The mere fact that Dustin Lance Black’s When We Rise is on the air, even in 2017, is remarkable. Running a seven-hour miniseries covering the LGBT movement is a courageous endeavor for ABC in a time when a significant number of viewers still find its subject matter divisive and offensive at worst, and uninteresting at best.
This sad fact has provided the creators a unique opportunity to not only entertain, but to also enlighten people who are less tolerant and understanding. And that’s what makes their missteps that much more disappointing.
A tale that both honors LGBT heroes but also introduces these champions and their causes to the masses, When We Rise has been undermined by uneven writing and direction and, perhaps more important, by a failure to reach across the ideological divide.
Creator Black is seemingly the right man for the job, having already penned the acclaimed Milk biopic about the legendary San Francisco city supervisor/activist Harvey Milk, for which he won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. His participation gives immediate credibility for those already familiar with the topic. Black could have gone high and introduced his characters by emphasizing robust personalities and their passion and struggles, making them underdogs for whom to root in our age of egregious intolerance. Instead, he goes low.
Black focuses on three seminal figures in the gay movement, all played by a young actor and then an older one, as they journey to San Francisco and pass through nearly half a century, illuminating a cross section of those fighting for LGBT causes. There is Cleve Jones (Austin P. McKenzie and Guy Pearce), a wide-eyed young Caucasian with model looks who would eventually become a student intern working for Milk, and who was one of the first people to see the assassinated supervisor’s lifeless body. We also watch legendary woman’s rights activist Roma Guy (Emily Skaggs and Mary-Louise Parker), a woman whose radicalism and sexuality are awakened all at once. Rounding out the triptych is Ken Jones (Jonathan Majors and Michael Kenneth Williams) an African-American sailor who went on to become a pioneering activist, but not before having to subjugate his sexuality in the service, deal with racism in both the straight and gay worlds, and endure extreme homophobia in the black community.
Before Black decides to show these figures and their epic stories of personal struggle, he makes a curious choice: They each appear locked in a libidinous and illicit embrace with a separate lover. It’s a bold creative choice, made rather less profound by the fact that the objects of their lust all look like Abercrombie and Fitch models. Every time things boil over, it’s as if a Bruce Weber doc has suddenly broken out on primetime. To viewers, this comes across as a shocking start for sure, but also emerges as a disservice, a harsh and facile distraction from these heroes’ coming exploits.
Once the lips and limbs unlock, the 90-minute pilot then follows our triumvirate on its burgeoning journey of private sexuality and public activism. The directing and writing bounces between riveting scenes of societal discomfort and awkward dialogue during activist meetings that is less special and more Afterschool Special. One minute Ken watches in horror as patrons are roughed up as they are forced out of a gay bar in a powerful scene of confusion and chaos, and then the next Cleve watches San Francisco cops beat a gay colleague in a clunky scene right out of a comic book. Speaking of comics, Rosie O’Donnell and Whoopi Goldberg have supporting roles and their broad acting is only obscured by their atrocious coifs, which suggest they shop at the same bad wig shop.
Meanwhile, the three primary figures hurtle through history until they eventually encounter each other in a convenient and presumptive collision of purpose. It’s so pat, one can almost see the lesson plan passed out in schools across America to accompany screenings of the miniseries.
Black has said he made this piece for all of America. If that is truly the case, he should have at first focused more on the thorny issues these heroes faced rather than homing in on the horny. When We Rise does to some degree elevate exploits that have far too long remained in the shadows but, sadly, Black wastes the opportunity to have them soar into the collective consciousness where they so rightfully belong.
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.
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.”
Copyright Capital & Main
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.
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.)
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.”
Copyright Capital & Main
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.
Boyle’s Heights: A New Book by the Founder of Homeboy Industries
Fr. Gregory Boyle’s book includes stories of young parents who have figured out how to manage jobs and child care, and enjoy their kids even if the parents themselves didn’t have much of a childhood.
“Homies inhabit their truest selves once they are on the receiving end of tenderness.”
Father Gregory Boyle doesn’t exactly credit the Los Angeles homeboys and homegirls he’s worked with for 30 years with writing his book Barking to the Choir-The Power of Radical Kinship. But he makes it clear that their voices are what the book is about and opens giving props to the homie who came up with the title.
Barking to the Choir vividly expresses Boyle’s passionate perspective that “homies inhabit their truest selves once they are on the receiving end of tenderness.”
In Boyle’s view, that goes for all of us.
It’s easy to think it’s a book about gangs and “the gang experience.” Boyle, after all, founded Homeboy Industries, the largest gang intervention and rehabilitation program in the world, has testified before Congress on the issue, received the California Peace Prize and was named a 2014 Champion for Change by the Obama White House.
