are particularly powerful, underscoring, as they do, the fact that the subjugation and persecution of women crosses borders and cultures as an unfortunate shared global experience. These two pieces’ stark simplicity exemplifies most of the work in the exhibit. In the former, a New York Times photo of a distraught Vietnamese woman with a gun held to her head is centered above these basic words typed out in a typewriter font:
This woman is
By juxtaposing the photo with these words, the creators take the plight of this woman and immediately globalize her pain. In the latter, three female demonstrators are silkscreened in red onto a yellow background. They are marginalized by being stuck in the lower left third of the poster, but two of them are raising their fists skyward and their mouths are open, screaming in defiance. Its non-serif, eponymous type reads:
This piece’s message takes the global message even farther, making the plight of women a human one — a common theme in the exhibition.
There is also a striking juxtaposition between the past and present that seethes throughout the small gallery. Celia Blomberg’s “International Women’s Day March 8” can’t help but make one think of 2017’s Women’s March that would take place 37 years later. See Red Woman’s Workshop’s 1977 “Black Women Will Not Be Intimidated” could easily be repurposed to address the recent spate of blue-on-black brutality. Notable works by Barbara Kruger, Sister Corita Kent and the Guerrilla Girls are also included.
Ironically , while it can be surmised that most of these works were made as populist posters to be distributed at the time as banners of protest, their beautiful simplicity and nostalgic elegance probably have resulted in the originals (mostly now found in art museums) sporting hefty vintage-resale prices.
But it is not just the art that has stood the test of time. The fact that the issues addressed in the show — feminism, choice, gender equality, war, immigration, police brutality or violence against women — are all issues at the forefront of debate in 2018 ultimately engenders conflicting feelings.
On one the hand, it is inspiring to see a vibrant exhibit that showcases such diversity in artistic styles, no doubt spawned by the diversity of the artists’ own backgrounds. On the other hand, there is a realization that while there has been some progress over the past half century, there is so much work to be done.
Art Center’s Hoffmitz Milken Center for Typography, 950 South Raymond Ave., Pasadena; through May 15.
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Award-Winning Reporter David Sirota to Lead National Investigative Desk on Inequality for Capital & Main
The New York Times has credited Sirota’s Wall Street reporting for showing “that secrecy can hide high fees, low returns, excess risk and the identity of politically connected dealmakers.”
LOS ANGELES — Capital & Main announced today that award-winning reporter David Sirota will lead a new national investigative desk for the California-based publication. His coverage will focus on the country’s historically high level of economic inequality, and the role of Wall Street, the private sector and government policy in perpetuating income disparity.
“I am thrilled to join one of the most promising young investigative publications in the country,” said Sirota. “There has never been a greater need for aggressive nonpartisan reporting that scrutinizes how corporations, lawmakers and the super-rich wield political and economic power. Capital & Main has established a reputation as an intrepid source of hard-hitting investigative reporting. I am excited to expand their capacity to shine a spotlight on how and why America now has the highest level of economic inequality in the country’s modern history.”
Sirota will join Capital & Main as a full-time reporter this summer, and prior to that will consult with the publication on editorial content and partnerships. The new position was made possible in part by a grant from the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation in Oakland, CA.
Capital & Main is a non-profit publication founded in 2013 and its reporting has been co-published by (among others) The Atlantic, Time, The Guardian, Reuters, The Daily Beast, Slate, Grist, Fast Company, The Huffington Post and Newsweek. Capital & Main’s reporting has won recognition from the Society of American Business Editors & Writers, the Southern California Journalism Awards and the Best of the West contest. Its reporters have been featured on (among others) PRI’s The World, WNYC’s The Takeaway, as well as on programs on KQED and KCRW.
Sirota has reported extensively on the relationship between money and politics, and has gained a reputation as a journalist willing to scrutinize public officials of both parties. During his career, he has become one of American journalism’s most authoritative experts on complex financial systems including taxes, hedge funds, private equity and public pensions. He is a two-time winner of the Best in Business award from SABEW – most recently for his coverage of the 2017 Republican tax bill and its controversial “Corker kickback” provision. Before that, he won recognition from the Columbia Journalism Review for his reporting on how conflicts of interest shaped how Democratic Gov. Dan Malloy’s administration oversaw a proposed health-care merger. Sirota has also won Ithaca College’s Izzy Award and has been a finalist for UCLA’s Gerald R. Loeb Award and Syracuse University’s Mirror Award.
