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What the Riot Documentaries Told Us

The networks lined up to deliver numerous retrospective documentaries on the silver anniversary of the events that began just hours after the Rodney King beating verdict was read. The results are decidedly mixed.

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Trailer for Let it Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992

If it is true that studying the past can keep one from not making the same mistakes in the future, then reexamining the unrest that took place 25 years ago in South Central Los Angeles could not be timelier. In the past few years, social media has highlighted a slew of killings of unarmed black people by the police, giving rise to public outrage and engendering organizations such as the Black Lives Matter Movement. Whether this more organized reaction has released enough pressure to avoid yet another civic explosion is too early to tell, but networks lined up to deliver numerous retrospective documentaries on the silver anniversary of the events that began just hours after the Rodney King beating verdict was read. The results are decidedly mixed, but history has provided some new perspectives both for those who were surrounded by the fire and those who watched it, glued to their televisions.

National Geographic’s plainly titled LA 92 uses only archival footage and audio, while eschewing any narration or talking-head interviews. The conflict unfolds in a fresh, powerful and, at times, surprisingly revelatory way. Producers  Jonathon and Simon Chinn do a remarkable job of uncovering previously unseen footage that provides directors Dan Lindsey and T.J. Martin material to shape into unique and compelling ways. Among the discoveries are the largely forgotten audio tapes from Los Angeles Police Department radios after the King beating, which reveal that reveal the participating officers calling the victim a “lizard” and comparing the officers experience to something out of “Gorillas in the Mist.” There is riveting footage outside the Simi Valley courtroom showcasing the confrontations between local conservative residents who support the police, and others who are enraged by the latter’s actions.

In virtually every moment of the two-hour documentary there is rarely seen footage: One particularly haunting clip captures a distraught woman in the street lamenting the lack of police presence screaming over and over, “This is not fair! This is not fair!” Other gripping vignettes include a scene of an LAPD officer in riot gear sobbing and frightened, and of Congresswoman Maxine Waters wielding a bullhorn to calm her constituents.

LA 92’s juxtaposition of sound and image elevates the film to a special status, with Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans’ often anachronistic score especially eerie and transfixing. In one coup de théâtre, the filmmakers run a 1965 news program from the streets of South Central L.A., where CBS correspondent Bill Stout reports on the Watts riot. Stout relates the sequence of events: A black motorist leads the LAPD on a chase, only to be stopped and beaten; black religious leaders call for peace, only to be ignored by an outraged public that sets the city aflame. When Lindsey (who also edited LA 92) inserts 1991 footage of the King car chase and beating, speakers at the First AME church and rioters into this older footage, the montage becomes transcendent in its message and meaning.

John Ridley’s Let it Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992 (released theatrically and now available on abc.com) takes a decidedly different approach, looking back at the conflagration through the recollections of those who lived through it. The multi-talented Academy Award-winning writer of 12 Years a Slave and ABC’s acclaimed American Crime series delivers a piece that is powerful in its graceful simplicity. Ridley starts by focusing on seemingly unrelated events and topics that took place years before the explosion of April 1992. They tell the stories of drugs flooding South Central, the Los Angeles Police Department banning the use of a deadly chokehold and of the shooting of a Japanese-American woman in upscale Westwood Village that spawned the militarization of the LAPD against gangs. But like tributaries of fuel, the consequences of all these coalesce to help ignite the flames of April 29, 1992. Ridley cogently lets these individuals tell their stories their way. They unfold slowly and sensitively, mesmerizing the viewer with nuance and detail.

By rooting this journey in emotional stories, Ridley’s piece resonates, with a couple of supremely moving moments that speak to the this filmmaker’s deft and artful touch. While many of the other “riot docs” bludgeoned viewers with footage to make their points, like bullies with a pulpit, Ridley uses simple passages of introspection and reflection to make the heart ache. Whether it’s the Korean-American mother recounting the moment she realized that the photo of a dead man on her morning paper’s front page was of her son, or the police officer who came out as a lesbian to her partner as they prepared to ride into the conflagration, or one of the men convicted of pummeling Reginald Denny grappling to explain his actions as the truck driver clung to life on the hard asphalt, Ridley’s piece is a series of whispers that speak louder than all the screaming moments found in most of the other docs combined.

