Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Latina Christmas Special – Written & Performed by Maria Russell, Diana Yanez, and Sandra Valls

L to R - Diana Yanez, Maria Russell, Sandra Valls - Photo by: Xavi Moreno

By Joe Straw

The Latina Christmas Special, written and performed by Maria Russell, Diana Yanez, and Sandra Valls, is a wonderful way to start the Christmas holidays.  Created by Diana Yanez, directed by Geoffrey Rivas, and presented at the Latino Theater Center, this holiday special is a Latina take on celebrating the holiday season and I couldn’t be happier to have seen it.

For this production, the theatre chairs have been moved around to face eastwardly (toward the Star of Bethlehem); it makes the intimate stories all that more engaging in this black box venue.  

Sandra’s (Sandra Valls) couch sits in the middle of the living room and provides just enough for the other two guests who are invited to her home on this night. Her coffee table sits over a nice Persian rug that is stretched to protect the hardwood flooring.  And her beautiful Christmas tree adorns a corner of the room, while the bar, away from the sanctity of a Christmas symbol, the tree, graciously accommodates two guests for spirited drinking. And there will be Christmas cheer tonight.

Also, there is a Virgen de Guadalupe rotating lamp on the bar reminding guests to drink responsibly.

The set, nicely designed by Michael Navarro, gives the actors free reign in a night of reminiscences, of Christmas past, present, and a hint of Christmas futures.   

The night starts with the three amigas singing “Feliz Navidad” with Sandra on the piano, Maria (Maria Russell) on the maracas, and Diana (Diana Yanez) on the bongos.  The instruments give us a hint of their histories, the maracas give new meaning internal cogitative spirited memories.  

Squeals and laughter are heard as the three women exchange gifts; Maria gives a pink flamingo ornament to Sandra and then a R2D2 ornament to Diana.

Diana presents a disco ball ornament to Sandra and then a Silence of The Lamb ornament to Maria, which on second thought says interesting things about their relationships and what they know of each other. (Just a note: Silence of the Lambs, referenced in the play as a Christmas movie, was released February 13, 1991.)

Sandra gives a vintage Santa to Diana.  (If it was a reference to her age, one has to see that reaction.)  And she gives a nutcracker to Maria.  (Is the nutcracker an ornament or a tool? I’ve never had one that got past the first nut.)  Also, Maria’s reaction to receiving the nutcracker should lead us into her strong holiday memories.

And for these ladies, it is a night for remembrances, of showing photos, sharing how they’ve managed to find themselves here and on this night.  

How did they get here?  Well, it’s a questions better left for later.

In the meantime, they breakout the photos of their lives, the large ballerina, the photo of a unibrow-Frida Kahlo look, a nothing but braces photo, the drag queen dad, and the karate kid; all are on display from Yee Sun Nam’s video display and production design projected on the upstage screen.  

These photos give us a glimpse of the remembrances, the stories, of the three women and their lives up to this point.

Maria, half Lithuanian and half Mexican, was breastfed until the age of five, which is probably why she is so healthy.  And who could blame the mother, who is so close to her daughter that they slept in a family bed until they couldn’t fit everyone in bed anymore.  So the Lithuanian Daddy had to find other accommodations elsewhere in the house.

The closeness of mother to daughter is probably the reason mom can’t let go of her only daughter to that “pinche Crack”. Her Mexican mother claims that the fiance, “Crack”, well, his real name is “Craig”, is trying to steal her lovely daughter away from her.

“I would go back to my mom, but she’s dead!” – Maria’s mom

Guilt trip 101.

Diana’s family is Cuban.   Her mother was a 911 operator and not a life reaffirming one.

“Chu gonna die!” – Diana’s mom.

Just what you need to hear – when you’ve swallowed something you shouldn’t have – and are on the phone, in a dire emergency, with this 911 operator.  

Diana grew up in Florida thinking everyone was Cuban including Donny and Marie Osmond. Her story is not haunting, disturbing or traumatic, just Donny and Marie in their wonder winter land of ice and snow (the studio) making everyday look like Christmas.

But, Florida never looked like Christmas, what with the fake snow, chancletas, arroz con cerdo, yucca, tostadas, flan, and Santa’s sled pulled by dolphins.