The New York Times has credited Sirota’s Wall Street reporting for showing “that secrecy can hide high fees, low returns, excess risk and the identity of politically connected dealmakers.” In one of its awards, SABEW said Sirota has produced “original, tenacious reporting that displayed a mastery of scouring documents, analyzing data and holding public officials accountable.” The legendary late columnist Molly Ivins said, “Sirota is a new-generation populist who instinctively understands that the only real questions are ‘Who’s getting screwed?’ and ‘Who’s doing the screwing?’”
“David Sirota is one of the finest investigative reporters in the country, and he promises to take Capital & Main’s reporting on inequality and related issues to a whole different level,” said Capital & Main board member Rick Wartzman, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, Los Angeles Times business editor and the author of four books, including The End of Loyalty: The Rise and Fall of Good Jobs in America. “David’s fearless approach to holding the powerful to account is precisely what we need at this moment in time.”
From 2014 to 2018 Sirota led International Business Times’ investigative reporting team, where he broke major stories on how President Trump’s top adviser evades ethics laws as he shapes policies that could enrich his firm; CFPB chief Mick Mulvaney’s ties to the financial industry — and how he pressured regulators to back off predatory lending rules at the same time he was raking in cash from payday lenders; how Equifax lobbied against consumer protection rules just before its huge data breach; and how chemical companies that spewed toxins after Hurricane Harvey had worked to reduce safety regulations in the lead-up to the disaster.
In 2014, Sirota’s investigative series for PandoDaily about public broadcasting compelled a PBS flagship station to return a $3.5 million contribution from a hedge fund billionaire. That same year, Sirota’s investigative reporting about pensions for PandoDaily and then for International Business Times led the New Jersey state government to open a formal pay-to-play investigation and to divest state holdings in a venture capital firm. Sirota’s reporting for International Business Times also led San Francisco officials to delay a proposed $3 billion investment in hedge funds.
“We have been longtime admirers of David’s work, and couldn’t imagine a better fit for our reporting on inequality,” said Capital & Main publisher Danny Feingold. “David will give us the capacity to break important national stories on one of the country’s great existential threats.”
Sirota is also the author of two New York Times best-selling books, Hostile Takeover and The Uprising, as well as Back to Our Future, which became the basis for the National Geographic Channel’s miniseries “The ’80s: The Decade that Made Us.” He appears frequently on MSNBC and CNN, and is the host of a podcast on economic, political and social issues.
Concert for Martin Luther King Jr.
The Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles’ Wednesday concert reflects on M.L. King Jr.’s times, struggle and sacrifice, with the orchestra’s musical setting of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Today, April 4, marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death by an assassin’s attack in Memphis. The social justice leader had traveled there to support a strike by sanitation workers, who toiled long hours in sweltering heat for abysmal pay — a workforce that was virtually 100 percent black and whose work status would later be described as “the lowest of the low” by a former Memphis city council member.
“Fifty years ago, Dr. King was organizing with sanitation workers demanding a decent living wage, safe working conditions and recognition of their humanity and dignity,” William D. Smart, a former organizer of Los Angeles port truck drivers and the current CEO and president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Southern California, told Capital & Main.
“Today, we are organizing with L.A. Port warehouse workers and truck drivers with the same demands.”
Smart is part of an April 4 celebration at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion hosted by the SCLC and the Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles, the largest African-American-majority orchestra in the nation. The Wednesday concert event reflects on King’s times, struggle and sacrifice, with the orchestra’s musical setting of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
It connects solidly with present-day events in the multi-choral work by Atlanta-based composer Joel Thompson, The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed.
The piece is performed in seven movements to mark the final words of seven unarmed African-American men killed by police or vigilantism.
“As we commemorate Dr. King’s sacrifice,” Smart said, “it’s not beyond us [to know] that while some progress has been made, [it’s] not nearly enough, so the struggle for economic and racial justice continues.”
Event tickets are free but may be scarce now that supporting organizations have been distributing them for the past several days. Doors open 5 p.m. at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown Los Angeles, with a silent tribute at 6:01 p.m. The program starts at 7 p.m. Contact ICYOLA for tickets at 213-788-4260 or www.icyola.org
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A Spiritual Mystery Play Fails to Enlighten
Yusuf Toropov’s drama, set in a contaminated, cancer-ridden community, involves a publisher and his brother — a priest struggling against the local archdiocese.