The voice of Cecil Murray, the legendary former pastor of the influential First African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Central, seems to be divinely inspired, its deep, gravelly tone infusing every syllable. It’s the voice that bookends LA Burning: The LA Riots 25 Years Later (streaming on aetv.com), A&E’s riveting account of the events that shattered his community. As the film starts Murray intones, “Who will protect us from our protectors? That is the question for America.” And then comes the sober montage of 10 incidents of unarmed black men, women and boys killed by the police in recent years. It’s an auspicious start, and a harbinger of the 87 minutes to follow.

Twenty-six years after his acclaimed debut film Boyz in the Hood, filmmaker John Singleton returns to his roots in South Central to executive-produce a searing, emotional chronicle of the L.A. rebellion. L.A. Burning takes many of the same stories and material often used in other riot docs, but does so in a far more powerful manner. The editing (Yvette Amirian and Dan Cooper) is the star here, moving the viewer at a sizzling pace through the events, expertly juxtaposing personal and public perceptions of those volatile moments. Singleton himself appears in the piece, prophetically telling a news reporter, minutes after the verdict had been handed down, “They have just lit the fuse to a bomb that’s about to go off.”

But it is an explosion that was years in the making, as the doc illustrates how the community had for decades endured far too many beatings and indignities at the hands of the police and the justice system. The film concludes by tying up many loose ends — there is a quaint reunion and some wishes for a better and not bitter future — with a warning that the recent spate of blue-on-black killings may be pre-shocks to yet another quake. But in the end, it is again Murray, whose resonant voice elevates the piece sublimely, by relating a parable about a boy holding a bird — and fate — in his hands. A moving finale to a work that largely soars.

Showtime’s profanely titled Burn Motherfucker, Burn! (streaming at Showtime.com) reaches the farthest of all these documentaries. Tracing the history of South Central and race relations back to post-World War II L.A., it illustrates that the issues facing the community in 1992 were determined far earlier than any single trial. It’s not new turf, but director Sacha Jenkins deserves kudos for swinging for the fences, and while he strikes out at times, he, for the most part, makes contact. He doesn’t just revisit the standard talking heads of the other anniversary specials, but instead finds sources deep within the community who provide a fresh and compelling take on the events leading up to that Wednesday in 1992.

Where he misses the most is when he tries to use pop culture footage and animation to tell his story. In one particular instance, he uses a clip of Gary Coleman saying, ‘What you talking about Willis” as commentary on a preceding quote. It’s sloppy and an easy shot, more witless than witty. Also curious is the choice of a Jane’s Addiction song to start the piece (and later, other more mainstream music). It appears the filmmaker thought some rock and roll might provide a paradoxical juxtaposition, but instead it just comes across as puzzling. Burn Motherfucker, Burn! ultimately provides some necessary historical context, and the creative fires are stoked throughout — it’s just that it too often doesn’t burn brightly.

It is one thing to burn brightly, but it’s another to be inflammatory. Lost Tapes: L.A. Riots (streaming on smithsonianchannel.com) borders on exploitation and comes across as a doc made by someone inordinately unfamiliar with the issues at hand. Featuring an overly dramatic score that could just as easily found on a Fox Shock special from the early 2000s (When Riots Attack!), this piece’s hook is the numerous clips that have never before been seen. Some were taken by the police, while others were audiotapes from callers who phoned in to two community radio stations, one urban and another Korean-American.

For the most part, the new material does not add much, other than at times to capture the desperation and panic in people’s voices as they called in to ask for help or to seek information. Its over-emphasis on this material is a detriment, and the result is a documentary that gives short shrift to investigating the reasons behind the rage. It’s as if the doc was made by people who only watched the footage and listened to the audio that they were handed, with no understanding or desire to understand the social and civic issues that gave rise to the conflagration in the first place. Lost indeed.

Culture & Media

A Woman’s Art Is Never Done: The Feminae Exhibition

A striking juxtaposition between the past and present courses throughout the small gallery. Celia Blomberg’s “International Women’s Day March 8” can’t help but make one think of 2017’s Women’s March, which occurred 37 years after the print’s first appearance.

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Among the 50-plus works in the Feminae: Typographic Voices of Women By Women exhibit is Yolanda Lopez’s “Women’s Work is Never Done.” Lopez’s title is particularly ironic, given the exhibit’s gender-based subject matter. The show spans work from the past 50 years, making it easy to understand how much society is still grappling with its themes of gender inequality. Culled from the archives of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics, the graphic images of protest, persuasion and empowerment are truly works of art in their own right.

However, political posters aren’t made to merely spruce up walls, but to help figuratively bring barriers down as well.

