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Unjust Desserts: A Review of ‘My Mañana Comes’

It’s often apparent at countless restaurants around the country that the hardest working employees are the bussers, with the “back of the house” providing the foundation for the entire culinary enterprise.

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(Photo by Ed Krieger)

It’s often apparent at countless restaurants around the country that the hardest working employees are the bussers, with the “back of the house” providing the foundation for the entire culinary enterprise. That said, they are also the lowest paid in the service industry’s economic food chain, and the meager wages can make it difficult to forge a life beyond their weekly schedules.

The four busboys in Elizabeth Irwin’s My Mañana Comes, now running at Los Angeles’ Fountain Theatre through June 26, serve as archetypes for those who toil behind the scenes every night in America’s eateries. And for this quartet, the recipe for their future calls for gallons of sweat and a sprinkle of hope, topped off with a dollop of powerlessness.

Mañana ’s workers pour, fold, wash and carry their way through shift after shift in the back kitchen of a posh Upper West Side French restaurant. There is Peter (Lawrence Stallings), a stand-up guy constantly staggered by misfortune, who has his sights set on a managerial job at the chef’s next venture. By his side is the diligent and frugal Jorge (Richard Azurdia), who has spent the last four years cautiously saving money to build a big house for his family back in his home in Pueblo, Mexico. Under his wing is Pepe (Pablo Castelblanco), a wide-eyed immigrant who is struggling to learn at once the ways inside and outside the kitchen, and who also awaits the arrival of his brother to join him in pursuing the American Dream. Finally there is Whalid (Peter Pasco), a mischievous third generation pocho who cares less about identifying with his Mexican brothers and more about whether he can afford, ironically, to take his latest date to a dinner at Applebee’s.

While they work, the men discuss whether they can afford new shoes or preschool, the stresses of family life and of having their fates determined by the whims of decisions made by those in front of the house. Undercurrents of race and class swirl around them as they work, but it’s less a black and brown issue, and more one defined by how long one has been punching his time card on this side of the border.

Although their common work bonds and unites them, their individual end goals, and the difference in the value of the dollar in the States and in Mexico, ultimately leads  to a combustible conclusion that underscores the complexity of the immigration issue.

The acting is uniformly excellent, with the men forging palpable bonds that seem as strong as steel. So when the drama in the last act boils over, the audience can almost feel the stinging heat from loyalty and camaraderie betrayed.

Armando Molina’s directing is solid and keeps the action moving, while special kudos go to scenic and production designer Michael Navarro’s spot-on kitchen set.

Playwright Irwin’s experience in kitchens is obvious, and while no individual bites stand out, the overall effect of her words is memorable. Her slice-of-life piece serves to provoke a broader rumination on workers’ rights in the food industry.

As a result, it’s hard to walk away from Irwin’s searing play without thinking of the thousands of kitchens across this land where this experience plays out every day. It makes one hope that the many workers laboring in the back of the house can one day afford a life with less stress and more self-determination. Until then, unfortunately, the harsh realities of today make it so tomorrow can’t come soon enough.

Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 663-1525.

Alex Demyanenko has produced numerous television series and specials. Among his credits is the HBO documentary Bastards of the Party.

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Weak Stage Production Mars Drama About Returned Vet

The second drama in playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes’ trilogy juxtaposes one soldier’s post-war tribulations with stories generated by a group of recovering drug addicts.

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Deborah Klugman

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Luna Lauren Vélez (All photos by Craig Schwartz)

A 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner, Water by the Spoonful is the second in Quiara Alegría Hudes’ trilogy revolving around Elliot, a young war veteran from a Puerto Rican family living in Philadelphia. The first play, Elliot: A Soldier’s Fugue, is an interweaving of several narratives that relays the experiences of war from the standpoint of the working-class soldier. It’s a strong, lyrical work (although the production, at the Kirk Douglas Theatre through February 25, doesn’t fulfill that potential).

In this second, less compelling installment at the Mark Taper Forum (yes, I know it won a Pulitzer, but that goes to show how subjective literary prizes can be), the playwright juxtaposes Elliot (Sean Carvajal)’s post-war tribulations with the stories generated by a group of recovering drug addicts. The play’s fractured narrative proves a liability, with problems related to the writing compounded by Lileana Blain-Cruz’s lax direction, weak performances, and an unimaginative scenic design (Adam Rigg) that drains the show of whatever dynamic a couple of the performers manage to scrounge up.