And Diana is happy to introduce us to a word that describes everything, “coño”.  It’s a bad word, said out of anger, happiness, or fear, but can be used to describe something good.

“Christmas is going to be perfect, coño.” – Diana

Everyone in the family had a dramatic gene embedded in their makeup especially when it came time to rid the family of an uninvited guest.

And lastly, Sandra loved lights, the room, the tree, and especially loved the figures around the nativity manger. But growing up, and even after all these years, she was still puzzled by one figurine. Along side of Mary, Joseph, the Baby Jesus, and the three wise men, was the conspicuous of  figurine of a guy holding chickens.

Christmas was always a slight disappointment for Sandra.  She was the one who wanted trucks, and other toys that were generally for boys but was gracious when receiving the Farrah Fawcett makeup doll, only to push it to the side for her siblings to enjoy. The parents were insistent to move her in one direction while she wanted to swing another way.

The family is musical and Sandra shares their talent. She wanted a piano, and they gave her an inadequate substitute, an electric organ.  But, she made the best of it and with her 8-track tapes in hand; she learned to play music by ear.

L - R - Maria Russell, Sandra Valls - Photo:  Xavi Moreno

Sandra did not like going out, or menudo, but she did like dancing with girls and especially liked dancing the boy parts.

Not all of the memories are happy, there are tears of joy, pain and suffering, but it all makes for interesting Christmas memories shared and for all the right reasons.

One thing I look for in a play are the relationships, how they fit together, and where they lead.   As it is now, The Latina Christmas Special stories are separate and independent of each other without the one thing that ties it all together, their relationship.

For example, without reading the program (and I didn’t), I wouldn’t have known this was Sandra’s home.  An action, to strongly suggest this is Sandra’s space, is needed.   

Secondly, we really have to know the foundation of their relationships.  In real life, they are actors and comediennes, and in real life, they have come together to create the show.  But how does that translate on stage? And, why are they here on this night?

So, this needs to be evident in the first few minutes of Geoffrey Rivas’ direction, when the audience is working feverously to figure it out. Theatre is about the immediacy of the moment. Why did they come together on this night? Why are they telling each other their life stories?  How, does the conflict keep the show moving? And, what needs to be figured out on this very night? (Let’s throw in an objective and a stronger through line while we are at it.) One might not see this as a full fledge play but rather as three comediennes having the time of their life on stage. 

This is only a slight critique to a night that was well done, funny, and enlightening. Rivas has given the show a stronger through line and substance but more could be added to round out this wonderful show. For example: Are they here to create the show?  And could there be a built in conflict in that scenario?

The actors Maria Russell, Diana Yanez and Sandra Valls are all funny; each having their own brand of humor with marvelous facial expressions, and it was a joy to speak to them after the performance.  A meet and greet is the best way to go for this type of venue if only to say “the work was splendid”.

Reservations:  866-811-4111

Monday, November 23, 2015

Boyle Heights by Josefina López

L - R Brenda Perez and Karina Bustillos

By Joe Straw

“This isn’t heaven but it is my home.” - Dalia

The road to Boyle Height from the Westside is not a tough one.  Eating is important for some and there is enough time to stop for a bite.  And then it’s onto the 10 Freeway, which mysteriously turns into the 5 Freeway.

Caught in thick traffic, moving too far over to the right lane, and after a quick miss-directed instruction, I swerve off the freeway on to Boyle Avenue and immediately know this is not the street I wanted to exit. 

But I make a crazy left and see a part of Boyle Heights I have not experienced.  The view is pleasant as I progress to 1st Street, and then a sweet east for a few moments in almost no traffic.  An agreeable swerve into an empty parking meter, and voilà, the theatre stands waiting, only a few yards away. 

(And if you can’t find a place out front, there’s always free parking behind city offices right around the corner.)

I’ve been to a number of shows at Casa 0101 and each time I get a tingling sensation similar to the anticipation of going home, of a light from the kitchen, coffee on, and smell of flaky buttered biscuits.