Two silkscreens from the 1970s, Liliana Porter and John Schneider’s “This Woman is Vietnamese” and See Red Woman’s Workshop’s “So Long As Women Are Not Free People Are Not Free,” are particularly powerful, underscoring, as they do, the fact that the subjugation and persecution of women crosses borders and cultures as an unfortunate shared global experience. These two pieces’ stark simplicity exemplifies most of the work in the exhibit. In the former, a New York Times photo of a distraught Vietnamese woman with a gun held to her head is centered above these basic words typed out in a typewriter font:  

This woman is
northvietnamese
southafrican
puertorrican,
colombian,
black,
argentinian,
my mother,
my sister,
you, I.

By juxtaposing the photo with these words, the creators take the plight of this woman and immediately globalize her pain. In the latter, three female demonstrators are silkscreened in red onto a yellow background. They are marginalized by being stuck in the lower left third of the poster, but two of them are raising their fists skyward and their mouths are open, screaming in defiance. Its non-serif, eponymous type reads:

SO LONG AS WOMEN
ARE NOT FREE THE
PEOPLE ARE
NOT FREE

This piece’s message takes the global message even farther, making the plight of women a human one — a common theme in the exhibition.

There is also a striking juxtaposition between the past and present that seethes throughout the small gallery. Celia Blomberg’s “International Women’s Day March 8” can’t help but make one think of 2017’s Women’s March that would take place 37 years later. See Red Woman’s Workshop’s 1977 “Black Women Will Not Be Intimidated” could easily be repurposed to address the recent spate of blue-on-black brutality. Notable works by Barbara Kruger, Sister Corita Kent and the Guerilla Girls are also included.

Ironically , while it can be surmised that most of these works were made as populist posters to be distributed at the time as banners of protest, their beautiful simplicity and nostalgic elegance probably have resulted in the originals (mostly now found in art museums) sporting hefty vintage-resale prices.

But it is not just the art that has stood the test of time. The fact that the issues addressed in the show — feminism, choice, gender equality, war, immigration, police brutality or violence against women — are all issues at the forefront of debate in 2018 ultimately engenders conflicting feelings.

Photo: Clifford Pun/HMCT

On one the hand, it is inspiring to see a vibrant exhibit that showcases such diversity in artistic styles, no doubt spawned by the diversity of the artists’ own backgrounds. On the other hand, there is a realization that while there has been some progress over the past half century, there is so much work to be done.

Art Center’s Hoffmitz Milken Center for Typography, 950 South Raymond Ave., Pasadena; through May 15.


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Award-Winning Reporter David Sirota to Lead National Investigative Desk on Inequality for Capital & Main

The New York Times has credited Sirota’s Wall Street reporting for showing “that secrecy can hide high fees, low returns, excess risk and the identity of politically connected dealmakers.”

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LOS ANGELES — Capital & Main announced today that award-winning reporter David Sirota will lead a new national investigative desk for the California-based publication. His coverage will focus on the country’s historically high level of economic inequality, and the role of Wall Street, the private sector and government policy in perpetuating income disparity.

“I am thrilled to join one of the most promising young investigative publications in the country,” said Sirota. “There has never been a greater need for aggressive nonpartisan reporting that scrutinizes how corporations, lawmakers and the super-rich wield political and economic power. Capital & Main has established a reputation as an intrepid source of hard-hitting investigative reporting. I am excited to expand their capacity to shine a spotlight on how and why America now has the highest level of economic inequality in the country’s modern history.”

Sirota will join Capital & Main as a full-time reporter this summer, and prior to that will consult with the publication on editorial content and partnerships. The new position was made possible in part by a grant from the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation in Oakland, CA.

Capital & Main is a non-profit publication founded in 2013 and its reporting has been co-published by (among others) The Atlantic, Time, The Guardian, Reuters, The Daily Beast, Slate, Grist, Fast Company, The Huffington Post and Newsweek. Capital & Main’s reporting has won recognition from the Society of American Business Editors & Writers, the Southern California Journalism Awards and the Best of the West contest. Its reporters have been featured on (among others) PRI’s The World, WNYC’s The Takeaway, as well as on programs on KQED and KCRW.

Sirota has reported extensively on the relationship between money and politics, and has gained a reputation as a journalist willing to scrutinize public officials of both parties. During his career, he has become one of American journalism’s most authoritative experts on complex financial systems including taxes, hedge funds, private equity and public pensions. He is a two-time winner of the Best in Business award from SABEW – most recently for his coverage of the 2017 Republican tax bill and its controversial “Corker kickback” provision. Before that, he won recognition from the Columbia Journalism Review for his reporting on how conflicts of interest shaped how Democratic Gov. Dan Malloy’s administration oversaw a proposed health-care merger. Sirota has also won Ithaca College’s Izzy Award and has been a finalist for UCLA’s Gerald R. Loeb Award and Syracuse University’s Mirror Award.