The story takes place in 2009, six years after Elliot, haunted by a ghost and nursing a pronounced limp from a war injury, returns from Iraq. He’s working at a Subway and hoping for a career as an actor, while maintaining a mutually supportive friendship with his cousin Yazmin (Keren Lugo), a music professor. Elliot is struggling with his PTSD but managing to cope until his world spins out of control when his adoptive mom Ginny, much loved by her family and the community, nears death.

Keren Lugo and Sean Carvajal

These scenes involving a family in crisis alternate with others that depict the online squabbling of the members of the recovery group, who bear the pseudonyms of Chutes&Ladders (Bernard K. Addison), Orangutan (Sylvia Kwan) and Fountainhead (Josh Braaten). Haikumom (Luna Lauren Vélez), the site leader, is (we later discover) Elliot’s biological mother, Odessa, and she also is in recovery. The play takes its title from a recollection by Elliot of an event in his childhood: He and his baby sister were ill and needed a spoonful of water every hour – something Odessa failed to administer, with tragic results. Elliot has never forgiven her.

Much of Act 1 is taken up with the repartee among the group, but these characters never physically interact, and these “online” sequences are long-winded and static. It doesn’t help that the actors are positioned willy-nilly about the proscenium, fronting a drab living room interior unrelated to their dialogue. Why these scenes were not mounted in a separate area of the stage and with a different lighting design is a puzzlement.

The play gets more interesting in the second act, with Elliot’s emotional crisis intensifying and brought to a head in his confrontation with Odessa. Unfortunately, the drama is done in by subpar acting. Carvajal, employing a weird pseudo-street dialogue (it’s as if he has marbles in his mouth), sounds an unconvincing one-note. (As someone born and raised in Philadelphia, I can personally testify that that is not how residents of Philly speak.) Lugo’s Yazmin lacks personality of any sort — she seems to be there just for Elliot to play off of. Vélez’s performance in a linchpin role projects neither charisma nor clarity.

The best work is by Addison as a 50-something white collar guy emotionally invested in the group and with a growing attachment to Orangutan, a much younger woman, and Braaten as a well-heeled cokehead, desperately trying to hold his life together. These actors bring a certain heft to their roles that the other performances are missing. It’s too bad we don’t get to see them perform at their best.

The third play in the trilogy, The Happiest Song Plays Last, opens at the Los Angeles Theatre Center on Feb. 22, with an entirely different ensemble. Here’s hoping they can do better.

Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sunday, 1 & 6:30 p.m.; through March 11. Centertheatregroup.org.


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Young Marx in Love

A revolutionary buddy film from the director of I Am Not Your Negro.

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August Diehl as a 20-something Karl Marx. (All Photos by Kris Dewitte.)

Actor August Diehl’s Marx is part revolutionary, part young Mick Jagger.


 

Among the best films about revolutionaries are 2000’s Lumumba, which documented the life of the Congo’s murdered independence leader, and last year’s I Am Not Your Negro, a brilliant reintroduction to James Baldwin’s revolutionary writing. Now the director of those acclaimed films, Haitian Raoul Peck, has once again trained his lens on revolution, but this time in a largely unexpectedly way.

While Peck’s past work has been marked by intensity and grit, The Young Karl Marx instead relies less on invention and on more conventional tropes. That approach is not necessarily a bad thing. It allows the filmmaker to make accessible the seemingly daunting challenge of documenting the young life of a philosopher/writer whose work takes place mostly in his head and on paper.

Dynamic Duo: Marx (August Diehl), right, and Engels (Stefan Konarske).

Written by Peck and Pascal Bonitzer, the film begins in the mid 1800s, when Europe’s Industrial Revolution has underscored the economic disparity between the ruling class and the working poor, or proletariat. This inequality has spawned a slew of young writers and thinkers who are circling philosophically, individually and collectively, what they hope will become a better society. Among them are journalist Marx (August Diehl) and his wife (Vicky Krieps), who live a meager existence–escaping creditors and cops, sleeping in and screwing when not discussing socioeconomic theory. The couple is soon exiled from Germany to France, where they meet Friedrich Engels (Stefan Konarske), a factory owner’s son who has been the first to study and write about the plight of the working class. An instant bromance Between Marx and Engels ensues.

