Culture Clashing at the Taper

There's something quintessentially L.A. about going to see live theater at the Music Center. It's a ritual that moves me deeply, that makes me feel part of something bigger, something exalted. And that's important in a big city like ours that has no real central beating heart. The Music Center may be paved in concrete and lack the street life of a real city center, but on a hot summer night, with all the bronzed, dressed up theater-goers sipping cool drinks, the buskers playing their hearts out, the eager anticipatory buzz, it may just be the closest we've got.

I can chart epochs of my life by what I've seen there, starting with "Einstein on the Beach" the Phillip Glass/Robert Wilson extravaganza that reorganized my DNA and left me experiencing the world differently for months after I saw it in the early 1980s.

In June I saw "The Black Rider" at the Ahmanson and felt that same prickling in my spine, the same stirring of my subconscious. I was immediately ensorcelled. I saw it three times, becoming a hopeless fangirl. And despite all the walkouts, there were plenty of us who loved it - I'm thinking of the young girl with the painted face in the front row who told me she'd seen TBR 20 times, or the platinum haired lady next to me who deliriously flung roses onto the stage on closing night, her fifth visit.

(Lest you think I'm some horrible elitist, let me point out that the $20 HotTix are marginally more expensive these days than a movie with popcorn and soda at your local multiplex.)

"I hope you're not going to try to sneak up closer to the stage after intermission," my law-abiding husband said on Tuesday as we walked across the great concrete plaza to the Mark Taper Forum to see Culture Clash's newest play, "Department of Water and Power."

"There is no intermission," I said. "Besides, the theater's so small that every seat's good."

The play's still in previews, so we got great $30 seats that were front and center. David and I have been fans of Culture Clash since we saw them at a theater in Hollywood in 1992, where they put on an amazingly funny, acerbic show that didn't shrink from taking on such loaded themes as the riots that had devastated L.A earlier that year. That's what I love about Ric Salinas, Richard Montoya and Herbert Siguenza -- they're not afraid to tackle sacred cows. They realize that if you can laugh about things, you can begin to move on. They're kind of like the inverse of the movie "Crash," where it was all about race. In a Culture Clash play, the jokes about race and class and culture are kind of an ambient given. They're salty and irreverent, but they're just part of the tapestry, the background noise, while people go about their real business.

Maybe it's telling that the joke on Tuesday night that got the most laughs was a comment that a Mexican-American character tosses of about Armenians. It was just the sort of off-the-cuff idiotic remark that people make when they think no one is listening. It struck me as I sat in the dark that the audience was laughing at the cholo who made the comment, not with him. But it's typical of the theater troupe's bravado that they wrote it at all. And lest Armenians get upset, just about everybody else in the city also came in for a spanking - cops, DAs, gangbangers of all colors, politicians, labor activists, gays, people from Brentwood.

I don't know about y'all, but I love seeing live theater that makes sly jokes about how "Gloria" would never allow a prison to be built in East L.A. and how our Mayor got kicked out of Cathedral High School (even though David, a Cathedral High alumnus, thinks that Villaraigosa wasn't expelled, he dropped out). The boys must have been re-writing the play until a few weeks ago -- one character even warns another about how he'd better watch out or he'll have Darryl Hannah chaining herself to a tree in protest, a reference to the blond actress's recent support of a community garden in South L.A. that got her written up in the press.

In a nutshell, "Department of Water and Power" is about a Mexican-American DWP ditch-digger who names his twin sons Water and Power and instills in them a belief for a better life. One twin grows up to be a cop; the other becomes a state senator. On a dark and stormy night in a seedy motel room on the eastern edge of Sunset Boulevard, the brothers meet to hash out a violent destiny of murder, betrayal, dashed hopes, corruption and ultimately, filial love.

Culture Clash has traveled far from where they started as an activist comedy troupe - although their humor remains intact. In 2003 their brilliant and ambitious "Chavez Ravine" explored the stories of two poor Latino neighborhoods whose residents were uprooted from their homes so that Dodger Stadium could be built. "Chavez Ravine" excavated a shameful chapter in our city's history and was a monumental undertaking.

It struck such a chord that after seeing it on a hot summer night several years ago, I was inspired to write a novel called "Savage Garden." My book is not about Culture Clash, but I drew indirect inspiration from the play, the playwrights and the theatergoing experience. Sitting at a table and sipping a glass of wine as le tout LA milled about, I imagined how dramatic it would be if the lead actress failed to show up on opening night of a play by an acclaimed Latino playwright at the Mark Taper Forum. Foul play, of course, would be immediately suspected, and I had my opening chapter. It's that kind of magic that L.A. and live theater create for me.

More by Denise Hamilton:
Previous blog post: Just another Thursday
Next blog post: Marilyn Monroe, California girl
Recently on Native Intelligence
New at LA Observed