Directed by Chris Fields, Yusuf Toropov’s An Undivided Heart, co-produced by the Echo Theater Company and the Circle X Theatre Co., is an aspiring work that aims to be deep but doesn’t get there.
The play, running at the Atwater Village Theatre, unfolds on several levels. First, it tells the story of a young Catholic priest who must decide whether or not to publicly expose the pedophiles among his fellow clerics. Second, the work deals with our human struggle to understand why bad things happen with seeming random cruelty (a conundrum whose answers are regularly dispensed by spiritual leaders of all faiths, not very satisfactorily). On yet a third level, the play seeks to express the paradoxical wonder and mystery of life, with an assist from the supernatural.
That’s a lot to cover in a little over two hours and, while the production is handsomely staged, its ambitious narrative is diminished by dangling threads, one major improbable setup near the end and too many bits of opaque dialogue.
The setting is Holbrook, Massachusetts — a community whose residents have been exposed to contaminants, so cancer is rampant — in the summer of 1992. The story revolves around two brothers, both good guys: Mike (Matthew Gallenstein), a local priest who’s written a revelatory book that his superiors want him not to publish, and Max (Tim Wright), an editor, who’d like to help his brother proceed.
When Max arrives at some sort of civic facility (the background particulars of this scene are unclear), he promptly tangles with an angry pregnant clerk named Lynne (Alana Dietz). A few minutes into their altercation, she goes into premature labor, and he rushes her to the hospital — the beginning of a nurturing romance.
Mike, meanwhile, is having strange dreams involving a burning typewriter and a cryptic little girl (Ann’Jewel Lee) who appears to him brandishing a dead cat. The same young person manifests in the dreams of Janice (Tracey A. Leigh, alternating with Jennifer A. Skinner), Max’s Buddhism teacher, who is fond of posing riddles. Her favorite: If I am preparing to slice a cat in two, how would you prevent me from doing it?
The narrative shifts between Mike’s struggle with his archdiocese, personified by its Cardinal (John Getz, alternating with William Salyers) and Lynne’s problems with her dying mom Ruth (Alison Martin, alternating with Sigute Miller), a devout Catholic still in denial over her son’s abuse by a priest when he was a youth.
These two storylines are interposed with the baffling dream sequences and Max’s (and later Mike’s) sessions with the inscrutably smiling Janice and her eschatological brain teasers. One crucial scene that leads to the dramatic climax has Mike looking to entrap an abusive priest (Jeff Alan-Lee, alternating with Jesse Bush) by attending confession with him and pretending to be a pedophile himself. The interchange, in which the priest probes for salacious details, is awkwardly plotted and escalates into over-the-top melodrama.
Cricket Myers’ superlative sound design hints at the depth and scope that the playwright himself perhaps had in mind but was unable to attain. Amanda Knehans’ set is an effective arrangement of wooden beams, tables and chairs that lighting designer Rose Malone smartly shades with a reddish-orange chroma, like the hues of hell. Elsewhere, she spotlights the players well.
Wright’s warm and empathetic Max is highly likable, and he keeps you interested in the scenes he’s involved with. Getz is appropriately unctuous as the Cardinal, and Martin draws a richly textured portrait of a not terribly educated housewife, who, buffeted by adversity, still clings to her faith. Michael Sturgis steals the limelight as a singing, simpering cleric. A couple of the other lead performances need refining.
Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Los Angeles; Mon., 8 p.m.; Fri.- Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m.; through April 22. www.EchoTheaterCompany.com
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Recounting the Japanese-American Internments in a Musical
Stamped by their government as enemy aliens, the Kimura family is uprooted from their home and re-housed in a barracks-like setting where they are treated like criminals.
Produced by East West Players at the Japanese American Cultural Center, Allegiance features noted performer-activist George Takei, and draws inspiration from his personal experience in a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II.
One of the more shameful, racially-motivated episodes in U.S. history, the forced internment of approximately 120,000 people of Japanese descent commenced in February 1942 on the executive order of President Franklin Roosevelt, and only terminated seven months after Japan surrendered and the last of 10 relocation centers shut its gates.
The internees, two-thirds of whom were American citizens, were stripped of their property and dignity, and required to fill out trick questionnaires to assess their loyalty. Failure to comply or give the politically correct response often resulted in imprisonment. Young men of draft age filled out a separate form, indicating whether they were willing to serve in the military — in a segregated unit. Some said yes, others did not. The questionnaire — how to respond and even whether or not to do so — further rent an already divided and disheartened community.