Most of the film follows the duo as they argue and pontificate their way through Europe, honing their philosophy until it can all be memorialized in 1848’s The Communist Manifesto. Diehl has incredible charisma and his Marx is part revolutionary and part young Mick Jagger. With Konarske’s Engels as his more grounded Keith Richards, they aren’t quite enfants terribles, but they do shake things up, quickly rising as leaders of those trying to understand the world around them. And what a glorious world that is. Production designers Benoit Barouh and Christophe Couzon have fashioned a stunning representation of 19th-century Europe. What emerges is a costume buddy film, as if Merchant Ivory produced Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Ultimately, though, viewers’ personal views of Marx, and their political views in general, will probably decide whether they enjoy the film. By focusing on the genesis of Marx’s ideological oeuvre, Peck avoids having to deal with the man’s ultimate mixed legacy. Regardless, some will undoubtedly find the filmic fuss over Marx misplaced. But for many, The Young Karl Marx will be a fulfilling view of a time when young idealists were trying to make sense of the world in a far more robust way than the current political spewing of modern-day television pundits.


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A Combative Immigrant Fights Her ‘Ironbound’ Destiny

Born in Poland and brought up in New Jersey by an immigrant mom who cleaned houses for a living, playwright Martyna Majok has fashioned her experience into a compelling feminist work.

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Deborah Klugman

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Bruised and bleeding in America: Marin Ireland's Darja. (All photos by Chris Whitaker)

In American theater, as in life, not all voices receive equal airtime — one reason why Martyna Majok’s pitch-black dramedy about a Polish-born factory worker/cleaning lady is so poignant and arresting. The play, first produced by New York’s Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre in 2016, is currently running at the Geffen Playhouse under Tyne Rafaeli’s direction.

Majok’s insightfully written, unabashedly woman-centered tale is set at a bus stop in a squalid industrial neighborhood in Elizabeth, New Jersey. The central character is a hardscrabble female survivor. We first meet combative, down-on-her-luck Darja (Marin Ireland), an immigrant, in 2014, as she confronts her live-in lover, Tommy (Christian Camargo), over his sexual liaison with the wealthy woman she works for. Vulnerable beneath his swagger, Tommy pleads remorse and begs Darja not to leave him, to which she responds with an unsentimental demand for hard cash — money she needs to track down her missing wayward son, a drug addict. The pair negotiate; in the end, sexual attraction and codependence best rage and resentment, and they lock in fierce embrace, each extending a finger to the intrusive honks of passing motorists.

Marcel Spears and Marin Ireland, as Vic and Darja.

Scene 2 flashes back to 1992 and a more tender exchange between Darja and Maks (Josiah Bania), her Polish first husband and the father of her child. Maks is a musician, and the conflict between the couple revolves around his desire to relocate to Chicago to pursue art and fame — a move that makes Darja fearful (better the hell you’re living in now….). So, Maks departs on his own, leaving Darja to an uncertain and, and as it turns out, far more purgatorial future.

That fate manifests later, in 2006, when (in this production’s finest, most memorable scene) a teenage hustler, Vic (Marcel Spears), happens on a bruised and bleeding Darja, lying under a bench after a beating from her abusive second husband. A rich kid out at night sowing down-and-dirty oats, the youth is appalled by Darja’s appearance and wants to help. But Darja, who doesn’t know how to say thanks, rejects this offer of assistance, though she desperately needs it — till Vic points to the moon and offers a gift of surprising generosity.

Ironbound, which claims its title from a slum area in Newark, offers an illuminating portrait of a vulnerable, volatile woman most middle-class Americans would probably never look twice at. Yet Darja is no fool; despite being a stranger in a strange land, with limited language skills, she understands how the capitalist system operates to her disadvantage, and what she must do to get by. Her actions and choices, made in anger, fear or frustration (she sets fire to her fornicating employer’s clothes), work against her.

Ireland, who commanded the role to accolades in New York, performs with energy and commitment (her character never leaves the stage) but without the fresh edge that must have brought down earlier houses. Some of that may have to do with Camargo, with whom she has the most stage time. As with Darja, Majok has drawn Tommy as a complex ambivalent figure, but instead of exploring why this two-faced lothario still needs Darja to be his woman, the actor storms about, relying on heated dialogue and comic gesture to define his role.