The New York Times has credited Sirota’s Wall Street reporting for showing “that secrecy can hide high fees, low returns, excess risk and the identity of politically connected dealmakers.” In one of its awards, SABEW said Sirota has produced “original, tenacious reporting that displayed a mastery of scouring documents, analyzing data and holding public officials accountable.” The legendary late columnist Molly Ivins said, “Sirota is a new-generation populist who instinctively understands that the only real questions are ‘Who’s getting screwed?’ and ‘Who’s doing the screwing?’”

“David Sirota is one of the finest investigative reporters in the country, and he promises to take Capital & Main’s reporting on inequality and related issues to a whole different level,” said Capital & Main board member Rick Wartzman, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, Los Angeles Times business editor and the author of four books, including The End of Loyalty: The Rise and Fall of Good Jobs in America. “David’s fearless approach to holding the powerful to account is precisely what we need at this moment in time.”

From 2014 to 2018 Sirota led International Business Times’ investigative reporting team, where he broke major stories on how President Trump’s top adviser evades ethics laws as he shapes policies that could enrich his firm; CFPB chief Mick Mulvaney’s ties to the financial industry — and how he pressured regulators to back off predatory lending rules at the same time he was raking in cash from payday lenders; how Equifax lobbied against consumer protection rules just before its huge data breach; and how chemical companies that spewed toxins after Hurricane Harvey had worked to reduce safety regulations in the lead-up to the disaster.

In 2014, Sirota’s investigative series for PandoDaily about public broadcasting compelled a PBS flagship station to return a $3.5 million contribution from a hedge fund billionaire. That same year, Sirota’s investigative reporting about pensions for PandoDaily and then for International Business Times led the New Jersey state government to open a formal pay-to-play investigation and to divest state holdings in a venture capital firm. Sirota’s reporting for International Business Times also led San Francisco officials to delay a proposed $3 billion investment in hedge funds.

“We have been longtime admirers of David’s work, and couldn’t imagine a better fit for our reporting on inequality,” said Capital & Main publisher Danny Feingold. “David will give us the capacity to break important national stories on one of the country’s great existential threats.”

Sirota is also the author of two New York Times best-selling books, Hostile Takeover and The Uprising, as well as Back to Our Future, which became the basis for the National Geographic Channel’s miniseries “The ’80s: The Decade that Made Us.” He appears frequently on MSNBC and CNN, and is the host of a podcast on economic, political and social issues.

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Concert for Martin Luther King Jr.

The Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles’ Wednesday concert reflects on M.L. King Jr.’s times, struggle and sacrifice, with the orchestra’s musical setting of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

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Bobbi Murray

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Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles.

Today, April 4, marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death by an assassin’s attack in Memphis. The social justice leader had traveled there to support a strike by sanitation workers, who toiled long hours in sweltering heat for abysmal pay — a workforce that was virtually 100 percent black and whose work status would later be described as “the lowest of the low” by a former Memphis city council member.

“Fifty years ago, Dr. King was organizing with sanitation workers demanding a decent living wage, safe working conditions and recognition of their humanity and dignity,” William D. Smart, a former organizer of Los Angeles port truck drivers and the current CEO and president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Southern California, told Capital & Main.

“Today, we are organizing with L.A. Port warehouse workers and truck drivers with the same demands.”

Smart is part of an April 4 celebration at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion hosted by the SCLC and the Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles, the largest African-American-majority orchestra in the nation. The Wednesday concert event reflects on King’s times, struggle and sacrifice, with the orchestra’s musical setting of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

It connects solidly with present-day events in the multi-choral work by Atlanta-based composer Joel Thompson, The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed.

The piece is performed in seven movements to mark the final words of seven unarmed African-American men killed by police or vigilantism.

“As we commemorate Dr. King’s sacrifice,” Smart said, “it’s not beyond us [to know] that while some progress has been made, [it’s] not nearly enough, so the struggle for economic and racial justice continues.”

