I’m very grateful to have the opportunity to see a lot of new plays and musicals. However, it’s an unfortunately rare experience, given that I see so much, that something really blows me away – particularly, I’m sorry to say, in Los Angeles. And it’s an even rarer experience to have it happen twice in one month.
Last night I saw Cornerstone Theater Company’s production of Cafe Vida, created in partnership with Homeboy Industries and Homegirl Cafe and presented by the Latino Theater Company. Cornerstone’s unique brand of theatre incorporates individuals from the community to help tell their own stories. Sometimes this can make for messy theatre, but often it makes for extremely exciting theatre, especially when those stories are deftly structured by an accomplished playwright, as Cafe Vida was by Lisa Loomer.
Directed by Michael John Garces, it tells the story of two Latinas from two enemy barrios in Los Angeles, who are forced to interact after being released from prison and joining Cafe Vida – a community outreach program (like Homeboy Industries and Homegirl Cafe) that provides hope, training, and support to fomerly gang-involved and recently incarcerated men and women, allowing them to redirect their lives and become contributing members of our community through restaurant services and culinary arts.
Most of the actors are from Homeboy Industries and provide raw, unpolished, but stunningly frank performances of, in some cases, their own life stories. And these are not easy life stories to tell. But this type of work is in essence what all theatre aspires to – the spilling forth of personal truths, truths that are almost larger-than-life in their drama and danger, truths worthy of the stage.
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The Convert takes places during the British occupation of Zimbabwe (1895), and tells the story of a young African woman, who comes to live with a Christian African missionary in order to survive an undesired fate in her tribe community, pitting ancient African traditions against Western culture and Christianity.
Directed by Emily Mann, it’s a riveting three act play, that also highlights theatre at its best – no flashy sets (though beautiful!), no flashy costumes, no flashy word play and wit – but honest, engaging characters thrust into dynamic conflict with each other and the worlds around them.
What is so exciting about each of these plays, is that they each make incredible points without attempting to preach or sucker punch. They are gritty, they are daring, and they are unapologetic. It is not pretty, or tv-worthy. It is not white and middle class. It is humanity caught in the struggle of life. This is theatre. This is theatre.
(Photo credit: Lynette Alfaro, by John Luker; the cast of The Convert, by T. Charles Erickson)