Bania, who also reprises his role from the original production, is warm and likable — and especially on target in moments when he pleads with Darja to let him have his dreams. Spears’ glowing performance as a compassionate youngster determined to aid an abused, beleaguered stranger is the evening’s highlight.

Born in Poland and brought up in New Jersey by an immigrant mom who cleaned houses for a living, Majok has written about what she knows, fashioning her experience into a compelling feminist work.

Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., West Los Angeles; ; Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; through March 4.


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Netflix’s Wonderful World of Greed

Many of the miscreants exposed in Netflix’s Dirty Money series take the “everyone else does it” defense. The misdeeds chronicled here underscore just how insidious and pervasive the grab for cash all around us is.

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Each episode of Netflix’s new documentary series, Dirty Money, depicts an instance where money is valued over everything else. As a whole the series makes it impossible not to feel that modern society is being held hostage by a sinister group of greedy robber barons who pilfer from the poor to line their gilded pockets. If the love of money is the root of all evil, these are the gardeners who nurture their sins with overwhelming avarice.

Everything from the air we breathe to the pills we pop, to even the syrup we put on our pancakes (more on that later), is fair game in the quest for riches. The series starts with an episode that drives home this theme firsthand for executive producer Alex Gibney.

Arguably the most accomplished documentarian working today, Gibney (who directs this first episode as well) reveals that his wife’s purchase of a Volkswagen diesel was fueled by the promise propagated by the company that owning that car helped the environment. But a band of consumer activists discovered that the promise of cleaner air had taken a backseat to profit. Volkswagen had secretly installed a kill switch to cut off the environmental controls in each car once it is put in drive, the activists found, making it a vehicle for delivering poisonous fumes the moment the wheels start turning.

Throughout the series, Gibney et al focus on one particularly egregious entity to represent how that particular industry picks profit over people — describing Volkswagen, for instance, as ironically and knowingly “gassing the masses.” In “Payday,” the focus is on one particularly predatory lender who charges unsuspecting and struggling working people ridiculous markups buried in fine print. “Cartel Bank” reveals that HSBC bank knowingly laundered money for the drug cartels, indirectly leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths south of the border. The best of the bunch is “Drug Short,” a shocking tale of how Wall Street short sellers exposed a cowardly drug company, Valeant, systematically raising drug prices with no regard for the ailing who used their products. Director Erin Lee Carr imbues the episode with the human cost of greed, and it makes one realize that Big Pharma and its abuses alone could be the subject of its own series. The only outlier is “The Maple Syrup Heist,” a badly directed tale (lots of close-ups of highlighted words in documents!)  about Quebec’s maple syrup monopoly, and emerges as sort of a cross between Fargo and Frontline, but not as good as either.

Many of those exposed in Dirty Money take the “everyone else does it” defense. While that may be true, it doesn’t make their actions any less despicable. The dirty misdeeds chronicled here underscore just how insidious and pervasive the grab for cash all around us is. Which makes the final episode, titled “Confidence Man,” so fitting. Ably directed by Fisher Stevens, it exposes one of the greediest, most dishonest and most corrupt figures in modern business. In great detail, it shows how a spoiled rich kid lied and cheated his way into the public consciousness and then parlayed that into fame and celebrity. But unlike in the other episodes, the crook in question does not get his due. In fact, the opposite happens, as we see Donald Trump ascend to the highest office in the land. The story of Don the Con serves as a sober and ominous denouement to the series, highlighting how we are now living in a world where the currency of our existence is cash over care, profit over people, money over everything. Dirty Money is a rare feat, a series that is, for the most part, profoundly riveting, reflective and relevant.


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Union Staffers: Time’s Up, L.A. Times

The L.A. Times newsroom remains in a state of siege. Tronc has established an alternative editorial team for its shadowy “Los Angeles Times Network,” and has declined to explain to Times staffers what its intentions are for this new enterprise.

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Ed Leibowitz

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Photo: Andreas Praefcke

Workers at the Washington Post won their first union contract in 1937, the year the Hindenburg crashed and burned. New York Times staffers got theirs around the time the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. In the first years of the 20th century, the owners of the Los Angeles Times not only crushed union opposition at the paper, but turned their hometown into the most rabidly anti-union big city in America. For over 100 years, the Los Angeles Times‘ newsroom remained a bulwark against organized labor, maintained by below-the-masthead editors and reporters, as well as by management.