Allegiance aims to recount these injustices, and it does so in a stirring and entertaining way. Directed by Snehal Desai, with music and lyrics by Jay Kuo, and book by Marc Acito, Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione, it’s a high-caliber musical melodrama that relays history as it impacts on the fictional Kimura family. Uprooted from their home, re-housed in a barracks-like setting where they are treated like criminals, members of the family are torn further apart when father and son bitterly fall out over whether to pledge loyalty to a government that has stamped them as enemy aliens.
At the top, Takei plays an elderly retired soldier, Sam Kimura, who receives news of the death of his sibling, from whom he’s been estranged for years. That prompts him to recall his youth as the son of a prosperous, widowed farmer (Scott Watanabe) in Salinas, California. Sammy (Ethan Le Phong) is his family’s first college graduate, and dearly beloved by his elder sister Kei (Elena Wang).
The scenario darkens as the family and their neighbors are packed off to Wyoming’s barbed-wired Heart Mountain Relocation Center. Eventually, Sammy joins the army and distinguishes himself in battle, while his future brother-in-law, Frankie (Eymard Cabling), angrily challenges the government and goes to prison. So does Sammy’s dad for his defiant answers to the questionnaire. Father and son never reconcile.
Kuo’s 26 songs are a euphonious mix of ballads, upbeat dance numbers (choreography, Rumi Oyama) with a terrific 1940s swing, and elegiac melodies. Despite the weighty theme, the show’s pace is brisk, as the music sweeps the narrative to its poignant conclusion. The vocals, solo and ensemble, are strong across the board, with Le Phong’s powerful lyric tenor soaring above others, especially in his rendering of the ethically-themed “What Makes A Man.” A live 11-piece orchestra, under the musical direction of Marc Macalintal, lends superlative support throughout.
The non-musical aspects of the performances may not go deep, but like the story they’re telling, they never ring false. Special kudos to Jordan Goodsell, who so effectively portrays every nasty white bully and bigot the targeted Japanese-Americans encounter.
JACCC’s Aratani Theatre, 244 S. San Pedro Street, Los Angeles; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; no performance March 18; through April 1. AllegianceMusical.com.
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“Happiest Song” Stage Production Hits Sour Notes
Playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes pays special homage to the folk music, food and familial culture of the Puerto Rican community, but her story winds through a mountain of prosaic exposition.
The Happiest Song Plays Last
The Happiest Song Plays Lastends happily for its pivotal characters —and also, perhaps, for discerning theatergoers, who can’t wait to flee this lemon of a production.
Produced by the Latino Theatre Company and directed by Edward Torres at the Los Angeles Theater Center, this is the final installment in Quiara Alegría Hudes’ Elliot trilogy. (The two earlier titles were Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue and Water by the Spoonful, produced by Center Theatre Group at the Kirk Douglas Theatre and Mark Taper Forum, respectively). Here, the playwright pays special homage to the folk music, food and familial culture of the Puerto Rican community. She also spotlights the current protest movements on the left (in the U.S., Mexico and Puerto Rico), tips her hat to the Arab Spring, critiques the American health-care system, and alerts us to the careless slaughter of Iraqi civilians by American soldiers and the problems of Iraqi expatriates. And that’s just the background stuff.
The story begins in 2010. As in Water by the Spoonful, it revolves around the fortunes of two cousins, who stay in contact via email: Elliot (Peter Pasco), an Iraqi war vet turned actor, and Yaz (Elisa Bocanegra), a music professor now living in poverty-blighted North Philadelphia, where she cooks for, and otherwise assists as many of her struggling neighbors as she can.
Elliot (who was played by a different actor in Water by the Spoonful) has undergone a transformation. In Spoonful, the character walked with a pronounced limp, the result of a war injury, and spoke with someone’s erroneous idea of how Philadelphians talk. Here, however, he’s been miraculously healed and is as spry as any athletic 20-something. Fortune has smiled on him; hired as a film’s combat consultant because of his military experience, he’s now starring in a movie about the Iraqi conflict, replacing the original lead who proved to be too truculent and unfit. His friends include Shar (Vaneh Assadourian), a young American actress of part Middle Eastern descent, and Ali (Kamal Marayati), a native Iraqi who’s emigrated with his family to Jordan for a better, safer life.
