Monday, May 21, 2012

Café Vida – by Lisa Loomer

L-R Magaly La Voz De Orto, Lynette Alfaro

By Joe Straw

This was the night of the super moon, May 5th, 2012, Cinco de Mayo, and a wonderful night to witness a very special show, Café Vida.

I’ve had the opportunity to hear Father Gregory Boyle speak in the past.  Looking at him, you wouldn’t know he is a priest. He seems just an ordinary guy, slightly overweight, with a manicured beard, modestly dressed, and appearing to have stepped out of a Land’s End catalogue. On this particular day, he is speaking to our church about his book “Tattoos on the Heart:  The Power of Boundless Compassion”. 

Father Boyle starts slowly about the book, about his mission, and finding the way.  He has us laughing and crying before the lecture is finished. He is a simple man, with a simple message, and that message is about helping human beings in trouble, and finding the way.  This play takes its inspiration from Father Boyle, Homeboy Industries and Homegirl Cafe.

The Latino Theater Company presents a Cornerstone Theater Company production as part of The Hunger Cycle (nine world-premiere plays about hunger, justice and food equity issues.) created in partnership with Homeboy Industries and Homegirl Café.  Café Vida is written by Lisa Loomer and directed by Michael John Carcés.

Over the speakers, the audience is hushed with the soft sounds of the city, increasing in volume the closer we arrive at our opening destination.  These are the sounds we have come to expect in the city of Los Angeles. It is the awakening of a great metropolis that never really closes its eyes and rest.

There is simplicity in the stage design by Nephelie Andonyadis.  The set is three downtown Los Angeles storefronts, which, at times, are open with the jarring noise from rolling security grilles. The irritating noise is an entrance and an exit for those going to work.  And the opening of those storefronts are a constant reminder, this is something we need to do to survive.

Chabela (Lynette Alfaro) is no different as the door rolls open and she hops on the bus for a two-hour bus ride to look for work.

Behind her is her guardian angel Singer (Magaly La Voz De Oro) watching her moves and singing the song of loneliness and desperation in finding a new way of life.  And it is on this day, Chabela describes her life behind bars, the life she hopes to leave behind, and the new life she hopes to find in the city.

Chabela’s life has not been a bed of roses but she needs a job, period.  She meets with her prospective employer, Father Tim (Peter Howard). He is rather stern with his applicants.  His words to her are threefold – leave your gang life outside of the business of Café Vida, no drugs, and everyone starts at the bottom.

Chabela has ideas of immediately becoming a chef at Café Vida but gets a pleasant surprise when she is handed a broom and told to sweep.  And she is also told that she will be doing this for the next seven weeks.

Across the room, Chabela sees Luz (Sue Montoya), a girl from another gang, doesn’t like her and keeps an eye on her every move, but avoids her because Chabela wants her kids back from her aunt and her abusive uncle.  

Luz also has a guardian angel (Page Leong) that watches out and cares for her except at McDonalds where she cannot get a happy meal with a toy.

“If it ain’t got no toy, it ain’t a happy meal.” – Luz

Meanwhile Chabela, in a half way house, is visited by Eddie (Jesse Gamboa), her out-of-work and drug-addicted boyfriend, who swears that he’s getting a job, although it’s been six years since he’s had a job.  They renew acquaintances, he gives her a hickey, and Chabela is suspended from her job.  Nice work Eddie!

Shaun (Amanda Duns), the gardener, teaches Chabela, Luz and the others how to make compost, and from this compost, they are able to grow their own food to feed the patrons of the restaurant.

One gets a wonderful sensation from teaching another how to grow food and feed their families. The cumulus weight of hunger and poverty leads human beings to do the unimaginable.  Teaching the art of providing food for your family gives in so many ways.  

This is a play about taking the small steps that lead to giant leaps in helping humanity. Taking steps to provide for our families and friends is an honorable quest.

Lisa Loomer’s play has a lot of heart and one can’t help but cheer at the final outcome, not because all of their problems have been solved but, because the characters finally take the small steps.  Loomer’s play teaches and informs. The characters struggle to find a way and they overcome the obstacles in a not-so-grand fashion.  But, this not-so-grand fashion has everyone standing and cheering for the message of hope in the final scene. It is a marvelous moment and a wonderful way to end the show.