It is not a book about gangs.
But it’s the voices of the homeboys and homegirls that supply the most affecting words. Heart-breaking, harrowing or very frequently laugh-out-loud funny, they lead us through Boyle’s story of a community and relationships that connect him with “the tenderness of God.”
Barking to the Choir is loaded with spiritual references that may even be accessible to and moving for the non-churched reader. The stories that weave the book together—all brief anecdotes—bring us into some very hard lives but can take us from tears to guffaws within a page.
Boyle draws us in through profiles of those in the Homeboy community—some 10,000 have gone through its job training and placement process, recovery programs and tattoo removal essential to getting that job—helping us see it through his soulful lens.
Ramon, a gang member working at Homeboy Bakery, was the guy who created the book title, not that he knew it at the time. He was in a little trouble, had been late for work, missing his shift some days. He waved Boyle off when the priest approached him after co-workers recommended an “attitude-ectomy.” “Don’t sweat it, bald-headed,” he told Boyle. ”You’re barking to the choir.”
The expression combines “barking up the wrong tree”–and “singing to the choir.”
The book is full of such inventive phrasing—seizing the language and shaping it to your will.
“And that’s what got the camel to fall,” said one homie, explaining how a broken refrigerator put him over the financial edge after all the food spoiled—the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Boyle is intent on breaking down the “otherness” that separates the mainstream middle-class in L.A. and other cities from poorer, browner neighbors not too many miles away.
Financially stable people can say don’t sweat the small stuff, he explains, but lacking a bank account, a reliable car, being a few bucks short on buying diapers tips you toward disaster. “Being poor means living in a continual state of acute crisis,” Boyle says. “That’s something they have to endure every day.”
He doesn’t dodge the pain of families that have lost children to gang life. He has buried 222 young people taken down by the violence. The book details the efforts of the mothers who have struggled to bring about change and who hold rallies to collect guns and throw them away.
Boyle grew up in affluent Hancock Park, in an intact family of seven siblings miles from Boyle Heights. Gang life was not even a notion. “No hopeful kid has ever joined a gang. Not now. Not ever.”
Instead, he introduces us to the young man who described at a conference how his mother pressed his hand on a stove-top burner until the flesh charred. That was to teach the boy not to play with matches. “Nothing can render a person more of a stranger to himself than the unspeakable things he was forced to endure when young,” Boyle writes.
Such stories run throughout the book, crisply and briefly told—you don’t need much detail to get the picture. Or to get a sense of the effects of multi-generational poverty and how it figures into the brutality and neglect he describes—the parents who had no parenting and have no resources to attend to their own kids.
There are also stories of young parents who have figured out how to manage jobs and child care, and enjoy their kids even if the parents themselves didn’t have much of a childhood.
None of it is abstract or sociological. We meet people with real names and lives. Boyle strives to present a complex portrait—including a story about the mother who approached him at an awards event to say she hated him and his work; her son had been killed by gang violence.
As the director of a non-profit agency that serves “a trauma-informed community” he is well aware of a need to bridge “the distance between direct service and structural change.”
His aim is not to romanticize the poor, but “to see ourselves in kinship with them.”
Boyle covered some of this ground in his best-seller Tattoos on the Heart, but in this book his reach seems to be greater, and he shares more of the spiritual influences and practices that sustain him and connect him to the genuine joy and love he finds in his work and his community. And his community is our community.
Our community. That’s his point.
Copyright Capital & Main
Tom Morello: Making America Rage Again
“We’re at a crucial historical juncture, where literally the fate of the planet hangs by a thread,” says rocker Tom Morello. “We are musicians, so our message is in the mosh pit.”
Tom Morello knows something about Trump Country. The hard rock guitarist for Rage Against the Machine and, most recently, the rock/hip-hop supergroup Prophets of Rage, grew up in small-town Libertyville, Illinois, nearly an hour outside of Chicago. The mostly white enclave went dependably Democratic in the 2016 presidential election, but it’s still fly-over country, where Morello grew up in the only household among his friends that could be described as politically radical.
He knows there are Trump voters among his listeners and across the Rust Belt that helped send the real estate billionaire to the White House. “The people there are not bad people,” says Morello. “They’ve just been dumped on by both political parties and their towns have been robbed of their jobs, and their kids have been [taken] for awful immoral foreign wars, and they’re looking at a very uncertain future for themselves and their families. So they turn their backs on politics as usual and turn towards a racist demagogue.”
“From our vantage point as cultural warriors, if we’re going to go down,
we’re going to go down swingin’.”