And there she sits, Casa 0101, a small lighthouse beacon in Boyle Heights, the light from art figuratively streams out of the glass doors, and out onto the street.  Looking up, I noticed the streetlights flickering, a spark flashing on life’s faces.  And the passing smiles are from patrons anticipating the theatre. Surely, Casa 0101 is now the bedrock, the light, and the draw of life into the community.  

Boyle Heights, written by Josefina López and marvelously directed by Edward Padilla, is a feel-good comedy about coming home, going home, and finding home. And it is just in time for the holidays, that feeling of togetherness, and being home without the accouterments of the holiday trappings this time of year.

The play’s journey to Boyle Heights starts in Mexico and told by the writer, the conveyor of the truth, as she knows it.  It is a beautiful story of a beginning without an end and an end for a new beginning.

Dalia (Brenda Perez) knows.  She takes a moment and meticulously creates a storied event.  She is a logophile, a lover of words, as long as the words ring true and pure, she has no problem writing them in her notebook. There is a certain level of detachment when the words on the page sting, but she is a poet, and words have their place.  

“I will return when I have something to give back.” - Dalia

And Dalia, with suitcase in tow, is home now.  It is the broken end of another relationship. Her heart is not entirely frangible; she takes the end in stride.  But, after twenty-something failed relationships, which her relatives are happy to count one by one, she is back home, safe and sound.

Daila’s parents, Ruben (Javier Ronceros) and Carmela (Yolanda Gonzales), are still surviving Boyle Heights but Ruben, soon to be retired at the age of 62, wants to move back to Mexico, to a simpler life where the roses don’t talk back to him or his wife and kids either, for that matter. But Carmela doesn’t want to leave, she is happy with the home they have created.  

Sitting on the porch, pondering her next move into the house, Dalia observes the stars, contemplating current events, and recounting stories of how all of this came to be. And looking back on it all, history keeps repeating itself in this family.

Rosana (Karina Bustillos), the oldest daughter, is married and lives in the suburbs with her non-adventurous husband, Jaime (Felix Hernandez), a man who likes drinking, remodeling his kitchen, and flirting a little too much.

“My wife has a crazy sister.” - Jaime

Ernie (Erick Chajon), the slightly misguided son who wanders in and out confused about events of the household, can only scratch the back of his head and move on.

Meanwhile Margie (Delmi Gaitan), the youngest sister, has a boyfriend, Juan (Juan De La Cruz).   She doesn’t allow him to enter the house through the front door.  That implies too much formality and too much of a relationship.  She prefers Juan to come in the back way.

Outside on her roof, Dalia stares into the open skies and scratches the empyreal archives into her notebook tracking the heavenly moments which others might regard as mundane, searching for the special words for family and home while thinking about the man of her dreams. 

And, with that said, in steps Chava (Amador Plascencia), a man, the man, slightly inconnu, possibly by forgotten features that have been slightly altered by time, and words. 

L - R Yolanda Gonzalez, Brenda Perez, Javier Ronceros, Erick Chajon, Felix Hernandez

Karina Bustillos creates an extremely satisfying character in Rosana, a woman who wants more out of life than her husband can provide. Rosana sees home as someplace to get away from and I think it’s all in the matter of tasting life and coming back to appreciate home all the more. Bustillos is stunning on stage, her craft is not visible, and her movements, from one part of the stage to the other, are very specific.

Erick Chajon, as Ernie – the younger brother, has a very nice appeal on stage.  This is an interesting character but one that appears to be a follower and happy to go along with his parents and others.  But those choices chosen are generally not as successful. Chajon should employ a stronger objective in the character. Also, more work needs to be done on his voice, which falls to the wayside from time to time.  

Juan De La Cruz is Juan, a character that has a hard time standing up for what he believes in, like coming in through the front door. His conflict should be as great as his love.  

Delmi Gaitan, as Margie – the younger sister, has reasons for not letting her boyfriend come into the front of the house.  Yes, it’s there in the writing, but more could be made of her reasons and the physical actions of sneaking him into the back.

Yolanda Gonzalez is quite amusing as Carmela, Dalia’s mom. And she could help her character by trying a little harder to keep her husband from leaving.