The three shoot their takes and chat about their pasts and news of the Arab Spring, which Elliot is itching to observe first-hand. Meanwhile Yaz, glimpsed in her kitchen amidst a pile of pots, is contemplating a fling with Agustín (Al Rodrigo), a guitarist and longtime married friend who wants her to have his child. She’s also playing mother hen to Lefty (John Seda-Pitre), a mentally displaced homeless person who addresses her as “mom” and relies on her for emotional support as well as for food and sometimes shelter.
Shifting between narratives, the play winds through a mountain of prosaic exposition as the characters talk about where they’re coming from and where they’d like to be (or in the case of Yaz, about neighbors and acquaintances whom we never see). The emails between the two cousins are about as exciting as the ones you may have received from your accountant cousin in Buffalo. Under Torres’ direction, the performances, which can often salvage and even elevate a so-so drama to great heights, lack texture and credibility. Only Marayati garners empathy as a kind and open man looking to bridge cultures and build friendships.
The staging (scenic design by Se Hyon Oh) does not help. The desert scenes are played out on the floor of the proscenium, without an effective backdrop to add ambience. The kitchen, always visible, is positioned upstage on a rise, in a cramped space that allows for little movement and makes for poor visibility. All I could see of Bocanegra much of the time was her back.
The best moments in the production are the musical interludes played by accomplished Puerto Rican guitarist Nelson González.
LATC, 514 S. Spring St., downtown Los Angeles; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; Mon., 7:30 p.m.; through March 19. Thelatc.org.
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The 2018 Oscars Are Woke, But Hollywood Can Get Woker by Recalling Its Past
In the Golden Age of Hollywood, producers knew that social issues sold tickets. It’s a lesson the film industry might be ready to re-learn.
At first glance, this year’s Academy Awards ceremony and nominations seems as woke a lineup as the Oscars has ever offered. Films and actors honored touch on topics as varied and vital as LGBTQ love (Call Me By Your Name), veterans and overt racism (Mudbound), liberal covert racism (Get Out), police corruption (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), and the importance of the press (The Post). Jimmy Kimmel returns as host, after a year where he eased into the working-class champion role his bro schtick always aspired to but never quite nailed until now.
Expect much self-congratulation for these Brave New Oscars during the show, along with shoutouts for #TimesUp and digs at Trump (even as the show’s producers want it to be “a giant commercial for the movie business” instead of anything political). But the nominees also show that Hollywood will practice punch-card progressivism until it realizes what the Louis B. Mayers, Jack Warners and other movie moguls of yesteryear never forgot: social issues sell.
The 2018 nominations show we’re in a golden age of African-American characters, stories, and talent, and that a purge of the industry’s toxic masculinity translates into better films. But it’s as if Hollywood feels that tackling those two longstanding problems absolves it of trying to address anything else. Just look at today’s pressing issues that big-budget films in 2017 ignored: homelessness, class inequity, the housing crisis, gentrification, climate change and more.
And in an age where diversity matters more than ever, Hollywood’s depiction of Mexicans remain problematic. The touching Pixar film Coco (nominated for Best Animated Picture) notwithstanding, Hollywood still doesn’t seem to want to cast Mexicans as anything else than the maids, janitors and security guards that executives and screenwriters encounter in their public and private lives, and the criminals that the media and politicians obsess over. Chris Rock’s ruthless 2014 Hollywood Reporter essay on the lack of representation still rings true: Hollywood keeps Mexicans in a “slave state.”
The studios need to look at their own past to see that reflecting society’s people and problems are an easy moneymaker. Consider the films of the Great Depression, more relevant than ever. Films like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, The Grapes of Wrath, Sullivan’s Travels, Gold Diggers of 1933 became beloved because they openly attacked the institutions that dared afflict the afflicted. Same with the 1970s: Rocky, Saturday Night Fever, Coming Home, Network and others harshly depicted the Me Decade all the way to the Oscars and massive ticket sales.
Two of this year’s most prominent Best Picture nominees show a way forward for producers. The Shape of Water (directed by proud Mexican Guillermo del Toro) used a supernatural parable to critique our federal government’s xenophobia. Get Out similarly used the horror genre to deliver its message. Both are in some ways the most Old Hollywood of the Best Picture bunch, as they recalled Universal Studios’ historic monster movies (imagine a ride based on Get Out? Actually, you don’t have to: it’s called South Orange County).