Morello’s politics have remained consistently loud and radical since his youth, drawing inspiration as a musician from both the metal guitar pyrotechnics of Randy Rhoads and the biting punk rock militancy of the Clash’s 1980 album London Calling. With Prophets of Rage, he’s back to spreading the gospel against war and for human rights, for organized labor and environmental sanity — to some very large audiences. The band formed in Los Angeles during last year’s tumultuous election season, with an all-star lineup: Morello, bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk from the dormant Rage Against the Machine; with vocals from the rappers Chuck D of Public Enemy and B-Real of Cypress Hill; plus Public Enemy’s fiery turntablist DJ Lord.
The new band toured under the banner “Make America Rage Again,” and found an audience ready to hear the old Rage Against the Machine songs performed once more. Last month, the Prophets played songs old and new to thousands of heavy metal faithful at Ozzfest Meets Knotfest in San Bernardino, and this Saturday they face an altogether different crowd at the KROQ Almost Acoustic Christmas concert at the Forum in Inglewood.
At the beginning of each show, band members gather at the front of the stage to raise their fists in solidarity and defiance, but Morello says they demand no political litmus test from fans, other than, “It’s a No Fascists Allowed Zone.” (Morello did ridicule future House Speaker Paul Ryan when he declared himself a Rage fan in 2012: “He is the embodiment of the machine that our music has been raging against for two decades.”)
“It’s music, first and foremost,” says Morello, 53, who frequently wields electric guitars with the slogans “Arm the Homeless” and “Soul Power” scrawled across the surface. “We set out to be a devastating rock & roll band. That’s Job One. That’s the spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down. With Prophets of Rage – as with Rage Against the Machine – we strive to make the music compelling, and people of all political persuasions are drawn to compelling music.”
On the group’s debut album, Prophets of Rage, released in September, songs erupt with wild funk and attitude while confronting ongoing social crises and U.S. political leadership. The music video to “Radical Eyes” is a montage of news clips documenting American history repeating itself across 50 alarming years, while Morello’s guitar wails with eccentric melody and muscle. The song “Living on the 110” examines poverty along a freeway cutting through South Los Angeles, as Chuck D raps: “There’s no end to the poverty, stopping me/You pretend there’s democracy, hypocrisy/This is the reality.”
“This record feels as timely as anything we’ve ever done,” says Morello. “We’re fond of saying ‘Dangerous times demand dangerous songs,’ and we’re in extremely dangerous times. From our vantage point as cultural warriors, if we’re going to go down, we’re going to go down swingin’.”
The work he did with Rage Against the Machine was distinctive and searing, but Morello notes that the bulk of that band’s career (and all of its recorded output) unfolded during the Bill Clinton administration. The need now for defiance and expression is even greater, he says:
“We’re at a real crucial historical juncture, where literally the fate of the planet hangs by a thread – from the threat of imminent nuclear exchange to the environmental tightrope we are walking, staring into a dark abyss. Each one of us in our own vocation desperately needs to weave our convictions into what we do before it’s too late. We are musicians, so our message is in the mosh pit.”
For the Prophets, that’s also meant spending quality time during their first year together not simply performing concerts, but taking action on the causes they share. During the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, the revolution rockers performed a free concert and led a protest march across the city. They also performed on L.A.’s Skid Row and on a stage just outside the prison walls of the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco.
For the guitarist, it’s a tradition of activism that began with his schoolteacher mom, Mary Morello. He was arrested protesting sweatshop labor conditions at a Santa Monica factory in 1997 and at a 2006 UNITE HERE labor rally.
“There has been a ferocious class war being fought in this country over the last 40 or 50 years, and it’s the rich against the poor,” says Morello, whose family has included union coal miners in Central Illinois. “A crucial part of that war is dismantling the power of labor unions. In the battle of us versus them, that is the most effective way for us to have, share and wield power. They know that, and that’s why they’ve done everything they can to undermine it.”
He came to Los Angeles after graduating from Harvard to follow his hard rock dreams and ultimately found a sound and message through Rage, which delivered radical ideas to mainstream radio (via the hits “Killing in the Name,” “Bulls on Parade,” etc.), won Grammy Awards, toured arenas and went on hiatus soon after a performance protesting the American two-party system outside the 2000 Democratic Convention in Los Angeles.
He’s called Los Angeles home for nearly three decades, raising two kids here, but warns that California is not immune from the forces roiling the rest of the country. “While it’s heartening to live in one of the few zones in the world where overt racism and homophobia are not evidenced on the streets, we can’t be lulled into any sense of comfort,” he says. “We are really in the fight of our lives during this Trump-Pence regime.”
With the rest of Prophets of Rage, Morello at least has a means to get that message to a broad range of people. They recorded the new album in only a month with producer Brendan O’Brien, working side by side on new songs. It continues on the road.