Event tickets are free but may be scarce now that supporting organizations have been distributing them for the past several days. Doors open 5 p.m. at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown Los Angeles, with a silent tribute at 6:01 p.m. The program starts at 7 p.m. Contact ICYOLA for tickets at 213-788-4260 or www.icyola.org


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A Spiritual Mystery Play Fails to Enlighten

Yusuf Toropov’s drama, set in a contaminated, cancer-ridden community, involves a publisher and his brother — a priest struggling against the local archdiocese.

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Deborah Klugman

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Ann’Jewel Lee and Matthew Gallenstein. (All photos by Darrett Sanders)

Directed by Chris Fields, Yusuf Toropov’s An Undivided Heart, co-produced by the Echo Theater Company and the Circle X Theatre Co., is an aspiring work that aims to be deep but doesn’t get there.

The play, running at the Atwater Village Theatre, unfolds on several levels. First, it tells the story of a young Catholic priest who must decide whether or not to publicly expose the pedophiles among his fellow clerics. Second, the work deals with our human struggle to understand why bad things happen with seeming random cruelty (a conundrum whose answers are regularly dispensed by spiritual leaders of all faiths, not very satisfactorily). On yet a third level, the play seeks to express the paradoxical wonder and mystery of life, with an assist from the supernatural.

That’s a lot to cover in a little over two hours and, while the production is handsomely staged, its ambitious narrative is diminished by dangling threads, one major improbable setup near the end and too many bits of opaque dialogue.

Tim Wright, Alison Martin and Alana Dietze.

The setting is Holbrook, Massachusetts — a community whose residents have been exposed to contaminants, so cancer is rampant — in the summer of 1992. The story revolves around two brothers, both good guys: Mike (Matthew Gallenstein), a local priest who’s written a revelatory book that his superiors want him not to publish, and Max (Tim Wright), an editor, who’d like to help his brother proceed.

When Max arrives at some sort of civic facility (the background particulars of this scene are unclear), he promptly tangles with an angry pregnant clerk named Lynne (Alana Dietz). A few minutes into their altercation, she goes into premature labor, and he rushes her to the hospital — the beginning of a nurturing romance.

Mike, meanwhile, is having strange dreams involving a burning typewriter and a cryptic little girl (Ann’Jewel Lee) who appears to him brandishing a dead cat. The same young person manifests in the dreams of Janice (Tracey A. Leigh, alternating with Jennifer A. Skinner), Max’s Buddhism teacher, who is fond of posing riddles. Her favorite: If I am preparing to slice a cat in two, how would you prevent me from doing it?

The narrative shifts between Mike’s struggle with his archdiocese, personified by its Cardinal (John Getz, alternating with William Salyers) and Lynne’s problems with her dying mom Ruth (Alison Martin, alternating with Sigute Miller), a devout Catholic still in denial over her son’s abuse by a priest when he was a youth.

These two storylines are interposed with the baffling dream sequences and Max’s (and later Mike’s) sessions with the inscrutably smiling Janice and her eschatological brain teasers. One crucial scene that leads to the dramatic climax has Mike looking to entrap an abusive priest (Jeff Alan-Lee, alternating with Jesse Bush) by attending confession with him and pretending to be a pedophile himself. The interchange, in which the priest probes for salacious details, is awkwardly plotted and escalates into over-the-top melodrama.

Cricket Myers’ superlative sound design hints at the depth and scope that the playwright himself perhaps had in mind but was unable to attain. Amanda Knehans’ set is an effective arrangement of wooden beams, tables and chairs that lighting designer Rose Malone smartly shades with a reddish-orange chroma, like the hues of hell. Elsewhere, she spotlights the players well.

Wright’s warm and empathetic Max is highly likable, and he keeps you interested in the scenes he’s involved with. Getz is appropriately unctuous as the Cardinal, and Martin draws a richly textured portrait of a not terribly educated housewife, who, buffeted by adversity, still clings to her faith. Michael Sturgis steals the limelight as a singing, simpering cleric. A couple of the other lead performances need refining.

Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Los Angeles; Mon., 8 p.m.; Fri.- Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m.; through April 22. www.EchoTheaterCompany.com


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Recounting the Japanese-American Internments in a Musical

Stamped by their government as enemy aliens, the Kimura family is uprooted from their home and re-housed in a barracks-like setting where they are treated like criminals.

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Janelle Dote and George Takei. (All photos by Michael Lamont)

Produced by East West Players at the Japanese American Cultural Center, Allegiance features noted performer-activist George Takei, and draws inspiration from his personal experience in a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II.