The Shape of Water and Get Out each grossed over $100 million worldwide despite tiny budgets. Couple that with this month’s record-breaking Black Panther, and the studios should realize that progressive films ought to be the norm, not a niche.
A New Documentary Unspools the Life of Malcolm X
Most people know that Malcolm X began his public career by calling for black separatism. Lost Tapes: Malcolm X reveals surprising details that have not been seared into our collective view of the martyred activist.
At the end of the Smithsonian Channel’s Lost Tapes: Malcolm X, Ossie Davis delivers a stirring eulogy for Malcolm X, the fallen Muslim minister and human rights activist. “And we will know him then for what he was and is,” Davis intones, “a Prince – our own black shining Prince!”
At the end of the Smithsonian Channel’s Lost Tapes: Malcolm X, Ossie Davis delivers a stirring eulogy for Malcolm X, the fallen Muslim minister and human rights activist. “And we will know him then for what he was and is,” Davis intones, “a Prince – our own black shining Prince!”
The haze of history has obscured some of the finer details of this remarkable leader’s life, one cut short by assassination at the age of 39 in 1965. Schools go into far greater detail about the life and times of another spiritual leader, Martin Luther King Jr., but in the shadows behind King’s narrative lurk remarkable stories of a prince that have been largely ignored. That’s why this episode from The Lost Tapes documentary series rises above almost anything available in mainstream media.
Above: Malcolm X in Los Angeles, 1962
Most know that Malcolm, as the dominant star in the Nation of Islam, differentiated himself from King and other African-American leaders by calling for blacks to break off from, rather than assimilate into white society. At the outset, Lost Tapes: Malcolm X, which debuts tonight at 5 p.m. PST/8 p.m. EST, and repeats Tuesday, underscores how his incendiary speeches and philosophy sparked both outrage and fear by showing footage from The Hate That Hate Produced , a 1959 Mike Wallace-narrated documentary shown on New York’s educational WNTA-TV that introduced the Harlem minister and the Nation of Islam to a wider (and whiter) audience.
Much of this doc treads on familiar turf: His meteoric rise and popularity, which caused NOI membership to swell exponentially; how Malcolm’s philosophy deviated from other civil rights leaders’, the rift with NOI leader Elijah Muhammad that led to Malcolm leaving the organization. Filmmakers Tom Jennings and David Tillman weave a fine story, thankfully bereft of any narration, using never-before or rarely seen footage to tell Malcolm’s story, only resorting to simple white text on a black background to deliver essential information. The result seems more urgent and intimate, powerful and profound.
But where Lost Tapes really triumphs is in revealing details that have not been seared into our collective view of the martyred activist. First there is the matter of Cassius Clay. Few know that the boxer’s conversion to Islam was mired deep in the divisions between Malcolm and the “prophet” Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm had grown to overshadow his mentor, and became a close friend to the charismatic contender. But soon after Sonny Liston failed to answer the bell in Miami on February 25, 1964, and Clay was crowned heavyweight champion of the world, Elijah Muhammad bestowed upon the boxer a Muslim name (an honor Malcolm had not been given) under one condition. The new champion had to end his friendship with Malcolm (something that Ali later publicly admitted was a mistake).
Later, there is an interview in which Malcolm publicly exposes Elijah Muhammad’s fathering of eight children by six underage women who were his personal secretaries. This footage makes it seem more understandable why the NOI allegedly waged such a persistent campaign to kill Malcolm, first unsuccessfully by firebombs and then, purportedly taking down their target in a hail of bullets.
The documentary also chronicles Malcolm X’s personal transformation shortly before his tragic death, which resulted in a revolutionary change in his outlook. After leaving the NOI, Malcolm went on a global spiritual journey that included a pilgrimage to Mecca in April of 1964, where he had a profound epiphany. Malcolm speaks of seeing Muslims of all colors interacting as equals and how the whites he had met there were not like those found in America, that their dedication to God allowed them to believe in the oneness of all people.
Inspired by this trip he started the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), a secular group that advocated Pan-Africanism, and promoted internationalizing the plight of African-Americans. This broadening of his views also made him make amends to those he criticized in the past. We see footage of an interview in which he not only forgives black leaders for having attacked him, but also apologizes to all he had ever attacked, culminating in him preaching solidarity and cooperation between leaders.
It’s a huge moment that seems to have been lost as the years have passed, and it makes this venture all the more invaluable.
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