“Before our first record came out, we had played in front of two and half million people,” he says. “It’s the best of both worlds. We have the gravitas of our histories and then we’re able to draw on the catalogs of Rage and Cypress and PE – but we also have the chip on our shoulder of a new band. We go out there every night to prove ourselves.”
KROQ Almost Acoustic Christmas, with Prophets of Rage, Muse, 30 Seconds to Mars, Queens of the Stone Age, others. Saturday, Dec. 9. Forum, Inglewood.
Cornerstone Theater Company Delivers More Food for Thought
Playwright Michael John Garcés’ labyrinthine plot follows two sisters through a myriad of fantastical scenarios involving a mega-corporation that aims to control worldwide food production.
Magic Fruit is the latest (and last) offering in the Cornerstone Theater Company’s Hunger Cycle of nine plays exploring “hunger, justice and food equity issues.” It opens with sisters Tami (Cristina Frias) and Kiko (Rachael Portillo), frantic and bedraggled, stumbling through a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles in search of refuge from a shadowy serpentine monster — hunger itself. Their quest for salvation transports them through a myriad of fantastical scenarios in which the prime adversary is a mega-corporation that aims to control worldwide agricultural production. Produced through a partnership of artists and community members, a Cornerstone hallmark, the show features major life-or-death themes, ecological warnings and some spectacular tech — but the story is convoluted and much of the acting too weak to ignore.
Directed by Shishir Kurup, playwright Michael John Garcés’ labyrinthine plot takes inspiration from Mozart’s The Magic Flute. In this rather loose adaptation, Tami, a former gang member, and the younger Kiko become separated after Kiko is abducted by the temperamental Queen of the Rain (Page Leong). The spine of the story is Tami’s search to rescue Kiko, which can happen only if she can recover the Queen’s missing heart. This organ (named Corazón and depicted by Bethany Nava in a sparkly blue costume) has been captured by the bad guys, who plan to use her blood to make seeds that require no rain — an enormous plus in a world ravaged by drought.
Page Leong and Bethany Nava.
The main storyline is interspersed with minor characters: a trio of desperate farmers, another threesome of 21st century skateboarders, a triad of gardeners and so on. A rapscallion named Mondiablo (Peter Howard) who works for the company plans to extort the board of directors, but they fire him first. The show’s comic highlight is the Flaming Hot Cheeto (Lee Maupin), a bright-orange, misshapen figure who won’t divulge information unless he’s bitten (beware that one).
The most interesting (and least whimsical) scenes depict the machinations of this Monsanto-like corporation to gain and retain power. Eight actors represent this monolith, whose most vocal spokesperson, curtly played by Bahni Turpin, is suitably and incisively ruthless.
As Tami, Frias provides a strong and likable anchor for the disparate narrative; the world is coming apart around her, and her desperate resistance is charismatic. Portillo, whose character, unfortunately, is off-stage for quite a while, is another strong and sympathetic presence to root for.
But other performances drain the production of energy. Inexplicably, Kurup has cast the major role of Pageni, a free-spirited Native American who befriends the women, with an inexperienced actor (Courage) whose delivery underscores the character’s airheaded blandness. Nava and others also appear to be relative newbies onstage. I understand that, by design, not everyone here is supposed to be professional, but characters essential to moving the action forward should be played by one.
The production’s most striking aspect is the accomplished work of its tech team — most notably video designer Sean Cawelti’s absolutely stunning apocalyptic imagery, but also the intricate sound and artful lighting by John Nobori and Geoff Korf respectively, and the droll imaginative costumes by Meghan E. Healey. It is these combined elements which best relay Magic Fruit’s haunting message.
Cornerstone Theater Company at the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles, 138 W. First Street, Los Angeles; Wed.-Thurs., 7:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through December 10. cornerstonetheater.org
Hunger Is No Game in This Theater Experiment
Structured as a radio play, Pang! is made up of three stories of struggle and survival distilled from real-life accounts of impoverished families, including one from Los Angeles.
Pictured above: Natalie Camunas, Donna Simone Johnson and Christopher Rivas. (Photo: Will O’Loughlen)
It’s a Monday evening in a University of California, Los Angeles lecture room, and multidisciplinary artist Dan Froot has brought together an ensemble of actors and musician/composer Robert Een to preview his upcoming show Pang! — which will be staged in Los Angeles for two performances this weekend.
Structured as a radio play, Pang! is made up of three narratives distilled from the oral histories of three impoverished families — one in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, another here in L.A., and a third in Miami, Florida. These are stories of struggle and survival. The first is about a Burundian immigrant who bicycled to safety as he fled a genocidal militia that wiped out his entire family. The second — a very Los Angeles story — is of an African-American family who lose their home to a con artist. And the third, relayed from the point of view of a 7-year-old boy, reflects the challenges of growing up in a violence-ridden community where the lives of all citizens, regardless of age or lifestyle, are always in peril.
