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The Art of the Border: Searching for Kikito

Co-published by The American Prospect
Kikito, an enormous photograph of a 1-year-old child, pasted onto plywood sheets, stands 65 feet high on Mexico’s side of the border. Viewed from the U.S., he is a giant black-and-white toddler, his chubby hands appearing to grip the top of the border wall as he looks over it, into the mysterious United States.

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David Bacon




A man on the Mexican side of the border wall between Mexico and the U.S. looks through the bars, where the wall runs into the Pacific Ocean.

All Photographs by David Bacon

A French artist’s colossal installation on Mexico’s side of the border may make the invisible visible, but other subjects carry a sharper critical edge and pose deeper questions.

Co-published by The American Prospect

For almost an hour Laura, Moises and I drove through the dusty neighborhoods of Tecate, looking for Kikito. Tecate is a small border city in the dry hills of Baja California. It’s famous for a huge brewery, although today most workers find jobs in local maquiladoras.

When we asked for directions, a couple of people had heard of Kikito, but couldn’t tell us where he was. Most didn’t know who we were talking about.

We figured that if we kept driving along the border fence we’d find him. In these neighborhoods the second stories of large comfortable homes, mostly built in the 1940s and ’50s, rise above adobe walls enclosing their courtyards. But unlike downtown, with its colorful bustle, there was no street life on the hot streets here, hardly anyone on the sidewalk.

Finally we passed the one man who could surely tell us how to find Kikito — the cable guy. He even volunteered to lead us in his van part of the way. Using his directions, we bumped along a dirt road next to the border fence, up and down a couple of hills where the city fades into scrubland. Then we found Kikito.

He was much larger than I’d imagined.

The "Kikito" art installation at the U.S. Mexico border wall, created by French artist JR. Laura Velasco stands on a little hill near the structure, giving an idea of its huge size.The “Kikito” art installation at the U.S.-Mexico border wall, created by French artist JR. Laura Velasco stands on a little hill near the structure, giving an idea of its huge size.

Kikito is an enormous photograph of a 1-year-old child, pasted onto plywood sheets. The assemblage is mounted on a huge, complex metal scaffold, 65 feet high, much like what painters erect to embrace the buildings they work on. Kikito’s scaffolding, however, doesn’t embrace anything. Instead, it pushes the enormous photograph towards, and above, the border wall’s severe vertical iron bars.

The structure is so big that to bring the photo into position, part of the hillside had to be excavated, and a hole dug deep into the ravine at the bottom. I felt like Dorothy going behind the curtain to confront the Wizard as he manically pulls levers to present his fierce, disembodied face to the world. Like the Wizard’s, you can only see Kikito’s visage the right way from the other side of the curtain — in this case, the metal fence separating Tecate from the U.S.

Virtually every family has a member or friend who’s crossed to the U.S., where over nine percent of the country’s population now lives.

Viewed from the U.S. side, Kikito becomes a giant black-and-white toddler, his chubby hands appearing to grip the top of the border wall as he looks over it, into the mysterious United States. He has a slight smile.

If we’d been on the U.S. side, driving east from San Diego, we could have followed the directions Kikito’s creator, the French artist JR, posted on his website. There you can even see JR’s photograph of two U.S. Border Patrol agents staring at the baby. Apparently they often help visitors find the right spot.

We now have 20,000 Border Patrol agents, whose parked vans dot the desert all along the border wall from California to Texas, as they wait to grab someone trying to cross. Helping visitors find Kikito must provide a welcome break in the tedium of watching and waiting, and sweating in vans on shadeless hills, where the temperature climbs to 105 degrees and above.

The "Kikito" art installation at the U.S. Mexico border wall, created by French artist JR. Laura Velasco stands on a little hill near the structure, giving an idea of its huge size.At this spot along the border wall between Mexico and the U.S., Border Patrol agents fired through the wall and killed Ramsés Barron-Torrés. His portrait and a cross are on the wall of the building in Mexico below, where he fell. Agents say they were justified in shooting because people were throwing stones at them, but the street is far below and there is little danger that a stone could even pass through the iron bars at such a distance.

It’s obvious that Kikito’s audience is located in the U.S. “The piece is best viewed from the U.S. side of the border,” JR’s website explains. In fact, the optical effect can only be seen from that side — Mexicans standing in Tecate, where it’s actually located, can’t see it the right way. JR says Kikito is looking “playfully,” but then admits, “Kikito and his family cannot cross the border to see the artwork from the ideal vantage point.”

I took a photo of Laura on a nearby hummock, just to give an idea of the structure’s immense scale. She seems diminutive next to it. In her classes at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte (COLEF) in Tijuana, and in her books and research about the migration of Mexico’s indigenous people to Baja California and eventually to the U.S., Laura Velasco is hardly dispassionate. She advocates for migrants, and has no love for the wall and its unsubtle messages of “Keep Out!” and “Stay in Mexico!”

 “We are the invisible people. In this life, no one counts for less than a deported Mexican.”

That’s one reason she liked Kikito. “He shows us to be human beings,” she said, looking up at his half smile. “That’s a good message for people in the U.S. And he does it without shouting, just by being who he is.” If people in Mexico can’t see him properly, she thinks, they’re not the ones who need to get the message anyway.

When the installation went up, President Trump had just issued his threat to terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA ) program, withdrawing the legal status of 800,000 young people brought by their parents to the U.S. without visas as children. Many of those youth — the Dreamers — saw a baby looking over the border wall as a symbol of their own humanity in the face of fear and possible deportation.

