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New Play Brings Trump Campaign Rhetoric to Life

A new political drama from Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan imagines a not-too-distant future where Trump’s anti-immigration policies have upended the lives of millions.

Bill Raden



Playwright Robert Schenkkan

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.

Read an Excerpt from Building the Wall

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.

Judith Moreland and Bo Foxworth in “Building the Wall” at the Fountain Theatre. Photo by Ed Krieger.

Judith Moreland and Bo Foxworth in “Building the Wall” at the Fountain Theatre. Photo by Ed Krieger.

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.”


Culture & Media

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.

Bill Raden



Truck, San Pedro. Photo by Clem Albers.

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.

Woodland, California. Photo by Dorothea Lange.

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 Mochida family. Photo by Dorothea Lange.

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.

Manzanar, Owens Valley. Photo by Toyo Miyatake.

“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.

Shizuko Ina, foreground. Photo by Dorothea Lange.

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

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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.

Deborah Klugman



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;

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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.



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

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

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

(Maria Varela/Chicano Studies Research Center at UCLA)

(Maria Varela/Chicano Studies Research Center at UCLA)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.



L-R: Javier Ronceros, Zilah Mendoza, William Jaramillo and Paul Renteria. (Photos: Ed Krieger)

IAn 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,, or 

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Epoch Story: A Stage Chronicle of Watts

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dick Gregory: A Stand-up Activist

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

Deborah Klugman



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Bitter Stage of “Time Alone”

A new drama speaks not only to issues of criminal justice, but to the inner turmoil many of us wrestle with every day.

Deborah Klugman



Tonya Pinkins in Time Alone. (Photo: David Morrison)

This powerful drama by Alessandro Camon delves into the minds of two extraordinarily isolated people: a convict serving a life sentence for a murder he committed as a juvenile, and the mother of a police officer whose only son was shot and killed in the line of duty. The play, which premiered last weekend at Los Angeles Theater Center under Bart DeLorenzo’s direction, is made up of a series of monologues delivered by two characters who never meet until the play’s final moment. Incisively written and artfully mounted, the production nevertheless falls short of its explosive potential; it needs more probing work from the actors before that can be achieved. Let’s hope that happens.

Designer Francois Pierre Couture’s uncluttered, bifurcated set reflects the barrenness in each of the characters’ lives. On one side is a small cell in the isolation ward of a California prison. It’s occupied by Gabriel (Alex Hernandez), a man in his 30s serving 50 years to life. Gabriel’s story is a familiar one: He wasn’t a bad kid but there were no stable adults around to guide him, and when a casual girlfriend was shot, the ethos of the streets demanded that he retaliate. In prison, he gets into more trouble after somebody steals his things, and he strikes back. He subsequently becomes entangled in a vicious payback cycle that provokes prison authorities to punish him, and propels him to the isolation ward, where he’s now spent many years of his sentence.

On the other side of the stage sits Anna (Tonya Pinkins), in a kitchen bare of warmth or personality, recollecting on 14 years of a happy marriage that ended when her husband, a police officer, passed away. Their son, her pride and joy, followed in his father’s footsteps — then died tragically in a shootout while trying to apprehend a suspect. The trauma has left Anna consumed with grief and rage. Since then sympathetic friends, including a lover, have fallen away, leaving her profoundly isolated and nursing a bitterness that’s grown exponentially as time’s gone on.

Time Alone is not an easy play to do. The text is dense and the characters do not interact until the end, nor do we perceive any connection between them other than each representing a point of view from opposite sides of the justice system. What does connect Gabriel and Anna is the extremity of their loneliness, and the depth and detail with which Camon shapes their stories is profoundly compelling. Each character is taken up not only with the events in their lives but with their larger implications. Gabriel especially ruminates on the nature of time, which for him does not exist as it does for rest of us. Its featureless passage is disturbing to mind and body, prompting acts of self-injury to insure himself that he’s alive.