This isn’t the first time Froot has applied his many talents to creating art involving poverty and hunger. A dancer, actor, writer, choreographer and puppeteer, he spearheaded two earlier projects, Who’s Hungry – West Hollywood (2008) and Who’s Hungry – Santa Monica (2012). These were short puppet plays drawn from the oral histories of people engaged in an ongoing struggle to procure sufficient food for themselves and their families. Pang! was also begun with the idea of spotlighting food insecurity, but it soon became obvious to Froot and his team that there were other wrenching dilemmas — having to do with immigration, lack of housing and the proliferation of guns — that poor folks wrestled with on an ongoing basis, and which they wanted to frame in their work.
Donna Simone Johnson (Photo: Will O’Loughlen)
That evening at UCLA, the versatile cast — Natalie Camunas, Donna Simone Johnson and Christopher Rivas — perform behind music stands, where, accompanied by Een and augmented by a plethora of sound effects, they deliver an excerpt from each of the stories. Afterward Froot, currently an adjunct professor at the university’s Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance, explained to the attendees his aims and methods, and his mixing of art with his passion for economic justice. He later spoke to Capital & Main.
Capital & Main: What is Pang! ’s origin?
I have always felt a strong link between food and theater. My first performance works in New York City in the early ’80s were “performance meals,” in which the preparation and service to the audience of a full meal was part and parcel of the theatrical actions. Theater and cooking both take disparate ingredients and I put them together alchemically, so that they become something else, which is then consumed by people, which hopefully nourishes them.
What is the main purpose of the project?
Froot: The work aims to decrease the stigma associated with hunger and poverty, and to foster cross-class dialogue on income disparity in America. [Also,] by connecting at the personal level and building relationships with community members, I hope to make Pang! more relevant for people who might not normally attend the theater, because they may now feel a personal connection.
What do you mean by “cross-class dialogue”? How is that done, specifically?
Froot: It’s really done in the weeks, months and years leading up to the performances. In all cities where we are performing, we lower barriers to low-income residents by providing cheap or free tickets, childcare and transportation where possible. We provide free food at intermission. We reach out to our social service partners to let them know about the production. In many cases I know their clientele personally.
What agencies have you been involved with here in Los Angeles?
Froot: I volunteered for about a year with Community Services Unlimited, working with teens on their urban mini-farm, and selling locally grown fruits and vegetables at their pop-up markets. I also volunteered with Hunger Action Los Angeles, handing out Market Match vouchers at the St. Agnes Church farmers’ market in South Central. I taught performance workshops with the staff and clientele of LIFT Communities Los Angeles, and participated in their annual simulation of the social services system for municipal leaders.
But you also foster this dialogue onsite following the performance, when audience members are invited to the stage, to sit at a table and engage in a dialogue with the performers and families.
Froot: [Yes.] The kitchen table dialogue at its best is simply an exchange of unlike perspectives. Here is a quote from the Cedar Rapids kitchen table:
“I just think when people hear stories like this, for me it’s just having that part where you can relate to and have that humility so that if you ever see somebody at Walmart, or if you ever see somebody at a store or on the street who’s an immigrant, you don’t just have an assumption that this person is having a good life, and they should be thankful and grateful — I think you’re going to have a little empathy and a little bit of humanity. “
How were the families chosen?
Froot: I developed partnerships with social service organizations in each city where we are working. [They] pre-screened their clients’ families, provided liaison services between me and the families, and also have provided safe, quiet, neutral spaces in which to conduct the oral history interviews.
Tell me something about the writing process
Froot: I generally start with the verbatim oral history text and try to draw out the rhythms and melodies and thematic issues. I call it a violent process, because you are drawing a single thread out of the fabric of a family’s lives. The entire adaptation process is a back and forth with the families. I bring in a draft of a scene or two, we read it down and talk about it. Suggestions are made, and I come up with a new draft for the next rehearsal. This is a slow, painstaking method, but we are very happy with the results.
Did the stories evolve in the process?
Froot: Yes! Very much. For the Cedar Rapids episode, we were initially going to tell the story of the family’s escape from Burundi into Tanzania, but over the course of the process, we developed a meta-narrative about the way that stories like that get co-opted by well-meaning people.
Why the radio play format?
Froot: We want our audiences to feel that they are “between the ears” of the families whose stories we are telling. We want them to do the work of imagining the scene, so we give them the sonic dimension. That is an active, empathic position for the audience, and that’s exactly where we want them to be.