Yet my visceral reaction, as I looked down the hillside at this immense toddler, was more skeptical. In a desert where hundreds of people die every year of thirst and exhaustion, trying to dodge Border Patrol agents, trekking on foot across the wall in the intense heat, is it enough to simply say, “Immigrants are human beings”? Why such a soft message in such a harsh context?

HOLTVILLE, CA - 4DECEMBER10 - Migrants found dead on the border between the U.S. and Mexico, in the area of the Imperial Valley and Colorado River, are buried in a potters field graveyard in Holtville. The identities of many are not known, and are buried as "John Doe" or "Jane Doe." Immigrant rights and religious activists have made crosses for many of the graves, most of which say "No Olvidados" or "Not Forgotten." About 450 bodies are buried here. Copyright David BaconMigrants found dead on the border between the U.S. and Mexico, in the area of the Imperial Valley and Colorado River, are buried in a potters field graveyard in Holtville. The identities of many are not known, and are buried as “John Doe” or “Jane Doe.” Immigrant-rights and religious activists have made crosses for many of the graves, most of which say “No Olvidados,” or “Not Forgotten.” 

The wall, and the border militarization of which it is a part, is exacting a terrible cost. It’s paid by uprooted Oaxacan farmers needing work and money to send home, by parents and children desperate to reunite families fractured by earlier migrations, by Honduran refugees fleeing violence. When many die crossing the desert (232 in the first seven months of 2017), they’re buried in the Holtville cemetery, 89 miles east of Kikito in the Imperial Valley.

Successive U.S. administrations have beefed up the Border Patrol’s numbers, built multiple walls, handed out contracts for high-tech surveillance devices, detained hundreds of thousands of people in for-profit detention centers and then deported them. It’s a big media story, and produces a fascination with the border among U.S. photographers and artists, who then create photodocumentaries and art projects currently popular in the mainstream media. The border sells, in other words. Kikito is part of a growing genre.

Richard Misrach, a well-known photographer, produced a large book of photographs, Border Cantos, which shows the absurdity of a wall of iron bars that suddenly stops at a golf course, allowing real estate agents to play through. He communicates an atmosphere of violence in images of spent shells on the range where Border Patrol agents practice shooting, and the possibility of death from thirst in images of flags signaling the water cans left by immigration activists and Good Samaritans along the migrant trails. But like Kikito, his audience is in the U.S. The photographs, almost all without people, look at the border wall from the northern side.

Some projects are less documentary. In the New Yorker, writer Jonathan Blitzer recounts how Magnum photographer Carolyn Drake “set out for the U.S.-Mexico border just after Donald Trump won the Presidency.”

“Where is Drake taking us?” Blitzer asks. “This is an American project, she told me. She’s less concerned with who’s crossing to or from Mexico than she is with who’s already on the American side, living alongside the border as though wedged between two worlds.”

TIJUANA, BAJA CALIFORNIA NORTE, MEXICO - 9SEPTEMBER14 - Luisa, a homeless woman, collects cans and plastic from garbage dumpsters, near the Tijuana River, in downtown Tijuana, not far from the U.S. Mexico border. Copyright David BaconLuisa, a homeless woman, collects cans and plastic from garbage dumpsters, near the Tijuana River, in downtown Tijuana, just south of the U.S.-Mexico border.

The New Yorker labeled Drake’s work “Haunted Photographs of America’s Borderlands,” a phrase that signals that we’re only looking at the border from the U.S. side.  “Our obsession with the border has a lot of fantasy involved,” Drake explained to Blitzer. ”You’re searching for something, but it’s not really there.” Her 22 photographs on the magazine’s website are all taken in the U.S. — Mexicans only exist once they’ve arrived in the north.

“When did this contemporary diaspora become a ‘fantasy’?” asks Don Bartletti, who in his years at the Los Angeles Times probably took more photographs of the border than any other U.S. photographer. “The border is certainly clearly defined for millions of people searching for something better on the other side.”

Another New Yorker writer, Alexandra Schwartz, calls JR “a magician who conjures people onto walls.” She notes that he’s done other photographic projects on the same scale, pasting black-and-white portraits of immigrants onto buildings and walls in Europe and elsewhere. He too got his impetus from Trump. “When Trump started to talk a lot about a wall along the Mexican border, one day I woke up and I saw a kid looking over the wall,” JR told Schwartz. “We know that a 1-year-old doesn’t have a political vision, or any political point of view. He doesn’t see walls as we see them.”

I’m sure JR doesn’t see Mexicans as 1-year-olds. But the way the border is objectified and used can make people in Mexico suspicious about how people on the other side of the wall see them, when they see them at all.

“The subject of the border is profitable for artists,” Enrique Botello, a photographer in Ensenada and founder of Galería 184, told me. “I think most U.S. photographers don’t understand the price we’re paying on the border, in terms of the number of people dying. They’re motivated mainly by self-interest because the subject of the border is easy to sell. A lot of photographers only want to come and take pictures without being very critical — just exploit the subject.”

A fter looking at Kikito, we drove over to Tecate’s new municipal art center for the presentation of a book about California farmworkers, published jointly by COLEF in Tijuana and the University of California Press in Oakland. Afterwards we went to drink wine at a local restaurant with friends — poets and artists.

06A memorial at the border fence for those who have died trying to cross.

“Kikito means nothing to me,” announced Francisco Morales, Baja California’s celebrated poet and activist. (See his poems that follow this article.) His partner, Rocio Hoffmann Silva, is a portrait painter. Between them, they live project to project, book to book, and often have a hard time putting together the income to pay the bills. “I look at the resources needed to create Kikito, and think about what we could use them for here,” she said. “There’s so much available in the U.S. When we want to create art that looks at our lives here, support is hard to find.”