One of the more shameful, racially-motivated episodes in U.S. history, the forced internment of approximately 120,000 people of Japanese descent commenced in February 1942 on the executive order of President Franklin Roosevelt, and only terminated seven months after Japan surrendered and the last of 10 relocation centers shut its gates.

The internees, two-thirds of whom were American citizens, were stripped of their property and dignity, and required to fill out trick questionnaires to assess their loyalty. Failure to comply or give the politically correct response often resulted in imprisonment. Young men of draft age filled out a separate form, indicating whether they were willing to serve in the military — in a segregated unit. Some said yes, others did not. The questionnaire — how to respond and even whether or not to do so — further rent an already divided and disheartened community.

Allegiance aims to recount these injustices, and it does so in a stirring and entertaining way. Directed by Snehal Desai, with music and lyrics by Jay Kuo, and book by Marc Acito, Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione, it’s a high-caliber musical melodrama that relays history as it impacts on the fictional Kimura family. Uprooted from their home, re-housed in a barracks-like setting where they are treated like criminals, members of the family are torn further apart when father and son bitterly fall out over whether to pledge loyalty to a government that has stamped them as enemy aliens.

At the top, Takei plays an elderly retired soldier, Sam Kimura, who receives news of the death of his sibling, from whom he’s been estranged for years. That prompts him to recall his youth as the son of a prosperous, widowed farmer (Scott Watanabe) in Salinas, California. Sammy (Ethan Le Phong) is his family’s first college graduate, and dearly beloved by his elder sister Kei (Elena Wang).

The scenario darkens as the family and their neighbors are packed off to Wyoming’s barbed-wired Heart Mountain Relocation Center. Eventually, Sammy joins the army and distinguishes himself in battle, while his future brother-in-law, Frankie (Eymard Cabling), angrily challenges the government and goes to prison. So does Sammy’s dad for his defiant answers to the questionnaire. Father and son never reconcile.

Kuo’s 26 songs are a euphonious mix of ballads, upbeat dance numbers (choreography, Rumi Oyama) with a terrific 1940s swing, and elegiac melodies. Despite the weighty theme, the show’s pace is brisk, as the music sweeps the narrative to its poignant conclusion. The vocals, solo and ensemble, are strong across the board, with Le Phong’s powerful lyric tenor soaring above others, especially in his rendering of the ethically-themed “What Makes A Man.” A live 11-piece orchestra, under the musical direction of Marc Macalintal, lends superlative support throughout.

The non-musical aspects of the performances may not go deep, but like the story they’re telling, they never ring false. Special kudos to Jordan Goodsell, who so effectively portrays every nasty white bully and bigot the targeted Japanese-Americans encounter.

JACCC’s Aratani Theatre, 244 S. San Pedro Street, Los Angeles; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; no performance March 18; through April 1. AllegianceMusical.com.


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“Happiest Song” Stage Production Hits Sour Notes

Playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes pays special homage to the folk music, food and familial culture of the Puerto Rican community, but her story winds through a mountain of prosaic exposition.

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Deborah Klugman

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Peter Pasco and Vaneh Assadourian. (Photo: Gio Solis)

The Happiest Song Plays Last ends happily for its pivotal characters —and also, perhaps, for discerning theatergoers, who can’t wait to flee this lemon of a production.

Produced by the Latino Theatre Company and directed by Edward Torres at the Los Angeles Theater Center, this is the final installment in Quiara Alegría Hudes’ Elliot trilogy. (The two earlier titles were Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue and Water by the Spoonful, produced by Center Theatre Group at the Kirk Douglas Theatre and Mark Taper Forum, respectively). Here, the playwright pays special homage to the folk music, food and familial culture of the Puerto Rican community. She also spotlights the current protest movements on the left (in the U.S., Mexico and Puerto Rico), tips her hat to the Arab Spring, critiques the American health-care system, and alerts us to the careless slaughter of Iraqi civilians by American soldiers and the problems of Iraqi expatriates. And that’s just the background stuff.

The story begins in 2010. As in Water by the Spoonful, it revolves around the fortunes of two cousins, who stay in contact via email: Elliot (Peter Pasco), an Iraqi war vet turned actor, and Yaz (Elisa Bocanegra), a music professor now living in poverty-blighted North Philadelphia, where she cooks for, and otherwise assists as many of her struggling neighbors as she can.