How did you come to work with Robert Een?
Froot: I’ve known Bob since 1980 in New York City, when he was in Meredith Monk’s ensemble and I was her intern. Bob and I were both part of the dance/performance art scene in downtown [there] throughout the ’80s and ’90s, sometimes getting to play music together. We have co-taught classes at UCLA. This is the first time we have collaborated.
What is the process for integrating the sound with the text?
Froot: We experiment a lot in rehearsal with different sound effects objects, until we find the right one. I have consulted with several sound effects or Foley artists in L.A. for this project, have read a lot of books on the subject, and watched a lot of instructional YouTube videos. Generally, we got the text to a pretty complete draft before integrating sound effects and music.
‘Yerma’ Update Suffers From Weak Ensemble
Inspired by Federico Garcia Lorca’s 1934 classic play, Yerma, this one-act by Oliver Mayer is set in contemporary Los Angeles where Yerma (Jean Murillo) labors as part of a janitorial team at an elite university.
Anthony Bryce Graham and Jean Murillo. (All photos by Luis Kelly-Duarte.)
In Yerma in the Desert, the desert is less an external place than the state of mind of the title character. Written by Oliver Mayer, the play is inspired by Federico Garcia Lorca’s 1934 classic Yerma, whose central character, the wife of a shepherd, is childless and unhappy.
Mayer’s one-act is set in contemporary Los Angeles where Yerma (Jean Murillo) labors as part of a janitorial team at an elite university. She’s an amiable pleasant-tempered woman who works hard — prompting the scorn of her fellow workers, put off by her willingness to undertake double shifts and good-naturedly scrub toilets. Yerma’s husband Juan (Anthony Bryce Graham) also looks down on her occupation; he’s an ambitious man who has just joined the police force, a move he regards as upwardly mobile and empowering. While he values their marriage, their intimacy is passionless and he doesn’t want children. Yerma, however, is desperate for a baby, and while she isn’t looking to have an affair, she does have this old friend Victor (Paul Tully ) to whom she’s uneasily drawn.
Jean Murillo and Marilyn Fitoria.
Running in tandem with the main story is a subplot in which Yerma’s boss Trini (Brenda Banna) schemes to wreak revenge on a snooty student who has disparaged one of her workers. Her plan is to plant dope in the student’s dorm room, then tip off the authorities to have him expelled. The take-no-prisoners Trini has also taken Yerma under her wing, hooking her up with the university’s fertility expert, Professor Stallworthy (Spencer Weitzel), in order to bring her wish for a child to fruition, with or without her husband’s participation.
Written specifically for this company, Urban Theatre Movement, Mayer’s soundly constructed and fluid script has considerable dramatic potential. But Lorca’s Yerma — a barren woman in a pastoral community where female personhood can be attained only by having kids — doesn’t translate all that aptly to our modern era. Inconsistencies in Juan’s character are also problematic; he’s possessive of Yerma and wants to stay married to her but doesn’t want to touch her or be touched. (He’s always been this way, he tells her.) Again, this story element plays fittingly against the backdrop of a primitive patriarchal culture, with its strict code of honor and its emphasis on appearances, but it’s harder to buy in the here and now. (The most likely explanation for this character’s disparities is that he’s in in the closet, but that’s not suggested in the script or developed otherwise in the production.)
While these issues might have been ironed out in performance, sadly, that would have required more depth and skill than this ensemble displays. Co-directed by Edgar Landa and Marlene Forte on a dreary set (by Sarah Steinman), the performances for the most part come off as non-professional. Graham, as the conflicted controlling Juan, has the most interesting role, but there’s no real life to this performer’s delivery — he’s in over his head. Murillo’s Yerma exudes an appealing aura, but her desperation is more presentational than palpable; there are no layers here, nor are there among most of the supporting players. The exceptions are a crisp and lively Marilyn Fitorina as Yerma’s reluctantly pregnant co-worker, and Weitzel, whose patronizing man of science is credible and solid.
Mayer’s inclusion of class conflict in his drama is its most intriguing and significant aspect. In the program notes, he writes of wanting to highlight the interior lives of working people — like the maintenance people in this story — whose humanity is often barely recognized by everyone else; they’re perceived as part of the supporting apparatus of our lives, with no independent lives of their own. This effort to illuminate their perspective is a vital and all-too-rare dramatic goal, and with better direction and a more seasoned ensemble it easily could be accomplished with more power and grace. I do hope it is, down the line.
Years of Infamy: A New Documentary About the Japanese-American Internment
And Then They Came For Us is not the first film to tell the story of Executive Order 9066. Rarely, however, has any account of this shameful history been presented with such persuasively contemporary urgency.