Oscar Contreras, a sociologist at COLEF born in Tecate, thought Kikito didn’t have to make an overt political statement. “It can exist in its own right,” he argued, “and we can appreciate it or not based on how well it communicates its aesthetic ideas.” Kikito, however, and photographs of the wall and the “borderlands” are created as social documents, not just art abstracted from reality. That’s the basis for their media popularity — why photographers and artists get the funding needed to create them. “If they’re measured against social reality, I think that’s fair,” he added. “After all, can Kikito exist without the wall?”

Morales isn’t angry at Kikito in particular, but like many of his colleagues believes Tijuana’s vibrant culture is ignored in U.S. media coverage of the border. Mexican artists create their own art about the migration experience, because it is such a fundamental aspect of Mexican life. Virtually every family has a member or friend who’s crossed to the U.S., where over nine percent of the country’s population now lives. One famous work mounted crosses on the border wall’s metal plates, where it runs along the road past the Tijuana airport. Gallon jugs symbolizing the water carried by border crossers were stacked against it, each with the name of someone whose body had been found in the desert.

At the ironically-named Friendship Park (Parque de la Amistad) in Playas de Tijuana, the graffiti on the wall’s bars is itself an art project. The wall, both there and on the fence leading to Mexicali’s crossing gate, has become a venue for photographers and artists. Their art is sharp, critiquing mass deportations and the hard lives of migrants on the other side. And these works can only be shown on the Mexican side — the Border Patrol will not allow art installations on the side they control.

Much of the Mexican art about the border focuses on the wall and its human cost, but photographers like Botello also insist that the coverage has to include the roots of migration. “The problem of the border is bilateral,” he says. “U.S. policy toward the border is becoming very radicalized, causing the death of so many migrants. But the problem of the border is also that of the countries exporting those migrants.”

07 (1)A worker is deported back into Mexico at the border gate in Mexicali, under the stare of a Border Patrol agent.

To Enrique Botello, the problem of Kikito is that he is too distant, both from the deaths at the border and from the reasons people risk it — what they are migrating from. “JR says that he has no political position!” he exclaims. “His interest isn’t in making a commitment, just in his art.”
Bartletti is angrier. “Many photographers who parachute in to the U.S.-Mexico border portray its cultural anthropology as simple theater,” he argues. “‘The Border’ has become a convenient stage, with little documentary evidence of the causes and consequences of migration for survival. But it’s probably good for their bottom line.”

Art or photography can help change the world, if it arises from the political commitment and involvement of the artist and photographer. “We should strengthen solidarity on all the borders of the world,” Botello urges, “so that that someday all those borders will disappear.” Therefore photography projects, he believes, should be produced in cooperation across the border, in active solidarity.

While there are few examples of this today, it is an idea with historical precedent. In the 1930s and ’40s Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco came to the U.S. and created radical murals that were cultural weapons of that era in movements for social change. They inspired a generation of radical U.S. painters in the process. Rivera’s Rockefeller Center mural, “Man at the Crossroads,” was viewed as so dangerous that its patron, Nelson Rockefeller, had it demolished. Tina Modotti, born in Italy and raised in San Francisco, and Mariana Yampolsky, born in Chicago, created photographs that became part of the revolutionary cultural upsurge in Mexico from the 1920s to the 1950s.

In making Kikito, a Mexican child visible to the United States, JR has created a border-focused project. But if part of its purpose was to make the invisible visible, other subjects carry a sharper critical edge, and pose deeper questions about the reality people experience on the border. What happens, for instance, to those pushed back through the gate in the border wall, once they’re deported from the U.S.?
Today scores of young people live in the concrete channel built to contain the floods of the Tijuana River, which runs through the middle of the city near the border between Mexico and the U.S. Like the Los Angeles river channel, it is mostly a featureless cement expanse, but in Tijuana it is filled with deportees with no money and no homes.

Juan Manuel Barragan Corona, recently expelled from the U.S. and living in the river bottom, has a wife and two teenage children in Las Vegas. “We are the invisible people,” he says. “In this life, no one counts for less than a deported Mexican.”

TIJUANA, BAJA CALIFORNIA NORTE, MEXICO - 28SEPTEMBER17 - Juan Manuel Barragan Corona and his friend, who did not want to give his name, are homeless men who live in the Tijuana River, which runs in a concrete flood control channel through the middle of the city toward the Pacific Ocean, near the border between Mexico and the U.S. Barragan was recently deported from the U.S., where he has a wife and two teenage children in Las Vegas. Copyright David BaconJuan Manuel Barragan Corona, left, and his friend are homeless men who live in the Tijuana River flood control channel. Many deported homeless people live in the concrete river bed.

Two poems from San Ysidro Zone, by Francisco Morales
Translated by Iliana Hernández Partida

Warm coffee
words had left me dry
the hate helicopter flies again
looking for migrants through the wired.

Warm coffee
at the crackling corner of hunger
a patched tunnel
fears and mastiffs are after feeble dogs.

The coffee and the chipping bowl got cold
without tenderness…

Ah, these men! :
How many fences they build!
how much misery
for so many nomadic skeletons!

More common than shadows and noise
a wall rises upon us.

That humidity scented wall
does not scream nor crackles
no groans come from it.

It cuts maliciously
the Psalms history that we traced
our elucubrations fiercely built
roughed up.

like a coastline without sowings
or a private lilies swamp.

The silence wall.

The seed growing missing a life seed
along the sunset working as a watchman
and the stubborn eyes browsing
from the chiaroscuro grid.

The seven vigils bitch
giving birth to new sarcasms.