The performances, as I’ve said, need finessing. Hernandez is more on track in the role; both he and Pinkins are on top of the text and have all their external moves down. But that magic melding of a performer with his or her character’s inner self has not yet transpired for either. Nevertheless, this is a top-of-the-line drama, which speaks not only to issues of criminal justice but to the inner turmoil many of us wrestle with every day.

Belle Reve Theatre Company at LATC, 514 S. Spring St., downtown Los Angeles; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Mon., Oct. 16 & 23, 7:30 p.m.; Sun., Oct. 16 & 29, 3 p.m.; Sun., Oct. 22, 5 p.m. (213) 489-0994 or or

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Blade Runner 2049: The Future Revisited

Blade Runner 2049 not only replicates many of the original film’s great qualities, but soars on its own as a stunning modern cinematic achievement.



Blade Runner 2049 mirrors familiar plagues: There is mention of a wall that divides the classes, the hiding of a child who is the progeny of illegality, and runaway corporate greed.

When Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner was released in 1982, it polarized audiences and critics alike. Some found its meditative pace too reflective of its characters’ emotional detachment, while others found the mix of noir mien and novelist Philip K. Dick’s Orwellian themes of technology’s effects on society profound and revolutionary. It took some time for it achieve its status as a classic — a prime example of art and intelligence cinematically coalescing. Now 35 years later, its sequel, Blade Runner 2049, may not have to wait at all.

This go around, producer Scott hands over the directorial reins to Denis Villeneuve (Arrival), who along with cinematographer Roger Deakins and production designer Dennis Gassner, delivers a stunning, harrowing vision of the future, reflective of the current threats plaguing our planet. Earth is a scorched wasteland, besieged by pollution and social degradation. Living trees no longer exist. The only light is from harsh neon signs and hologram ads that illuminate the soulless eyes of the denizens who slog through their lives working for the man. It is in this environment borne by the unholy union of corporations and technology that blade runner K (Ryan Gosling at his best) hunts down rogue older model replicants, or robots, made by a revived Tyrell Corporation. The film starts with K taking down a behemoth replicant, but in the process, he stumbles across evidence of a miracle that threatens to overturn the oppressive nature of this unnaturally controlled world.

Photo by Courtesy of Warner Bros. Photo by Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Blade Runner 2049 is a miraculous sight itself, a captivating assault on the senses that, beyond its spellbinding beauty, paints a disarming portrait of a society perched on the precipice of collapse. Much like its predecessor, its depiction of society is a dystopian treatise on the brutality of commerce and the embattled human spirit in modern times. Writers Michael Green and Hampton Fancher (who co-wrote the original film with David Webb Peoples) litter their bleak world with a perfect blend of sly references to the original film as well as memorable new lines of dialogue that are sure to become instant classics. Memories are manufactured, holograms serve as mates, and miracles are sequestered away so that hope cannot inspire the masses to throw off their shackles. And like the 1982 model, this Blade Runner edition mirrors contemporary challenges to our society. There is mention of a wall that divides the classes, the hiding of a child who is the progeny of illegality, and runaway corporate greed personified by Tyrell CEO Niander Wallace, a Luciferian Elon Musk-type played by Jared Leto. In Blade Runner 2049’s world, dreamers and dreaming are to be damned.

With an apt Kafkaesque moniker, K tortuously searches for the Truth (with a capital T), which leads to a ghostly Las Vegas, where he finds original blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), who has been holed up in Sin City for decades. Soon after old and new blade runners meet, all hell breaks out, leading to a lyrical near-perfect denouement. It’s a fitting way to bridge the past with the present on many levels — for Ford, for the plot and for the film franchise. (My only criticism is that at two hours and 44 minutes, it’s about 20 minutes too long.)

A deft combination of art and social commentary made the original Blade Runner rise above the standard fare of its time. And now, in an age when notable movies largely sport comic-book superheroes with silly superpowers, insulting intelligence and offending logic in virtually every frame, Blade Runner 2049 not only finely replicates many of the original film’s great qualities, but soars on its own as a stunning modern cinematic achievement.

