Top two photos: Riot/Rebellion at the Mafundi Institute.
Watts Village Theater Company is observing the 50th anniversary of its community's most famous historical moment with "Riot/Rebellion," an ensemble-driven documentary-style production.
So far this summer, the production could be seen only in Watts. In August it played the Mafundi Institute on 103rd Street. And on Sept. 11-13, it will migrate a few blocks to the Watts Labor Community Action Committee (WLCAC) headquarters on South Central.
Then, for one week in September, it will move to Los Angeles Theatre Center's 320-seat Theatre 3 in the heart of downtown LA, in association with Latino Theater Company (September 24, 25, 26, plus excerpts from it in a Sept. 22 event).
I saw it last weekend at the Mafundi, where it was presented in a makeshift configuration in the middle of a gym, with limited audience seating in folding chairs. Still, the venue provided intimacy, as well as room for a fluid, immersive staging by Deena Selenow. The six-member cast displays propulsive energy and sharp precision, with each actor playing many roles.
The Mafundi location also allowed those of us who seldom go to Watts to contrast the turbulence that's depicted in the production with the calm that appeared to prevail in the leafy streets of Watts, at least on this particular Sunday afternoon. But obviously the primary rationale for the Mafundi and WCCAC performances are that they're more immediately accessible to the residents of Watts than those at LATC or any other venue.
However, the transfer to LATC will have its own advantages. Besides whatever aesthetic edge might emerge from the use of a professional stage with sharply raked seating (and therefore unobstructed sight lines), a run at LATC clearly acknowledges the fact that the events recalled from 1965 weren't important only in one small corner of LA. They became a landmark in the histories of Los Angeles and the United States. Also, considering that the majority of the current Watts population is Latino, it makes sense for the production to be presented under the auspices of the city's primary Latino-oriented theater company.
Donald Jolly's script, assembled from many real-life sources as a nod toward the "docu" in the blended word "docudrama", succeeds in steering us through a panoramic look at what happened and why. It respects the ambiguity of the events, offering three different interpretations of the confrontation that sparked the riots/rebellion.
Although none of the actors are from Watts and most of them look as if they weren't even born in 1965, their contemporaneity helps connect what happened back then to what has happened in many other confrontations between police and drivers and other citizens during the past year.
The production also honors the "drama" part of "docudrama." Look at Lena Sands' occasionally whimsical costumes - especially those for the three men who keep appearing in the different interpretations of the initial incident - and all the quick-stepping movement to sound tracks of the era.
Ending after little more than an hour, with no intermission, "Riot/Rebellion" uses a wide-angle lens more often than a zoom. Some of the specific personalities in the production are vivid enough that they could warrant a bit more time than they get.
However, if you crave a little more depth after seeing "Riot/Rebellion," a satisfying remedy isn't too far away - the revival of August Wilson's "Fences" at International City Theatre in Long Beach, through Sept. 13.
Actually, for chronological coherence, it would be better to see "Fences" first. It's set in Pittsburgh in the late '50s (with a final scene in 1965), not LA in the '60s. By focusing on one family and allowing a longer running time, it more deeply explores the restrictions on the era's African Americans and their subsequent resentments. This tension then found release in the '60s - not only in the violence of Watts but also in the civil rights legislation that was happening concurrently. "Fences" helps clarify why the events of "Riot/Rebellion" happened.
In Gregg T. Daniel's staging of "Fences," Michael Shepperd is a powerhouse as Troy Maxson, the former Negro Leagues baseball player whose primary professional ambition now is to rise up the garbage collection ranks - from collector to driver. Shepperd, who is perhaps better known as one of the artistic directors of Celebration Theatre, is almost exactly the same age as Troy is at the beginning of the play, and he brings remarkable vitality to every facet of Troy's towering but troubled personality. As Troy's wife, Karole Foreman is a formidable match.
A WEST SIDE STORY
I appreciate the fact that "Riot/Rebellion" was produced in the same neighborhood where it's set, so I probably should note that "Café Society," a rental production at the Odyssey Theatre, is also explicitly set in its own neighborhood. It takes place in a Starbucks that's described as being located on Pico near Sawtelle, which wouldn't be far from the Odyssey in West LA. But this is no docudrama - there is no Starbucks on Pico near Sawtelle. However, the coffee empire does have an outpost even closer to the Odyssey, near Olympic and Sawtelle.
Of course the setting of "Café Society" in a Starbucks somewhat contradicts any sense that this is a neighborhood-specific production. Starbucks branches don't display a lot of variety. Part of the chain's success is surely due to the ability of a Starbucks fan to spot the familiar green and black mermaid logo at a new location and automatically assume that it signals the familiar comforts of any other Starbucks.
In the play, one customer laments that Starbucks took over this location from a tropical fish store - a more distinctive business than any particular Starbucks. But then another customer blithely Googles nearby tropical fish stores and finds another one, not too far away.
Playwright Peter Lefcourt is actually more interested in depicting a collection of rather stereotyped West Siders than he is in making a point about Starbucks. And so we get an amusingly aspiring actress, a hot-to-trot screenwriter, a real estate broker, a libertarian-minded money manager, the minimum-wage-paid barista, a cross-dressing man who imagines that he's a Russian countess and a mysterious young man with a chip on his shoulder. Unfortunately, whoever owned the tropical fish store never shows up - that person might have added a more original perspective to the mix.
In a program note, Lefcourt emphasizes that these people in a café hardly form much of a society, because they're wrapped up in responding to their personal electronic equipment. Sometimes we see their incoming and outgoing texts on a screen. But in fact, they talk to each other more than those in a normal Starbucks, even before they're all forcefully drawn together by a common emergency. I won't reveal the nature of that emergency here, but I will say that Lefcourt has nothing that's truly surprising or revealing up his sleeve.
GAMES OF THRONES
Recently I've seen two plays in which men who lead institutions bring in younger men as potential replacements in the first act, only to see the chosen ones begin to question whether they want to play the game in the second act.
One of these plays, "Patterns," is James Reach's stage adaptation of a 1955 Rod Serling teleplay (which Serling himself also adapted into a feature film). It's a behind-the-scenes look at a New York firm that recruits a promising exec from a smaller company, without informing him that the goal is for him to replace the second-in-command old-timer.
I saw Jules Aaron's staging for Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills too late in its run; it has now closed. But it was richly involving. Although many aspects of big-business culture have certainly changed since 1955, office politics has hardly disappeared - it might even be more brutal now than it was in the days of generous fringe benefits. "Patterns" should be revived in a higher-profile production.
David Rambo, who already experienced high-profile productions of his breakthrough play "God's Man in Texas," has now rented the tiny Blank Theatre in Hollywood in order to direct his own revival of it. The scenario is similar to that of "Patterns." The search committee in a Baptist mega-church/media center/college/school has begun to look for the eventual replacement for the 81-year-old founding pastor. A younger pastor gets the nod only to have serious second thoughts, as he soon finds that the old lion is unwilling to share his lair.
First produced in 1999, "God's Man in Texas" remains a potent examination of power plays behind the altar. It's still refreshing in its concentration on such universal phenomena as aging, ambition, and personality clashes, instead of suggesting the more titillating but too-easy targets of financial and sexual misbehavior.
From what we hear, the church where the play occurs is enormous - in fact, you might find yourself wondering why there aren't one or two associate pastors already waiting in the wings. But by writing parts for only three characters, Rambo made it easier for his play to be produced in venues as small as the Blank, in addition to stages as large as those at the Old Globe and the Geffen, where I saw earlier productions. The audience at the Blank is virtually face to face with these well-intentioned but very human beings.