Felix Hernandez plays Jaime, Rosana’s mixed-up husband.  Hernandez has a very nice presence on stage.  Jaime can be overbearing and loud just to get his point across.  It is hard feeling sympathy for a character that berates his partner.  Hernandez needs to find a balance for the triads on stage, a reason for feeling the way he feels.  The verbal abuse of the character comes off very badly. That aside Hernandez is very appealing on stage.

Brenda Perez does an incredible job as Dalia.  Dalia, the poet, and observer of nature, is a creator of life through words.  It is necessary for her to experience life and if it takes 21 boyfriends, so be it. She cannot ponder what others think about her, her manner of dress, and her roads taken, she can only absorb life. Perez captures the character and her work is marvelous.

Amador Plascencia is Chava, Dalia’s love interest. If mural art were his only interest, he probably wouldn’t have gotten into trouble. Chava is a kind of character that spreads his ideas of art to the world.  And he has an aura, a sparkle in his eyes, of someone who is not long for this world.  Plascencia does a remarkable job with this character.

Javier Ronceros is quite amusing as Ruben, the dad. Ronceros’s craft is marvelous, his intentions are clear, and his actions on stage show a splendid attention to detail.  He has also created a carefully crafted character.  And it is the small moments, of standing by the door just listening to the sound of his family in his home, that makes his performance so complete.   Ronceros also creates a marvelous relationship with all of his children.  Seeing this kind of acting keeps me coming back to the theatre for more.  

Edward Padilla, the director, has done a marvelous job with the actors, some who are members of the community, with little acting skills.  But for all involved, it is a wonderful showcase.  The opening is fantastic with only the frame of the house on view and then, in the time continuum; the inhabitants add their color to the home. This symbolism goes a long way. Padilla shows us how the home is an important to the structure of the family.

Boyle Heights is one of Josefina López’s finest work of art.  In this family, we see the makeup of a normal Mexican American family, how similar they are to each other, and how the art translates to Dalia’s story. The story is a family in love (not that they would ever mention that to each other) and despite their differences; it is a story of home.  And this is a marvelous homecoming, starting with the end of a relationship, and the start of a new beginning.

Emmanuel Deleage and Josefina López are also the Producers.

The Scenic Design by Cesar Holguin was exquisite and worked effectively for the actors.

Also, as an added benefit, in “The Jean Deleage Gallery” there is a photo exhibit on “Roots of the Eastside Sound 1955 – 1965 which I enjoyed.  

Other members of the crew are as follows:

Sohail e. Najafi – Lighting Design
Abel Alvarado – Costume Design
Crispy Carrillo – Stage Manager
Angel Galvan – Asst. Stage Manager
Jorge Villaneuva – Technical Operator  

Run! Run! Run!  And grab a homebody, someone who doesn’t like to get out much, and rediscover the word “home”.

Through December 20, 2015. 

Reservations:  323-263-7684  

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Nat Turner: Following Faith by Paula Neiman


L - R Tarnue Massaquoi, Terry Woodberry - Photos Daniel Martin

By Joe Straw

Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the lord by soul to keep
If I should die, before I wake
I pray the lord my soul to take

I can’t begin to know what it is like to be a slave. I don’t have those eyes and have not walked with calloused feet and ankles chained.  But, three hundred years, three hundred years, of first walking towards justice, and then marching for freedom, until finally, the boots hit the ground.

Slavery was wrong, slavery remains wrong. – Narrator

On Sunday, August 21, 1831, a slave known as The Prophet gathered a group of 70 enslaved and free blacks, marched out of the forest toward the pre-dawn horizon, and entered the quiet homes of unsuspecting plantation owners with one purpose in mind.

A determination was made that all the white residents of those homes would be slain, including women and children, because rebellion is harsh and harsh rebellion takes no prisoners.

The Southampton Insurrection was in fact a crepuscular moment in a series of movements leading to the end of slavery in the United States.

There were over twenty suppressed rebellions in all.  Navtheless, this rebellion sent a strong message to those bystanders unwilling to consider the abolition of slavery.  

Three hundred years.

In certain circumstances, lessons must be taught, messages must be absorbed, and enlightened steps must be taken in the pursuit of human justice.    

Certainly, a lot of human beings died on this day, August 21, 1831, white and black, although black lives were mostly lost as an act of reprisal, not counted, and one last act of indignation. 