On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized the War Department to declare much of the West Coast to be military exclusion zones, resulting in the arrest, removal and incarceration of 120,000 law-abiding residents — including roughly 70,000 birthright American citizens — for the offense of being of the wrong race during wartime. Civil rights vanished for Americans of Japanese descent who were forcibly uprooted and deprived of their property without due process.
Social justice filmmakers Abby Ginzberg and Ken Schneider’s powerful new documentary, And Then They Came For Us, is not the first to tell the story of one of modern America’s most ignominious mass violations of civil rights. Rarely, however, has any account of this shameful history been presented with such persuasively contemporary urgency.
From Ginzberg’s opening shots of protest at San Francisco Japantown’s February 19th Day of Remembrance march, to the film’s concluding call for solidarity between the survivors of 9066 and the Muslim immigrants who now find themselves targeted by yet another baldly racist executive action, it is always harrowingly apparent who is behind today’s clear and present danger to bedrock civil liberties.
In fact, as Ginzberg explained to Capital & Main, it wasn’t until the days following Donald Trump’s 2016 election victory that she became convinced she had a compelling enough hook on which to hang an otherwise oft-told tale. That’s when she saw Trump surrogate Carl Higbie appear on TV and cite the wartime internment as a precedent for candidate Trump’s calls for a “complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” which included surveillance against mosques and establishing a database for all U.S. Muslims.
“I could suddenly see the politics of the film, I could understand its importance to today,” she recalled. “It didn’t become [a] dry history based on post-World War II analysis. It made me get very excited about it and decide that this film had to be done. We needed to find a way to get it out into the world as quickly as possible.”
Her idea was to approach the internment as if it were a breaking news story. By keeping it lean, forgoing lengthy fundraising or complicated locations, the film might get from script to screen while the headlines were still fresh enough to have an impact. That’s when the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, which funds progressive investigative journalism, ponied up for the entire budget — a rare stroke of fortune in the social justice filmmaking world: “I was able to create a budget, give it to them and say, ‘I will do this film if you pay the bills.’ And they did. We started filming in October of 2016. And we finished it kind of mid- to end-of-April, 2017. For me that is record time.” (Disclosure: The foundation is a financial supporter of this website.)
The heart of And Then They Came for Us lies in the trauma and unreconciled anger of the incarcerated — including the articulate testimony of former camp children like actor-activist George Takei. The experiences of now-deceased adults survive in an extraordinary trove of documentary images taken by photographers hired as government propagandists by the War Relocation Authority (WRA). The photographers, among them Ansel Adams and the magnificent Dorothea Lange, were carefully monitored by minders lest they violate rules against taking photos of camp barbed wire, guard towers and heavily armed military police. The prisoners themselves were forbidden cameras of any kind, and it is ironic that the only images of the Japanese-Americans behind barbed wire are those taken by internee Toyo Miyatake, using smuggled equipment and film.
“We tapped into a reservoir of stories,” said Ginzberg, “and we were able to kind of cobble the film from everybody contributing something. But the two people who lead the film are George Takei and Satsuki Ina, who really have spent a lot of their lives working on this. … A third person, who’s not related at all to George, is Barbara Takei, who’s part of the Tule Lake Committee.” Local authorities, she added, “are now threatening to build an airfield sorta smack in the middle of the Tule Lake camp, which would mean that any notion of sacred space, or being able to [honor] it as a historical site, will go to hell.”
Eschewing the usual newsreel footage, Ginzberg sought — and was given — unrestricted access to recently unearthed and previously unpublished photographs, and research culled by photo historians Richard Cahan and Michael Williams for their 2016 coffee-table tome Un-American: The Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War II. The book includes 170 images drawn from a 7,000-shot archive of the “evacuation.” Ginzberg mostly narrows that to the work of Adams and Lange. And it is the unwavering gaze of the Lange portraits — part of an almost legendary, 800-image cache that was immediately impounded and “lost” for 60 years by the U.S. Army — that drives home the human scale of the tragedy. Many of Lange’s photos were impounded for too truly reflecting the emotional reality of the camps.
“We try to let the photos in a certain way speak for themselves,” Ginzberg pointed out. “We’re letting people sort of read it in the faces of the Dorothea Lange [images], and something — “magical” is not the right word — but something deep happens in the experience of looking at those photos that are up there a little bit longer than they might be in some other setting. [Audiences are] able to read, as Takei says, the resilience and the stress. And so there’s something happening that becomes a first-person experience.”
In one of the most haunting scenes, internment historian and filmmaker Satsuki Ina, who was born in 1944 at the Tule Lake Segregation Camp near the Oregon border, a maximum security facility reserved for “troublemaker” activists, pensively encounters a Lange portrait of her mother, Shizuko, taken in 1942. Capturing an attractive, immaculately dressed young woman, the picture freezes a moment when her features are visibly drawn in worry as she waits with other first- and second-generation Japanese-Americans on a long sidewalk queue underneath government posters announcing their imminent removal.