Lynette Alfaro is splendid as Chabela. She has an innate connection to the audience that is quite fascinating. There is so much to her life and she manages to bring all of that onto the stage.  There is so much heart to witness here and so little time to observe it all. It is touching to see her as a very appreciative cast member at curtain call.

Sue Montoya plays the other homegirl, Luz. Montoya brings with her an unmistakable honesty that carries her throughout the play.

L-R, Andre Hollins, Lynette Alfaro, Page Leong

Page Leong plays a variety of roles and in each she is absolutely marvelous.  She is extremely funny as the stress Facilitator, ditsy as the Tourist, and inspiring as Luz’s guardian angel. Leong was wonderful to watch and a master at what she does.

Magaly La Voz De Oro was the other guardian angel who has a very powerful voice and a very nice presence.

Andre Hollins plays multiple characters and has got a magnificent presence on stage.  His tourist had a nice southern accent, which was quite different from the character DJ, the angry guy in the group. And he did quite well in the other roles. Hollins works at Homeboy Industries but I mistook him as one of the professional Cornerstone actors in the cast.  He did a very nice job and was wonderful to watch.

Jesse Gamboa is Eddie, boyfriend to Chabela. As the character, this short stalking tattooed character is ruthless even pulling a gun in one scene, threating to kill Chabela, and then telling her: “I forgive you.”

Shishir Kurup as El Maiz was wonderful in the role.  As the character, one would suspect him as being a homeless man.  But, it is a deceptive characterization, as he is a man with a wealth of information even if his actions are slightly misguided.

Felipe Nieto as the character Rafi needs one thing, and one thing only.  And until he gets it, we will never hear the end of it from him. It is a funny and charming performance.

Peter Howard did a nice job as Father Tim. As the character, there is a backstory to his presence on stage and he brings it with him as part of that character.  This is a life that is not a bed or roses but has its rewards in moments of life that play out in grand multiple colors.    

Bahni Turpin was excellent in a number of roles: the cashier at McDonalds, Dolores, and Olivia.  These roles were very simple in nature and very well executed and keep the play moving along nicely. Turpin has a quiet calm about her and did a very fine job.

Also rounding out the cast were Maria Cano as Ines, Onna S. Cooper Jr. in various roles, Amanda Duns as Shaun, Veronica Duran as Gaby, Jeanette Godoy as Daisy, Maria Gonzales as Sandra, Bianca Molina as Jennifer, Pita Montellano, Daniel Penilla, Gloria Alicia Tinajero, and Natalie Venegas as Lola.  All were professional and contributed mightily to the night.

Michael John Garcés did a fine job with the direction. This is an ensemble of professional actors as well as actors learning their craft.  The show was not without it rough patches but maybe that’s what makes the night inspirational, engrossing, and enjoyable.

Also there are a number of behind the scenes production personnel that, without them, the production would not have come to fruition.  The are Joel Veenstra, Production Manager, Juliette Carrillo, Dramaturg, Edgar Landa, Fight Choreography, Bruno Louchouarn, Music Director, Sean T. Cawelti, Props Artisan, MC Earl, Production Assistant, Lili Lakich Studio, Cafe Vida Neon Sign Designer, Marie A. Growden, Assistant Costume Designer, April Metcalf, Tattoo and Make-Up Artist, Sara Nishida, Assistant Lighting Designer, David Crawford, Assistant Sound Designer, Wayne Nakasone, Technical Director, Marie Stair, Draper, Tanya Apuya Wardrobe Mistress, Amanda Merci FcFaline, Wardrobe Crew, Josh Greening, Light Board Operator, Ivan Robles, Sound Board Operator, Will Lidderdale, The Set Shop, Set Construction, Adrian Lazalde, Lighting Design Apprentice, Kedar S. Lawrence, Backstage Crew Lead, Orsy Jerez, Backstage Crew Member, and Laretta Young, Production Management Intern.

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