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Culture & Media

Landslide Union Victory at Los Angeles Times

By 11:30 a.m. Friday morning the votes were tallied in the first-ever union vote taken by L.A. Times editorial staffers: 248 in favor, 44 opposed.

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Bobbi Murray




Los Angeles Times editorial staffers react to announcement of union-vote victory. (Photo: Bobbi Murray)

All was quiet nine floors above the noisy corner at Figueroa and Ninth Streets in downtown Los Angeles Friday morning. There, in a National Labor Relations Board hearing room packed with spectators, two NLRB staff members began counting ballots in the first union vote by editorial staff in the Los Angeles Times’ 136-year history. (The newspaper’s pressroom has had union representation since 2007.)

L.A. Times newsroom writers and editors who had worked for months building support for NewsGuild CWA representation watched (and tweeted) in silence as the counting began at 10:16 a.m., with union and company representatives present.

By 11:30 a.m. the vote tally revealed a landslide union victory— 248 in favor, 44 opposed. The election had been held in the Times‘ headquarters January 4, but the NLRB count was conducted today to include mail-in ballots.

The room erupted. “The ‘yes’ column was crazy!” said data journalist Anthony Pesce.

“I had this urge to laugh and cry—we had been working towards this for months,” said copy editor Kristina Toi. “This was a day we all knew was coming but at the same time it felt like it was never going to come.”

The Los Angeles Times is owned by Tronc, formerly Tribune Publishing Company. Editorial staff argued that Tronc management has challenged both working and journalistic standards, causing tumult at the top and eroding pay and benefits. Tronc’s chairman, tech CEO Michael Ferro, took a $5 million consulting fee for himself late last year, and the company also paid $4.6 million for him to use a private plane over seven months. “That $9.6 million could have been used to hire more than 70 reporters,” Steven Greenhouse, a former longtime New York Times labor reporter, wrote in an email to Capital & Main.

If Tronc executives continue trimming the size of the L.A. Times‘ newsroom, Greenhouse said, the resulting product “could result in an accelerated loss of subscribers, whether digital or paper.  And any further reduction of the editorial staff will be bad for the citizens of Los Angeles,” who count on the coverage of neighborhoods, City Hall, Sacramento and Washington. He called the vote “an emphatic statement that the staff “wants more of a voice in the future of the newspaper to which they’ve devoted so much of their talent and energies.”

It will take about a week to get formal NLRB certification, Pesce said. Union activists don’t expect ballot challenges from Tronc management and will begin surveying the newsroom to determine member priorities. “After that we need to move right into bargaining,” said Pesce.

In a statement, Tronc expressed support for the outcome, despite emails and leaflets it sent out during the Guild’s organizing campaign opposing the union:

“We respect the outcome of the election and look forward to productive conversations with union leadership as we move forward. We remain committed to ensuring that the Los Angeles Times is a leading source for news and information and to producing the award-winning journalism our readers rely on.”

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People Will Talk: An Intriguing Premise Can’t Save This Dystopian Play

In Sam Steiner’s futuristic play, a new law limits conversation between people to 140 words a day. How will they get around this ration?

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Deborah Klugman




Brynn Alexander and Philip Asta. (Photo: Daniel J. Sliwa)

Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons, Sam Steiner’s 85-minute two-hander, comes packaged with an intriguing premise and the technical expertise of two of the L.A. theater community’s most established artists. Unfortunately, that’s not enough to compensate for an opaque, meandering script and uneven performances by actors understandably at sea with the flummoxing dialogue.

The play poses the question: What happens to relationships when a repressive government rations the number of words that can be spoken each day?

In the story, Oliver (Philip Asta) and Bernadette (Brynn Alexander) are two lovers who already have problems communicating even without the law’s interference. We first meet them rendezvousing at a pet cemetery, concerned that their relationship will be discovered by others (although why this would imperil them remains unclear). Bernadette is a family lawyer, an attractive gal with attitude who is not fully cognizant of her sense of privilege. The more down-home Oliver adores her nonetheless, and mostly absorbs her putdowns. When he does challenge her, he does so falteringly lest his comment provoke more rejection.

Asta and Alexander. (Photo: Daniel J. Sliwa)

The play is structured as a series of short, cryptic interchanges, with transitions signaled by a loud startling sound (designer Cricket S. Meyers) and accompanying flashes of colored lights (designer Matt Richter) strategically embedded around the proscenium floor. At some point — but notably not at the beginning — the characters discuss an impending law that will limit conversation between themselves and with others to 140 words a day. They explore ways to get around this mandate: tapping on the floor using Morse code, for example, or consolidating two or more words into a single utterance. Other scenes portray Oliver confessing to Bernadette his involvement in anti-government protests, which she disapproves of, especially as they involve his contact with a former girlfriend.

These sequences furnish welcome, albeit scant, context to a piece that promises to be intellectually and/or politically involving but isn’t. Steiner never bothers to supply background details about the oppressive regime his characters are valiantly trying to cope with, nor does he apply a comprehensible chronology to either the narrative’s political thread or its personal one. The cryptic interaction between Oliver and Bernadette remains pretty much the same both before the law is implemented — somewhere in the middle of the script — and after. This makes for a frustrating evening at the theater, all the more disappointing as the basic idea here is so promising, given the current administration’s predilections to stifle controversy and criticism.

Director Jen Bloom does a respectable job of engendering dynamic from the two characters’ interaction, but it’s not enough to sustain interest. Jessica J’aime’s costumes enhance Bernadette’s appeal as a come-hither-but-not-too-close kind of paramour. Her performance is satisfactory if a bit stilted. Asta brings a good deal more substance to the vulnerable working-class Oliver, and together they generate an appropriate chemistry.

Hudson Guild Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through February 11. or (323) 960-4420.