Other speakers describe remarkably similar memories of the pain of witnessing their parents undergo the humiliation of gradually being shorn of their freedom and independence. Within a matter of weeks, the WRA froze bank accounts, limited movement and finally stripped internees of their automobiles and other property through forced sales. Los Angeles families were shipped to the Santa Anita racetrack and housed in horse stalls. Orwellian euphemisms ran through a government narrative that spoke soothingly of “evacuations” and “relocation centers,” rather than forced removals and concentration camps.
According to Ginzberg the film has been well received by audiences at the handful of film festivals it has entered since its May premiere. She’s been offering it for sale on the movie’s website for activist groups that have already hosted a number of screenings around the country, and it has played particularly well with teachers. Ginzberg’s strategy is to market the film as a classroom-friendly component (the runtime is 46 minutes) to lesson plans about the incarceration.
“Let’s see if we can’t educate people, organize people and have this film be as relevant as possible to what is going on, particularly with the Muslim travel ban, and then with other really repressive immigration policies.”
The November 27 Los Angeles premiere for And Then They Came for Us, at the Downtown Independent Theater, is sold out. Other screenings can be found at thentheycamedoc.com.
Copyright Capital & Main
The Dark, Funny & Thorny Stage of ‘Caught’
Christopher Chen’s play is partly inspired by the real-life controversy surrounding playwright/performer Mike Daisey’s 2011 solo piece, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.
Louis Changchien and Jessica Kaye. (Photo: Vincent Madero)
Unfolding like a set of Russian nesting dolls, Christopher Chen’s intensely clever play points to our penchant for accepting whatever we’re told, and the equivocacy of what we commonly refer to as “the truth”
A dark comedy that deals with cultural appropriation, the tension between journalism and art, intellectual obfuscation and a host of other thorny themes, Caught is partly inspired by the real-life controversy surrounding playwright/performer Mike Daisey. Daisey’s 2011 solo piece, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, addressed the exploitation of Chinese workers in factories manufacturing Apple products. In 2012 a judgmental uproar ensued after it came to light that the writer had fictionalized elements of his narrative. Sturm und drang spun around his manipulation of the particulars of his account, distracting people from one hard, cold fact: Most of what he talked about was true.
Directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskandar, Caught is staged in an upstairs warehouse space on an intimidatingly dark deserted street in Los Angeles’ garment district. The obscure doorway leads up a flight of stairs to a sprawling set of rooms with a small art exhibit. The work on display is credited to Lin Bo (Louis Ozawa Changchien), identified as a Chinese conceptual artist jailed for two years for having organized a protest in China — albeit a virtual one, since no gathering of demonstrators ever actually took place. After some mingling, it’s announced that the artist will give a speech. His monologue recounts his history as a dissident and two years spent in a Chinese prison, where the inmates survived on watery cabbage soup, whose dregs they fed to rats in the toilet.
For Scene 2 the audience is guided to a room with a small platform for a stage, and the show shifts gears. We are no longer idling spectators at an exhibition but audience members watching a play — an exchange between Lin Bo and an up-and-coming journalist, Joyce (Jessica Kaye), doing a piece on him for the New Yorker. Jessica is accompanied by her editor, Bob (Steven Klein) and the two are combing Lin’s account for its veracity. In subsequent scenes, the narrative morphs further as we’re introduced to another artist, Wang Min (Jackie Chung), whose serpentine connection to everything that’s gone before would be a spoiler to reveal. Suffice it to say that, when interviewed by an art curator (Kaye), Wang decimates that lady’s aplomb with brilliant double-speak, reducing her to tears. The takeaway from her discourse is that attempts at intercultural communication of any kind are always futile and pointless.
Caught is the sort of acerbically entertaining work whose pointed irony reflects the nausea-inducing convolutions current on our nation’s public stage — making the plentiful laughs rueful ones indeed. Iskandar directs a smart, assured ensemble, but of particular note is Chung as an intellectual dragon lady you absolutely do not want to mess with, while Kaye seems born to play a bright-eyed ambitious young writer — both privileged and vulnerable.
The tech — Stephen Gifford’s set, Derrick McDaniel’s lighting and Cricket Myers’ sound — aptly frames the show, but it is Chen’s savvy writing that is the true star of this immersive event.
Think Tank Gallery, 939 Maple Ave., Downtown Los Angeles; Thurs.- Sun., 7:30 p.m.; through Dec. 10; www.thinktank.gallery
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