Art of Wordz presents the World Premiere of Nat Turner:  Following Faith, written by Paula Neiman, directed by Dan Martin, and produced by Paula Neiman & Vanja Renne in association with Rogue Machine Theatre at Theatre/Theater through December 6th, 2015.

The play suggests that Nat Turner (Tarnue Massaquoi) had free blood in him, that he is the creation of a free man raping his mother.  The rape was an indecorous act resulting in horrible imprecations.   

And on October 2, 1800, moments after Nat’s birth, his mother Nancy (Sade Moore) takes his body, swathed in rags, places him in a bucket of water and tries to end his life before her mother, Bridget (Baadja-Lyne Ouba), and Bridget’s father, Hubbard (Darius Dudley), sojourns her deed.

“A baby is a gift of God.” – Bridget

Within the room, the nurturing light of a newborn is offset by the darkness of death, and we are made aware of the execution of Gabriel Prosser (Asante Jones), a blacksmith, who on October 10, 1800 was executed for planning a slave rebellion in Richmond, Virginia.  

Prosser appears as though he were a vision, or a dream, a symbolic coruscation of freedom.  He narrates as a poetic raconteur of the truth. And he is always watching Nat, who, now in a childlike bliss and with an ethereal smile, is unaware of the relationships that will develop later in life, especially those with his white counterparts.  

The words came to Nat, it is as if he knew how to read and write without learning.  And, seeing the shadows of freedom he reported having “visions” or suggestions by unknown voices encouraging him to follow the path of liberty.  

“… I surely would be a prophet, as the Lord had shewn me things that had happened before my birth.” -  Nat Turner - The Confessions of Nat Turner by Thomas Gray

Slave owner Benjamin Turner (Darrell Philip) wants to know how Nat learned to read.

“It just came to me.” – Nat

Nat says it innocently, seemingly unaware of the repercussions of sharing this knowledge. (This is a very interesting moment, but says little about Nat’s relationship to Ben Turner and where it’s all leading.)  Still Benjamin gives him the Bible to study and read.

And still the image of Gabriel Prosser, and his legend, is prevalent throughout.  And these ideas whispered, learned, handed down by nothing more than osmosis, were circulated among those in bondage.   It is a lesson of insurrection that Nat instinctively pursues.

Paula Neiman, the writer, presents a stimulating play, one that has me searching for more information on Nat Turner’s insurrection. Certainly, the play is presented in a grand historical fashion.  But the connection between Gabriel Prosser and Nat Turner is diaphanous; a solid connection is recommended. Secondly, there is a strong visual throughout the play of marching, and it is that march toward freedom that we must see in the writing. Also, the Prophet’s speeches must be uplifting and the words need to find ground, inspiration from the ground up, to give us the power Nat Turner had. It is a story about following faith, as the title implies, but that faith must feed the Prophet in order for the audience to get the most out of the event.  

The acting in this production is well above par.  Their strengths are in the power of their voices and in the nuance of a moment. Most of the actors take on numerous roles and in various wonderful costumes by Mauva Gacitua, Costume Designer.

“And about this time I had a vision – and I saw white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle, and the sun was darkened – the thunder rolled in the Heavens, and blood flowed in streams – and I heard a voice saying, “Such is your luck, such you are called to see, and let it come rough or smooth, you must surely bare it.” – Nat Turner - The Confessions of Nat Turner by Thomas Gray

Tarnue Massaquoi does a nice turn as Nat Turner, taking the role from a very young age to the time of his death.  Massaquoi has a strong stage aura.  But Massaquoi must find the power in Nat Turner’s words, the power that have the ability to lead 70 men.  Also, Turner is a spiritual man who looked for symbols in events.  (It’s odd that we don’t see him in prayer.) Still, Massaquoi should be searching for those symbols on stage. But, these are just a few things to add to an already fine performance.

Assante Jones is Gabriel Prosser, the narrator of the truth.  Jones has a strong presence and makes it a point to have a deep connection so that one understands that truth.

Baadja-Lyne Ouba is Bridget as well as other women. She makes each character separate and unique.  In each role, Ouba brings a passion for humanity and understand the uniqueness of diversity of each individual character.