Elliot (who was played by a different actor in Water by the Spoonful) has undergone a transformation. In Spoonful, the character walked with a pronounced limp, the result of a war injury, and spoke with someone’s erroneous idea of how Philadelphians talk. Here, however, he’s been miraculously healed and is as spry as any athletic 20-something. Fortune has smiled on him; hired as a film’s combat consultant because of his military experience, he’s now starring in a movie about the Iraqi conflict, replacing the original lead who proved to be too truculent and unfit. His friends include Shar (Vaneh Assadourian), a young American actress of part Middle Eastern descent, and Ali (Kamal Marayati), a native Iraqi who’s emigrated with his family to Jordan for a better, safer life.

The three shoot their takes and chat about their pasts and news of the Arab Spring, which Elliot is itching to observe first-hand. Meanwhile Yaz, glimpsed in her kitchen amidst a pile of pots, is contemplating a fling with Agustín (Al Rodrigo), a guitarist and longtime married friend who wants her to have his child. She’s also playing mother hen to Lefty (John Seda-Pitre), a mentally displaced homeless person who addresses her as “mom” and relies on her for emotional support as well as for food and sometimes shelter.

Shifting between narratives, the play winds through a mountain of prosaic exposition as the characters talk about where they’re coming from and where they’d like to be (or in the case of Yaz, about neighbors and acquaintances whom we never see). The emails between the two cousins are about as exciting as the ones you may have received from your accountant cousin in Buffalo. Under Torres’ direction, the performances, which can often salvage and even elevate a so-so drama to great heights, lack texture and credibility. Only Marayati garners empathy as a kind and open man looking to bridge cultures and build friendships.

The staging (scenic design by Se Hyon Oh) does not help. The desert scenes are played out on the floor of the proscenium, without an effective backdrop to add ambience. The kitchen, always visible, is positioned upstage on a rise, in a cramped space that allows for little movement and makes for poor visibility. All I could see of Bocanegra much of the time was her back.

The best moments in the production are the musical interludes played by accomplished Puerto Rican guitarist Nelson González.

LATC, 514 S. Spring St., downtown Los Angeles; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; Mon., 7:30 p.m.; through March 19. Thelatc.org.


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The 2018 Oscars Are Woke, But Hollywood Can Get Woker by Recalling Its Past

In the Golden Age of Hollywood, producers knew that social issues sold tickets. It’s a lesson the film industry might be ready to re-learn.

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Universal Pictures/Alamy

At first glance, this year’s Academy Awards ceremony and nominations seems as woke a lineup as the Oscars has ever offered. Films and actors honored touch on topics as varied and vital as LGBTQ love (Call Me By Your Name), veterans and overt racism (Mudbound), liberal covert racism (Get Out), police corruption (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), and the importance of the press (The Post). Jimmy Kimmel returns as host, after a year where he eased into the working-class champion role his bro schtick always aspired to but never quite nailed until now.

Expect much self-congratulation for these Brave New Oscars during the show, along with shoutouts for #TimesUp and digs at Trump (even as the show’s producers want it to be “a giant commercial for the movie business” instead of anything political). But the nominees also show that Hollywood will practice punch-card progressivism until it realizes what the Louis B. Mayers, Jack Warners and other movie moguls of yesteryear never forgot: social issues sell.

The 2018 nominations show we’re in a golden age of African-American characters, stories, and talent, and that a purge of the industry’s toxic masculinity translates into better films. But it’s as if Hollywood feels that tackling those two longstanding problems absolves it of trying to address anything else. Just look at today’s pressing issues that big-budget films in 2017 ignored: homelessness, class inequity, the housing crisis, gentrification, climate change and more.

And in an age where diversity matters more than ever, Hollywood’s depiction of Mexicans remain problematic. The touching Pixar film Coco (nominated for Best Animated Picture) notwithstanding, Hollywood still doesn’t seem to want to cast Mexicans as anything else than the maids, janitors and security guards that executives and screenwriters encounter in their public and private lives, and the criminals that the media and politicians obsess over. Chris Rock’s ruthless 2014 Hollywood Reporter essay on the lack of representation still rings true: Hollywood keeps Mexicans in a “slave state.”

The studios need to look at their own past to see that reflecting society’s people and problems are an easy moneymaker. Consider the films of the Great Depression, more relevant than ever. Films like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, The Grapes of Wrath, Sullivan’s Travels, Gold Diggers of 1933 became beloved because they openly attacked the institutions that dared afflict the afflicted. Same with the 1970s: Rocky, Saturday Night Fever, Coming Home, Network and others harshly depicted the Me Decade all the way to the Oscars and massive ticket sales.