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L.A. Times Staffers Await Union Vote Tally

Thursday’s vote by Los Angeles Times editorial staffers to choose or reject unionization was overseen by the National Labor Relations Board at the paper’s downtown building and Orange County offices.

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Bobbi Murray




Photo by Minnaert

Thursday’s first-ever union vote among editorial staff in the 136-year history of the Los Angeles Times was hailed as a landmark event by other news media observers, although it appears that the voting itself was a fairly low-key affair.

There had been a buzz of activity, along with rising tensions between management and the union effort in the weeks leading up to the daylong January 4 vote, which was overseen by the National Labor Relations Board at the downtown building and Orange County offices.

Union newsroom supporters had met with fellow journalists to discuss what the on-the-job priorities of editorial staffers might be and distilled a list of negotiation goals. There were phone calls to editorial staff to beef up union support and pro-union signs sprang up around the newsroom.

Management of the Los Angeles Times, which is owned by Tronc, sent out an anti-union eblast to its reporters touting the newspaper’s history and implying that workplace flexibility would be threatened by a collective bargaining structure, and that the union couldn’t guarantee pay hikes or protections against layoffs. It was not the first such email and matched the messaging in management-distributed flyers.

Despite that, one Times writer, speaking on condition of anonymity, described voting day in the Times Spring Street headquarters in anti-climactic terms.

“There was no line, really. I think I heard that at 10 o’clock on the dot [when polls opened] there was a bit of a line. It took 10 seconds to vote. You just marked an X, Yes or No, behind the curtain then dropped your ballot in the box.”

Given that slightly over 350 staffers are in the bargaining unit and eligible to vote in two locations (and some by mail-in ballot), there was little potential for a stampede. Observers included a National Labor Relations Board officer, a NewsGuild-CWA union agent and another representing management.

Thursday evening, pro-union staffers who had been involved in the organizing retreated after work to Birds & Bees, a nearby watering hole, no doubt to relax a little after the past months fight and discuss next steps — outside media were not invited.

The drama now will lie in awaiting the results, not due until the mail-in ballots are counted and the NLRB announces the results on January 19.

There had been some skepticism in the newsroom, the Times staffer said, but “the opposition hadn’t organized. So, it’s tempting to think, Oh well, it’s going to be overwhelming [for the union], but I just don’t know. I can’t predict — I wouldn’t assume it’s a done deal.”

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L.A. Times: Will Union Vote Conk Tronc?

Today, over 350 Los Angeles Times reporters and editorial staff will vote on whether to allow NewsGuild CWA to represent them at the famously anti-union company.

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Bobbi Murray




Editorial staffers say they have been driven to unionize by a management that has undermined both working and journalistic standards.

Co-published by The American Prospect

Los Angeles Times readers who have been unaware of the paper’s endless management turmoil and policy changes can always view the damage in its print edition. Thinner news sections, a dwindling number of bylines and the wrap-around advertising that disguises the front-page all hint at the ongoing upheaval at the top.

Front-line reporters who bear the brunt of the turmoil have organized a union drive in response. As the Los Angeles Times Guild organizing committee announced in an October 24th 2017 letter signed by 44 editorial staff: “We wanted to stem the flight of talent and halt the steady erosion of pay and benefits.”

It’s the first time in the famously anti-union paper’s history that editorial staff members have taken such a step — driven, they say, by a management that has undermined both working and journalistic standards. (The Times’ press operators are represented by the Teamsters union.)

Today, over 350 Los Angeles Times reporters and editorial staff will vote on whether to allow NewsGuild CWA to represent them. About 70 percent of the newsroom signed union authorization cards, organizers say. Voting takes place at the Times‘ downtown headquarters and at its Orange County offices, with observers in place; some remote employees will submit mail-in ballots. The National Labor Relations Board will release the results January 19.

Organizers want a unified voice to formally set work standards so Tronc can’t make unilateral changes to employment conditions — such as the recent policy shift that eliminated accrued vacation days.

“What really kicked this off was, as we’re dealing with this tumult at the executive levels, the reporters are still doing the work,” said Carolina Miranda, who has seen management change at least three times in the three and a half years she has been at the paper.

One pivotal moment came recently when it became public that Michael W. Ferro, the technology entrepreneur and company chairman who changed the Tribune name to Tronc (Tribune online content), flies on a private plane that cost Tronc $4.6 million–$8,500 an hour– in seven months to sublease. The plane is subleased from a Ferro-owned company, Merrick Ventures.

“That tipped wavering [employees] toward the union,” said one L.A. Times journalist who, like most staffers interviewed by Capital & Main, spoke on condition of anonymity.

According to another Times staffer, one incident that roiled editorial staff—and much of the industry–was management’s behavior during a recent stand-off with the Walt Disney Company. Disney refused to provide advance copies or screenings of films to the L.A. Times because of the paper’s two-part series about the cozy business relationship between the city of Anaheim and Disneyland that has garnered the theme park more than $1 billion in “subsidies, incentives, rebates and protections from future taxes.” Disney found the stories unfair.

An L.A. Times staffer cited management’s tepid response as a turning point. National critics associations condemned the ban and threatened to disqualify Disney films from awards consideration. D’Vorkin met with Disney for what it called “productive discussions,” although the Times offered no public defense for the reporting that had sparked Disney’s ire.

Part of the paper and website’s chaos is evidenced in the kinds of cuts and changes in workplace conditions that have become common in newsrooms around the country as publishers grapple with changing technological models and a shifting economic landscape. In Southern California, the LA Weekly’s new owner recently eliminated all but four of 13 editorial staff members; former OC Weekly editor Gustavo Arellano resigned after refusing to cut staff.