Darrell Philip plays William Parker and a number of other roles in the ensemble and did a fine job although it is a task to get a fix on the craft when an actor comes in and out in many roles.

“The judgment of the court is, that you be taken hence to the jail from whence you came, thence to the place of execution, and on Friday next, between the hours of 10:00A.M. and 2 P.M. be hung by the neck until you are dead! dead! dead! And may the Lord have mercy upon your soul.” – Judge Jeremiah Cobb, Esq. Chairman - The Confessions of Nat Turner by Thomas Gray

Dennis Delsing plays the Jerusalem, Virginia Judge Cobb, who declares Nat Turner to be “dead, dead, dead”.  Three times dead, not one time, three times in a grand southern accent.   

Sade Moore is Nancy, Nat’s mother.  Moore is a stunning creature who gives a subtle and brave performance, and she is an actor for which I would rush to see in future performances.  

L - R Tarnue Massaquoi, Dominique Washington

Dominique Washington plays Cherry, Nat Turner’s wife, and is exceptional.

Jaimyon Parker plays Will, the man with the hatchet.  Parker has a very distinctive look on stage and a strong presence.  That aside, he needs to do more work on character, and setting the character in that time. Parker gave us a character from 2015 in the setting of 1831. The work is good but an adjustment must be made.

Jennifer Lieberman does a fine job as Nancy Parson, and presents strong characters in a variety of other roles on stage.  

Sara Davenport does an exceptional job as Mrs. Whitehead and also as a member of the ensemble.

Phrederic Semaj does an excellent job as Hark and has a fantastic voice.  This is also an actor I would like to see in another play.

“You are intended for a great purpose.” - Moses

Terry Woodberry plays Moses, Nat’s father figure who escapes the bondage of slavery never to be seen again. Moses has had it with the beatings and needs to escape, but in a final act, and in an emotional goodbye, this Moses does not lead the slaves from bondage.  Woodberry needs to make more of that moment by giving faith, providing hope, and finally saying goodbye before running off into the unknown.  

Cydney Wayne Davis plays Bridget but did not perform the night I was there. I was disappointed because I always like to get my dose of Davis when she is performing in a play.

Justin Greenberg plays John Clark, the bad guy with the whip.  Also, Hunter C. Smith plays John Clark and served as the Fight Choreographer for some bloodless brutally depicted scenes that were well done on stage.  Marston Fobbs is Jack as well is in the ensemble. Glenn Bond II also plays Jack. And Darius Dudley is Hubbard.

Dan Martin, the director, makes a lot of interesting choices in the direction of the play. And while most of the action was pleasurable to watch, more could have been made to bring the actors downstage, in their glory, rather than having the action taking place far stage left (e.g., the rocking chair scene), and far upstage left (e.g., the birth).  Also, Nat Turner should be downstage center as well as his prison cell, that places him in a pressured environment while the judge and others convict him, rather than having him on the upstage wall.  Also, Martin has the men marching on that faithful day, from one house to the next, but we never get a sense (on stage) of what is pushing these men, the force that leads them to do what they do, the background of their lives that propel them.  We just have them marching, blank faced, and without cause. (As audience members we know the reasons, but the actors must bring the backstory into the march.) There is a lot to be had with symbols that carry forth the actor’s intention and that will lead to a stronger conclusion. Still, there is a lot here to enjoy, to learn, and to take stock in.  Certainly, I’ve been enlightened.  

Vanja Renee, Producer, does us a great service in bringing this show to Los Angeles and to this venue.  

Phaedra Harris, Casting Director, must be commended for bringing exceptional talent to this production.

Other members of the crew are as follows:

Tamir Elbassir – Production Stage Manager
Vali Tirsoaga – Scenic Design
Sammie Wayne IV – Light Design
Jaimyon Parker – Sound Design
Louie Zegarra – Graphic Design
Tara Hillary – Make-up Artist
Vanoy Burnough – Casting Consultant
Sheila Gilmore – Marketing Consultant
Philip Sokoloff – Publicist

Run! Run!  And take a history professor with you!  

Reservations: 213-529-5153

Online Ticketing:

5041 W. Pico Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA  90019