So why did L.A. Times staffers choose to unionize last month by a vote of 248-44?

During her 41 years as a journalist and three decades at the Times, Bettina Boxall had never worked in a unionized newsroom. Until last year, the veteran Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter on environmental and water issues would have kept working at an open shop if given a choice. “My father was a military officer, and no members of my family were ever in a union,” she tells me, “and watching them from afar — unions haven’t had a great reputation.”

When Boxall began at the Times, it was certainly a patriarchy, but a patriarchy rolling in profits and exceedingly generous when it came to employee compensation and job security.

In recent years, corporate mismanagement and merciless cost-cutting began to soften Boxall’s stance. Now the bosses had nothing to offer and seemed to be taking everything away. Accrued vacation time? Gone. The 401(k) plan? Raided by a profane real-estate mogul who drove the company into bankruptcy. Layoffs and buyouts pared down the newsroom from 1,200 to around 400 – sending thousands of years of journalistic experience out the door.

These depredations brought long-standing inequities into starker relief, and sharpened focus on new ones. “Women are paid less than men,” Boxall says. “I know that for a fact. And the long-standing Metpro program [for young minority journalists] has turned into a source of cheap young labor.”

The climate of oppression and fear at the paper came not only from Chicago-based Tronc, the newspaper conglomerate that now owns the Times, but from the top of the masthead. More than a year ago, in Los Angeles magazine, I chronicled the excesses of former editor and publisher Davan Maharaj — the paranoia, the interference with investigative pieces and behavior that had helped turn the newsroom into a hostile work environment for women.

Until he was placed on unpaid leave because of allegations about past sexual improprieties, Ross Levinsohn, the Times’ CEO and Maharaj’s successor in the publisher’s chair, pursued an agenda of click-baiting at all costs. To implement it, he hired Lewis D’Vorkin, who during his career at Forbes and other publications had earned the sobriquet “Prince of Darkness.” D’Vorkin held the post three months until Tronc removed him, following scathing coverage of his misrule. “We’d almost become like an abused family,” Boxall says of the Times newsroom. “We wouldn’t react in an overt strong way. We were passive in the face of anything they did to us.”

At her first organizing rally late last summer, Boxall took the podium and declared to her beaten-down colleagues that she had never signed a unionization card, but she was going to sign one that night. She would become one of the chief organizers of the effort, teaming with younger colleagues like 30-year-old data journalist Anthony Pesce, who had made the first call to the NewsGuild-Communication Workers of America  in 2016, and had championed the unionization drive from its inception.

Boxall believes that the massive job cuts of the past two decades actually made victory easier – the union advocates only had to convince a majority of 400 staffers, not of 1,200. The chronic instability of newsroom and business leadership – with publishers and editors coming in to make big changes and then packing up their offices seemingly as soon as they arrived — may have made the paper more dysfunctional, but it also ensured that there would be no company standard bearer in the building with the kind of longstanding authority and solid workforce relationships that can be effective at countering a unionization drive.

For their part, the Tronc executives back in Chicago proved no more competent at repulsing a union effort than they had been at choosing leaders to run the Times. It certainly didn’t help that Lewis D’Vorkin put his name on some of the anti-union pleas emailed to a staff that largely loathed him.

The newsroom remains in a state of siege. Tronc has established an alternative editorial team for its shadowy “Los Angeles Times Network,” and has declined to explain to Times staffers what its intentions are for this new enterprise. Many believe it  may be used to undermine or bypass the newly unionized workforce. Some say that the Times’ journalistic integrity and their own livelihoods will remain under threat as long as Tronc controls the paper.

Nevertheless, the establishment of the L.A. Times Guild seems to have somewhat dissipated the air of futility, anger and disgust that clouded so many of my earlier conversations with staffers. Boxall likens the feeling to what countless victims of sexual harassment must have experienced during the past year – finding strength in numbers as they confront their abusers after so much silence and disregard.

“We care about the institution of the L.A. Times,” Boxall says, “and we’re concerned about the revolving door and an ownership only interested in profits, not civic duty. Well, time’s up. It’s kind of the equivalent of the #MeToo movement. We’ve had enough of this.”


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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

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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

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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. www.2centstheatre.com 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

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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

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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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