Homepage photo by Stephen Vaughan – © 2017 Alcon Entertainment

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Filipinotown Is Burning: A “House” Is Not a Home in Ball-Culture-Themed Play

Ball culture, the subject of the 1991 documentary Paris Is Burning, is the backdrop for Filipino-American playwright Boni B. Alvarez’s new play, Fixed

Deborah Klugman



Chris Aguila, Allen Lucky Weaver and Boni B. Alvarez. (Photos by Darrett Sanders)

Ball culture — the subject of the 1991 documentary Paris Is Burning and the backdrop for Filipino-American playwright Boni B. Alvarez’s new play, Fixed — developed out of Harlem in the 1960s. It’s an LGBT subculture built around a network of “houses” whose members, mostly young blacks and Latinos, compete with each other for trophies or prizes in dance, dress or appearance. Each house takes the name of its founder, who often functions as a surrogate parent for the gay and transsexual youth who live with them and find shelter, identity and an avenue for self-expression in the system.

Set in Los Angeles’ Filipinotown, Fixed revolves around the ill-starred romance between a passionate ladyboy working as a masseuse in a “house,” and the black sheep brother of a local politician. Directed by Rodney To, it’s an over-the-top melodrama stocked with colorful characters, and with sufficient humor and humanity to have potential appeal. But while several supporting actors display depth and/or comic timing, too many of the performances, including a couple of pivotal ones, fall short of standard.

Miracles (Chris Aguila), highly regarded by her peers for her beauty and style, is madly in love with Mariano (Wade Allain-Marcus), a sometime lover whose older brother, Hudson (Joseph Valdez), is running for county sheriff. Mariano hasn’t been to visit Miracles in six months, honoring the request of Hudson and Hudson’s tough campaign manager/wife Dana (Rene-Marie Brewster) to refrain from trysts with Miracles until the election is over. Meanwhile, Miracles’ pining grows more acute after her application for sex-change surgery — which she thinks will make her more acceptable as a spouse for Mariano — is denied by a concerned doctor.

Besides the objections of Mariano’s family (and the man’s own reluctance to commit to a relationship), the pair face daunting resistance from Miracles’ boss, Gigi (playwright Alvarez), the head of the house and a large imposing ladyboy who insists that her word — and will — remain law. When Gigi catches Mariano on the premises, she tasers him — and Miracles too, after Miracles moves to protect her man, who tellingly crouches behind her before making a quick dash for the exit.

Meanwhile, back at campaign headquarters, Hudson, Dana and another campaign operative, A.J. (Adrian Gonzalez) are coping with the histrionics of another of Mariano’s conquests, Lizette (Anna Lamadrid). Fiery and obsessed, Lizette is a live wire and a genuine pain, but she has the advantage, in the eyes of the strategizing Dana, of being a biological woman.

All this hyper-drama is digestible to a point (let’s leave aside a faux tragic ending, embarrassing to watch). For instance, Allain-Marcus is persuasive as the ambivalent lover, erotically attached to Miracles but far from ready for the home-with-a-picket-fence future that she envisions. Lamadrid — an actress who specializes in excitable characters with feverish tongues — delivers the standout performance as a madwoman scorned. And Tonatiuh Elizarrarez is very good as Carmie, a young ladyboy supposedly outshone by the more dazzling Miracles. Carmie mostly observes events, but the actor commits to his role with skill and focus.

As with so many productions, however, the quality of the lead performance is key, and Aguila is not convincing — as either the luminary that Miracles, in her world, is supposed to be, or as an inamorata willing to make a supreme and shocking sacrifice for love. Alvarez likewise eschews any nuance as Gigi, but instead storms about with threatening bluster, even when she’s giving Miracles sage advice. One strains to believe that Brewster and Valdez are an ambitious political couple (Valdez is better when he interacts with Allain-Marcus as his brother), and the production’s spare set (Amanda Knehans) provides them with little atmospheric backup.

Part of the problem is the direction; To has an extensive resume as an actor, but Fixed is his first shot at directing a fully staged play. Going forward, the production would improve were he to rein in the bathos and stridency in some performances, and encourage shadings in others.