“We’re the eyes and ears of the community,” Carolina Miranda said of the pressure to keep reporter staffing levels low. “You need someone writing about the water. You need someone writing about electeds, sitting in interminable City Hall and CalTrans meetings. That’s where the news comes from. It’s important to protect our role in that ecosystem.”

L.A. Times employees describe several more clear turning points in a years-long, accelerating momentum toward unionization. In 2016 the Chicago-based Tribune company, which had acquired the paper in 2000, announced its name change to Tronc, along with its mission as a “content curation and monetization company.”

In August 2017 Tronc fired publisher and editor Davan Maharaj. Newsroom staff hadn’t been that happy about Maharaj’s management style, given his predilection for encumbering and delaying some of the Times‘ best reporting. The staff organized against him after “fabulous journalists, one after the other, kept leaving,” one union supporter said.

The organizers had high hopes that a new editor would promote quality journalism. Then Tronc brought in Ross Levinsohn, formerly an interim chief executive at Yahoo, as chief executive publisher, and former Forbes editor Lewis D’Vorkin, as editor.

The emphasis, Levinsohn told the New York Times, would not be on investing in reporting staff but to expand the L.A. Times on “all platforms.” New management pushed for budget cuts.

Organizers are looking to create a unified voice to set work standards and formally codify them so Tronc can’t make unilateral changes to employment conditions — such as the recent policy shift that eliminated accrued vacation days. They also hope to stabilize the pay structure with a tiered approach that gradually increases pay for new hires as well as to improve health benefits and parental leave policies.

Union contracts also frequently include grievance processes that protect journalists’ freedom to report and write by assuring that terminations are for just cause rather than “at will” whims.

“We hope it will unify the newsroom behind quality journalism instead of watching one person after the other leave,” said one staffer who signed on to the October 2017 letter. The publications that will survive have invested in maintaining quality, she added, citing the Washington Post and New York Times. (Editorial staff from both publications are part of the NewsGuild’s 25,000 nationwide members.)

NewsGuild organizers describe push-back from L.A. Times management as “primitive stuff.”

The Los Angeles Times responded to a request for comment about the union drive via email with a statement from L.A. Times CEO and publisher Levinsohn. “For 136 years, the Los Angeles Times has served the community of Los Angeles and the world with dynamic, important and Pulitzer Prize winning journalism. It is the core foundation of our brand. Whether our newsroom unionizes or not, we will remain committed to ensuring the L.A. Times is a leading source for news and information across all media touchpoints.”

Felix Gutierrez, professor emeritus at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, who writes about media and racial, ethnic and gender groups, has followed the L.A. Times development for decades as the paper, he said, focused on expanding toward white suburbs and “bypassing other communities. If they had adapted a demographic imperative as aggressively as they grasped the technological, they could be in a different place right now.

“The reporters are closer to what’s happening in the communities than the higher-ups. They should listen to them. I don’t know if they’ll do that without a union.”

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2017: The Year in Photos, Part 1

With the first tumultuous year of Donald Trump’s presidency winding down, Capital & Main looks back at the images and stories we presented over the last 12 months.

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Gabriel Thompson reported on the plight of undocumented workers (“After the Inferno”) in the wake of Northern California’s autumn Wine Country fires. (Above photos: Michael Short.)

A man on the Mexican side of the border wall between Mexico and the U.S. looks through the bars, where the wall runs into the Pacific Ocean. The image was part of “Searching for Kikito,” photojournalist David Bacon’s examination of chic border art.

In “Exiles on Main Street,”  Sasha Abramsky wrote about the Abd El Qader family and others who had waited years for permission to emigrate to the U.S. as political refugees. (Photo: Khalid Eid)

Aaron “Lil Bill” Flournoy was the subject of a story by Lovell Estell III (“Kicked to the Curb”), who chronicled a veteran bicycle repairman’s efforts to remain in business in the shadow of USC-driven gentrification. (Photo: Lovell Estell III)

American Federation of Teachers’ leader Randi Weingarten drives home a point for interviewer Bill Raden in “Back to School.”

A Los Angeles child protests at a Defend DACA rally, one of many immigrant-rights demonstrations held in 2017. (Photo: Joanne Kim)

Reporter Jessica Goodheart’s “A Dream and a Microwave” profiled Everytable, a new dining chain that aims to put healthy, tasty, affordable meals within reach of people in low-income communities. Pictured: Everytable employees Jahwarn and Chris. (Photo: Jessica Goodheart)

David Bacon’s photograph captured one moment in a San Francisco demonstration against a planned far-right rally in that city.

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Boyle’s Heights: A New Book by the Founder of Homeboy Industries

Fr. Gregory Boyle’s book includes stories of young parents who have figured out how to manage jobs and child care, and enjoy their kids even if the parents themselves didn’t have much of a childhood.

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Bobbi Murray




“Homies inhabit their truest selves once they are on the receiving end of tenderness.”

Father Gregory Boyle doesn’t exactly credit the Los Angeles homeboys and homegirls he’s worked with for 30 years with writing his book Barking to the Choir-The Power of Radical Kinship. But he makes it clear that their voices are what the book is about and opens giving props to the homie who came up with the title.

Barking to the Choir vividly expresses Boyle’s passionate perspective that “homies inhabit their truest selves once they are on the receiving end of tenderness.”

In Boyle’s view, that goes for all of us.

It’s easy to think it’s a book about gangs and “the gang experience.” Boyle, after all, founded Homeboy Industries, the largest gang intervention and rehabilitation program in the world, has testified before Congress on the issue, received the California Peace Prize and was named a 2014 Champion for Change by the Obama White House.