Two of this year’s most prominent Best Picture nominees show a way forward for producers. The Shape of Water (directed by proud Mexican Guillermo del Toro) used a supernatural parable to critique our federal government’s xenophobia. Get Out similarly used the horror genre to deliver its message. Both are in some ways the most Old Hollywood of the Best Picture bunch, as they recalled Universal Studios’ historic monster movies (imagine a ride based on Get Out? Actually, you don’t have to: it’s called South Orange County).

The Shape of Water and Get Out each grossed over $100 million worldwide despite tiny budgets. Couple that with this month’s record-breaking Black Panther, and the studios should realize that progressive films ought to be the norm, not a niche.

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A New Documentary Unspools the Life of Malcolm X

Most people know that Malcolm X began his public career by calling for black separatism. Lost Tapes: Malcolm X reveals surprising details that have not been seared into our collective view of the martyred activist.

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At the end of the Smithsonian Channel’s Lost Tapes: Malcolm X, Ossie Davis delivers a stirring eulogy for Malcolm X, the fallen Muslim minister and human rights activist. “And we will know him then for what he was and is,” Davis intones, “a Prince – our own black shining Prince!”

The haze of history has obscured some of the finer details of this remarkable leader’s life, one cut short by assassination at the age of 39 in 1965. Schools go into far greater detail about the life and times of another spiritual leader, Martin Luther King Jr., but in the shadows behind King’s narrative lurk remarkable stories of a prince that have been largely ignored. That’s why this episode from The Lost Tapes documentary series rises above almost anything available in mainstream media.


Above: Malcolm X in Los Angeles, 1962

Most know that Malcolm, as the dominant star in the Nation of Islam, differentiated himself from King and other African-American leaders by calling for blacks to break off from, rather than assimilate into white society. At the outset, Lost Tapes: Malcolm X, which debuts tonight at 5 p.m. PST/8 p.m. EST, and repeats Tuesday, underscores how his incendiary speeches and philosophy sparked both outrage and fear by showing footage from The Hate That Hate Produced , a 1959 Mike Wallace-narrated documentary shown on New York’s educational WNTA-TV that introduced the Harlem minister and the Nation of Islam to a wider (and whiter) audience.

Much of this doc treads on familiar turf: His meteoric rise and popularity, which caused NOI membership to swell exponentially; how Malcolm’s philosophy deviated from other civil rights leaders’, the rift with NOI leader Elijah Muhammad that led to Malcolm leaving the organization. Filmmakers Tom Jennings and David Tillman weave a fine story, thankfully bereft of any narration, using never-before or rarely seen footage to tell Malcolm’s story, only resorting to simple white text on a black background to deliver essential information. The result seems more urgent and intimate, powerful and profound.

But where Lost Tapes really triumphs is in revealing details that have not been seared into our collective view of the martyred activist. First there is the matter of Cassius Clay. Few know that the boxer’s conversion to Islam was mired deep in the divisions between Malcolm and the “prophet” Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm had grown to overshadow his mentor, and became a close friend to the charismatic contender. But soon after Sonny Liston failed to answer the bell in Miami on February 25, 1964, and Clay was crowned heavyweight champion of the world, Elijah Muhammad bestowed upon the boxer a Muslim name (an honor Malcolm had not been given) under one condition. The new champion had to end his friendship with Malcolm (something that Ali later publicly admitted was a mistake).

Later, there is an interview in which Malcolm publicly exposes Elijah Muhammad’s fathering of eight children by six underage women who were his personal secretaries. This footage makes it seem more understandable why the NOI allegedly waged such a persistent campaign to kill Malcolm, first unsuccessfully by firebombs and then, purportedly taking down their target in a hail of bullets.

The documentary also chronicles Malcolm X’s personal transformation shortly before his tragic death, which resulted in a revolutionary change in his outlook. After leaving the NOI, Malcolm went on a global spiritual journey that included a pilgrimage to Mecca in April of 1964, where he had a profound epiphany. Malcolm speaks of seeing Muslims of all colors interacting as equals and how the whites he had met there were not like those found in America, that their dedication to God allowed them to believe in the oneness of all people.

Inspired by this trip he started the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), a secular group that advocated Pan-Africanism, and promoted internationalizing the plight of African-Americans. This broadening of his views also made him make amends to those he criticized in the past. We see footage of an interview in which he not only forgives black leaders for having attacked him, but also apologizes to all he had ever attacked, culminating in him preaching solidarity and cooperation between leaders.

It’s a huge moment that seems to have been lost as the years have passed, and it makes this venture all the more invaluable.


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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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