Echo Theater Company at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village; Fri.-Sat., 8:30 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m.; Mon., 8:30 p.m.; through October 22. (310) 307-3753 or

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Stage Review: “Runaway Home”’s Stormy Emotional Weather

Runaway Home should pack more of a punch than it does. The production has rich and satisfying sequences, most of them generated from the supporting ensemble. Whatever its shortcomings, the play is almost too timely for comfort. Storms batter our coasts while climate deniers reign.

Deborah Klugman



Camille Spirlin and Maya Lynne Robinson in Runaway Home. (Photo: Ed Krieger)

Directed by Shirley Jo Finney, Jeremy J. Kamps’ Runaway Home takes place in New Orleans in 2008 and revolves around a troubled 14-year-old runaway learning to survive on her own after a physical altercation with her mother prompts her to leave home. It’s a sound piece of writing, lyrical in places and with a historical backdrop that reminds us of the painful displacement and disrespect endured by poor people and people of color in the years following Hurricane Katrina. (An indifferent federal bureaucracy initially failed to step up to the plate, leaving homeless or under-housed folks with little or no assistance in rebuilding their lives.)

Kamps’s pivotal character, Kali (Camille Spirlin) is a kid with a quick mind, a diary full of poems and lots of attitude. She once won spelling bees in school, but the death of her beloved grandmother during Katrina transformed her into what her mom Eunice (Maya Lynn Robinson) calls “a little monster.”  After Eunice slapped her — she read Kali’s diary and found out she was pregnant — Kali slapped back. Now she’s on the run, scavenging where she can. She finds partial refuge with Armando (Armando Rey), a struggling local shopkeeper who offers Kali food after he finds her pilfering from his store. Her knowledge of survival skills broadens after she meets “Lone Wolf,” (Brian Tichnell) a young volunteer who guts houses to prevent the authorities from bulldozing them entirely. Lone Wolf calls himself an anarchist; he talks to Kali about dumpster diving, finding safe places to squat, and “liberating” goods from the local Walmart. This last instruction is significant because down the road Kali decides to “liberate” someone else’s gun, which turns out to be an unfortunate choice.

Back home Eunice, increasingly concerned about Kali, is being pressed by her neighbor Shana (Karen Malina White) to become part of a citizens’ protest group. Another neighbor, the elderly Mr. Dee (Jeris Poindexter, in a terrific performance), is sorting through his debris-filled trailer and reminiscing about the wife who left him for another after years of putting up with his dalliances.

Given its vital story and timely social context, Runaway Home should pack more of a punch than it does. The production has rich and satisfying sequences, most of them generated from the supporting ensemble: Poindexter as the lonesome, forgetful and emotionally untethered old man; White as the vigorously fired-up, mince-no-words-with-you Shana, and Robinson as the prickly Eunice, whose past pain and heartache are unabashedly laid out for all to see. Eunice has kind impulses too, as when she offers Mr. Dee a slice of cake she baked from her mom’s recipe — which he politely chokes down as she watches with benevolent intent.

These are wonderfully textured portrayals, but unfortunately the skill that fashioned them seems absent from Spirlin’s repertoire. Hers is a one-note performance in a pivotal role, smoothly rendered but too superficial to be involving. Plus, despite the cocky pose, she’s not a convincing teenager. One’s interest flags.

As to the production’s tech values, lighting designer Jennifer Edwards creates an intriguing effect in which Eunice’s head is reflected behind her in elegant silhouette. Her choice of hues is dramatically appealing, but at other times I felt there needed to be more light on the performers, who were sometimes too much in shadow from where I was sitting. Music by composer/sound designer Peter Bayne delivers an appropriately uneasy ambiance.

Still, whatever its shortcomings, the play is almost too timely for comfort.  Storms batter our coasts while climate deniers reign. We seem destined to repeat errors of the past, with the most vulnerable suffering once more from the folly of the powerful.

Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Avenue, East Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; Mon., 8 p.m.; through November  5. (323) 663-1525 or

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