It is not a book about gangs.

Boyle is the author—the scholar who references Jesus along with Buddhist monks Pema Chodron and Thich Nhat Hanh, Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King Jr. and Thomas Wolfe.

But it’s the voices of the homeboys and homegirls that supply the most affecting words. Heart-breaking, harrowing or very frequently laugh-out-loud funny, they lead us through Boyle’s story of a community and relationships that connect him with “the tenderness of God.”

Barking to the Choir is loaded with spiritual references that may even be accessible to and moving for the non-churched reader. The stories that weave the book together—all brief anecdotes—bring us into some very hard lives but can take us from tears to guffaws within a page.

Boyle draws us in through profiles of those in the Homeboy community—some 10,000 have gone through its job training and placement process, recovery programs and tattoo removal essential to getting that job—helping us see it through his soulful lens.

Ramon, a gang member working at Homeboy Bakery, was the guy who created the book title, not that he knew it at the time. He was in a little trouble, had been late for work, missing his shift some days. He waved Boyle off when the priest approached him after co-workers recommended an “attitude-ectomy.” “Don’t sweat it, bald-headed,” he told Boyle. ”You’re barking to the choir.”

The expression combines “barking up the wrong tree”–and “singing to the choir.”

The book is full of such inventive phrasing—seizing the language and shaping it to your will.

“And that’s what got the camel to fall,” said one homie, explaining how a broken refrigerator put him over the financial edge after all the food spoiled—the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Boyle is intent on breaking down the “otherness” that separates the mainstream middle-class in L.A. and other cities from poorer, browner neighbors not too many miles away.

Financially stable people can say don’t sweat the small stuff, he explains, but lacking a bank account, a reliable car, being a few bucks short on buying diapers tips you toward disaster. “Being poor means living in a continual state of acute crisis,” Boyle says. “That’s something they have to endure every day.”

He doesn’t dodge the pain of families that have lost children to gang life. He has buried 222 young people taken down by the violence. The book details the efforts of the mothers who have struggled to bring about change and who hold rallies to collect guns and throw them away.

Boyle grew up in affluent Hancock Park, in an intact family of seven siblings miles from Boyle Heights. Gang life was not even a notion. “No hopeful kid has ever joined a gang. Not now. Not ever.”

Instead, he introduces us to the young man who described at a conference how his mother pressed his hand on a stove-top burner until the flesh charred. That was to teach the boy not to play with matches. “Nothing can render a person more of a stranger to himself than the unspeakable things he was forced to endure when young,” Boyle writes.

Such stories run throughout the book, crisply and briefly told—you don’t need much detail to get the picture. Or to get a sense of the effects of multi-generational poverty and how it figures into the brutality and neglect he describes—the parents who had no parenting and have no resources to attend to their own kids.

There are also stories of young parents who have figured out how to manage jobs and child care, and enjoy their kids even if the parents themselves didn’t have much of a childhood.

None of it is abstract or sociological. We meet people with real names and lives. Boyle strives to present a complex portrait—including a story about the mother who approached him at an awards event to say she hated him and his work; her son had been killed by gang violence.

As the director of a non-profit agency that serves “a trauma-informed community” he is well aware of a need to bridge “the distance between direct service and structural change.”

His aim is not to romanticize the poor, but “to see ourselves in kinship with them.”

Boyle covered some of this ground in his best-seller Tattoos on the Heart, but in this book his reach seems to be greater, and he shares more of the spiritual influences and practices that sustain him and connect him to the genuine joy and love he finds in his work and his community. And his community is our community.

Our community. That’s his point.

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Tom Morello: Making America Rage Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cornerstone Theater Company Delivers More Food for Thought

Playwright Michael John Garcés’ labyrinthine plot follows two sisters through a myriad of fantastical scenarios involving a mega-corporation that aims to control worldwide food production.

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Deborah Klugman




Cristina Frias in The Magic Fruit. (All photos by Jenny Graham)

Magic Fruit is the latest (and last) offering in the Cornerstone Theater Company’s Hunger Cycle of nine plays exploring “hunger, justice and food equity issues.” It opens with sisters Tami (Cristina Frias) and Kiko (Rachael Portillo), frantic and bedraggled, stumbling through a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles in search of refuge from a shadowy serpentine monster — hunger itself. Their quest for salvation transports them through a myriad of fantastical scenarios in which the prime adversary is a mega-corporation that aims to control worldwide agricultural production. Produced through a partnership of artists and community members, a Cornerstone hallmark, the show features major life-or-death themes, ecological warnings and some spectacular tech — but the story is convoluted and much of the acting too weak to ignore.

Directed by Shishir Kurup, playwright Michael John Garcés’ labyrinthine plot takes inspiration from Mozart’s The Magic Flute. In this rather loose adaptation, Tami, a former gang member, and the younger Kiko become separated after Kiko is abducted by the temperamental Queen of the Rain (Page Leong). The spine of the story is Tami’s search to rescue Kiko, which can happen only if she can recover the Queen’s missing heart. This organ (named Corazón and depicted by Bethany Nava in a sparkly blue costume) has been captured by the bad guys, who plan to use her blood to make seeds that require no rain — an enormous plus in a world ravaged by drought.

Page Leong and Bethany Nava.

The main storyline is interspersed with minor characters: a trio of desperate farmers, another threesome of 21st century skateboarders, a triad of gardeners and so on. A rapscallion named Mondiablo (Peter Howard) who works for the company plans to extort the board of directors, but they fire him first. The show’s comic highlight is the Flaming Hot Cheeto (Lee Maupin), a bright-orange, misshapen figure who won’t divulge information unless he’s bitten (beware that one).

The most interesting (and least whimsical) scenes depict the machinations of this Monsanto-like corporation to gain and retain power. Eight actors represent this monolith, whose most vocal spokesperson, curtly played by Bahni Turpin, is suitably and incisively ruthless.

As Tami, Frias provides a strong and likable anchor for the disparate narrative; the world is coming apart around her, and her desperate resistance is charismatic. Portillo, whose character, unfortunately, is off-stage for quite a while, is another strong and sympathetic presence to root for.

But other performances drain the production of energy. Inexplicably, Kurup has cast the major role of Pageni, a free-spirited Native American who befriends the women, with an inexperienced actor (Courage) whose delivery underscores the character’s airheaded blandness. Nava and others also appear to be relative newbies onstage. I understand that, by design, not everyone here is supposed to be professional, but characters essential to moving the action forward should be played by one.

The production’s most striking aspect is the accomplished work of its tech team — most notably video designer Sean Cawelti’s absolutely stunning apocalyptic imagery, but also the intricate sound and artful lighting by John Nobori and Geoff Korf respectively, and the droll imaginative costumes by Meghan E. Healey. It is these combined elements which best relay Magic Fruit’s haunting message.

Cornerstone Theater Company at the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles, 138 W. First Street, Los Angeles; Wed.-Thurs., 7:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through December 10.

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Hunger Is No Game in This Theater Experiment

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

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Deborah Klugman




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

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

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

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

Donna Simone Johnson (Photo: Will O’Loughlen)

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

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

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

What is the main purpose of the project?

Dan Froot. (Photo: Joanna Eldrege Morrissey)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How were the families chosen?

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

Tell me something about the writing process

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

Did the stories evolve in the process?

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

Why the radio play format?

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

How did you come to work with Robert Een?

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

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

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

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

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‘Yerma’ Update Suffers From Weak Ensemble

Inspired by Federico Garcia Lorca’s 1934 classic play, Yerma, this one-act by Oliver Mayer is set in contemporary Los Angeles where Yerma (Jean Murillo) labors as part of a janitorial team at an elite university.

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Anthony Bryce Graham and Jean Murillo.  (All photos by Luis Kelly-Duarte.)

In Yerma in the Desert, the desert is less an external place than the state of mind of the title character. Written by Oliver Mayer, the play is inspired by Federico Garcia Lorca’s 1934 classic Yerma, whose central character, the wife of a shepherd, is childless and unhappy.

Mayer’s one-act is set in contemporary Los Angeles where Yerma (Jean Murillo) labors as part of a janitorial team at an elite university. She’s an amiable pleasant-tempered woman who works hard — prompting the scorn of her fellow workers, put off by her willingness to undertake double shifts and good-naturedly scrub toilets. Yerma’s husband Juan (Anthony Bryce Graham) also looks down on her occupation; he’s an ambitious man who has just joined the police force, a move he regards as upwardly mobile and empowering. While he values their marriage, their intimacy is passionless and he doesn’t want children. Yerma, however, is desperate for a baby, and while she isn’t looking to have an affair, she does have this old friend Victor (Paul Tully ) to whom she’s uneasily drawn.

Jean Murillo and Marilyn Fitoria.

Running in tandem with the main story is a subplot in which Yerma’s boss Trini (Brenda Banna) schemes to wreak revenge on a snooty student who has disparaged one of her workers. Her plan is to plant dope in the student’s dorm room, then tip off the authorities to have him expelled. The take-no-prisoners Trini has also taken Yerma under her wing, hooking her up with the university’s fertility expert, Professor Stallworthy (Spencer Weitzel), in order to bring her wish for a child to fruition, with or without her husband’s participation.

Written specifically for this company, Urban Theatre Movement, Mayer’s soundly constructed and fluid script has considerable dramatic potential. But Lorca’s Yerma — a barren woman in a pastoral community where female personhood can be attained only by having kids — doesn’t translate all that aptly to our modern era. Inconsistencies in Juan’s character are also problematic; he’s possessive of Yerma and wants to stay married to her but doesn’t want to touch her or be touched. (He’s always been this way, he tells her.) Again, this story element plays fittingly against the backdrop of a primitive patriarchal culture, with its strict code of honor and its emphasis on appearances, but it’s harder to buy in the here and now. (The most likely explanation for this character’s disparities is that he’s in in the closet, but that’s not suggested in the script or developed otherwise in the production.)

While these issues might have been ironed out in performance, sadly, that would have required more depth and skill than this ensemble displays. Co-directed by Edgar Landa and Marlene Forte on a dreary set (by Sarah Steinman), the performances for the most part come off as non-professional. Graham, as the conflicted controlling Juan, has the most interesting role, but there’s no real life to this performer’s delivery — he’s in over his head. Murillo’s Yerma exudes an appealing aura, but her desperation is more presentational than palpable; there are no layers here, nor are there among most of the supporting players. The exceptions are a crisp and lively Marilyn Fitorina as Yerma’s reluctantly pregnant co-worker, and Weitzel, whose patronizing man of science is credible and solid.

Mayer’s inclusion of class conflict in his drama is its most intriguing and significant aspect. In the program notes, he writes of wanting to highlight the interior lives of working people — like the maintenance people in this story — whose humanity is often barely recognized by everyone else; they’re perceived as part of the supporting apparatus of our lives, with no independent lives of their own. This effort to illuminate their perspective is a vital and all-too-rare dramatic goal, and with better direction and a more seasoned ensemble it easily could be accomplished with more power and grace. I do hope it is, down the line.

Greenway Court Theatre, 544 North Fairfax Avenue, West Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through December 16. or 323-673-0544.

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