The power of 'pluribus' plays

cam-mini1.jpgJoe Ngo ​and Brooke Ishibashi in "Cambodian Rock Band." Photo: ​Tania Thompson/SCR.

The family unit used to be the lodestone for serious American playwrights. Yet judging from recent offerings in LA, those who run America's theaters increasingly want plays involving larger social groups, with at least some visible roots outside America. They want writers who'll explore how and why these characters arrived in America, how they fit or don't fit into the national culture.

These plays can still revolve around a focal point of one particular family, but a wider context raises the stakes, in an era when immigration and assimilation issues are on the front burner.

Take the premiere of "Cambodian Rock Band," at South Coast Repertory. Lauren Yee's play is about a man who fled the Khmer Rouge in the '70s and managed to surface in Massachusetts. There, he raised an American daughter - all grown up in 2008 -- who has returned to her father's previous country in order to help prosecute a Khmer Rouge prison commandant. Little does she know about her father's personal connection to this war criminal.

It sounds grim, and parts of it are indeed bleak. But the title is our big clue about how Yee manages to make this play lively in the face of death, joyful in the face of profound sorrow.

In a flashback to 1975 in Phnom Penh, the script focuses on the teenagers in an American-influenced rock band -- including the future Massachusetts father, just before the Khmer Rouge took charge and enforced an ideology that forbade such Western lures as rock music. This emphasis on the band requires a cast who can credibly perform cover versions of early-'70s Cambodian pop (and more recent but similarly inspired compositions by the LA-based band Dengue Fever) and then also portray themselves or other characters in 1978 and 2008.

Under the direction of Chay Yew, Joe Ngo does a remarkable double turn, toggling between the younger would-be rock star and the middle-aged immigrant and dad (Ngo appears to be the only cast member who is actually descended from parents who fled the Khmer Rouge). Daisuke Tsuji also plays only one role, the Khmer Rouge prison commandant, but he doesn't have to age in it. Although the real-life commandant on whom the role is based is still alive, in a Cambodian prison, Yee allows this character to stay young, cynically observing the events from a distance, in a style akin to the use of the emcee in "Cabaret."

Nevertheless, with the valuable assistance of the musical stylings that managed to survive the Khmer Rouge, the play doesn't seem cynical, nor does it even seem sentimental. It feels vibrantly alive. It's much better than "King of the Yees," by the same playwright, which Center Theatre Group produced at the Kirk Douglas Theatre last year. Someday I want to see "Cambodian Rock Band" produced alongside "Harmony," the underrated Barry Manilow musical - which CTG presented at the Ahmanson Theatre in 2014. It's about a pop group who faced the German Holocaust.

None of "Cambodian Rock Band" is set in the United States, but "Allegiance," the musical based on the incarceration of Japanese Americans in remote camps during World War II, is set entirely in the U.S. Of course, American residency and roots weren't enough to provide safety and security for the play's characters. In the early '40s, even Japanese Americans who had never set foot in Japan were regarded as potentially dangerous enemies and lost their homes and freedoms as a result.

Originally produced at the Old Globe in San Diego before a short Broadway run, "Allegiance" is now in its LA premiere at the 880-seat Aratani Theatre in Little Tokyo. It's a welcome co-production of East West Players (whose smaller and much narrower home venue is three blocks away) and Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, under the direction of East West artistic director Snehal Desai.

Allegiance-9.jpgScott Watanabe, George Takei, Jordan Goodsell, Elena Wang and Ethan Le Phong in "Allegiance." Photo: Michael Lamont.

"Allegiance" delves sharply into the friction between two factions within the camps - those who want to prove their loyalty by enlisting in the war effort and those who are so outraged by the discrimination against them that they refuse to sign the government's loyalty oaths. This dispute, personified in the rift between Sammy Kimura (Ethan Le Phong in the 1940s, George Takei in the 21st century) and his sister (Elena Wang) who raised him, provokes misty eyes as well as what-would-I-have-done thoughts.

The performances and production values are impressive, but Jay Kuo's music and lyrics and the book he wrote with Marc Acito and Lorenzo Thione occasionally become heavy-handed, with one especially contrived moment of melodrama interrupting the second act.

"The New Colossus," at Actors' Gang in the Culver City area, takes its title from the Emma Lazarus poem that refers to "huddled masses yearning to breathe free." No wonder. The leading character in this production is not any particular immigrant but rather a "huddled mass" - a group of 12 people who are depicted in the course of an extremely perilous journey toward freedom in America. Each actor's performance is based on a family member's or ancestor's or friend's immigrant journey. But we don't hear many details about these personal stories - and when we do, we usually have to read them in English supertitles.

These characters don't speak a common language or (except in one case) English. They're traveling together, even though they're from different eras - their birth years, listed in the program, range from 1830 to 1984.

This largely word-free production uses group movement to express the inchoate anxieties of these strangers as they wander between unseen dangers, often literally going in circles, sometimes just waiting, occasionally banding together in a common effort to accomplish a small task. The movement never quite crosses over into choreographed dance. Or at least I'm guessing that was the intent, because no choreographer is credited. Presumably the movement was developed by the ensemble and coordinated by director Tim Robbins.

"Colossus" creates an air of quiet suspense. But it remains somewhat abstract until the curtain call, when the actors face us and identify the people who inspired them. Then director Robbins appears and leads a brief audience discussion about our own roots and immigrant journeys. It's one of the only productions I've seen in which the audience talkback seems almost as important as the play itself.

Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun" is one of the classics from the post-World War II era that most clearly connected the dots between one family's story and the larger cultural clashes taking place in America. That's probably why the classics company A Noise Within, in Pasadena, chose to revive it in the current moment. It depicts a black family in the late '50s, trying to use the deceased patriarch's life insurance to buy a house in the previously whites-only neighborhood of Clybourne Park in Chicago.

Of course Hansberry's characters weren't immigrants per se; their ancestors had been forcibly brought to America as slaves. Different generational attitudes toward Africa, which doesn't much interest the matriarch but fascinates her daughter, are among the topics Hansberry explored.

Director Gregg T. Daniel converts this "Raisin" back into a fresh grape. By the way, A Noise Within has explicitly paired "Raisin" in repertory with a brisk, inventive rendition of Shakespeare's "Henry V," powerfully staged by ANW artistic director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and Geoff Elliott. Why? Well, both Henry (Rafael Goldstein) and "Raisin" protagonist Walter Lee (Ben Cain) are young men who are seeking to use the legacy they inherited to accomplish something big and vital that they can call their own. They have to rely on previously untouched reserves of eloquence to get the job done, during a moment of crisis. They succeed. So does A Noise Within.

And elsewhere...

art-couple.jpgPlaywrights can also juxtapose different famous people as well as different groups. In "The Art Couple" at Sacred Fools Theater's Broadwater complex, Brendan Hunt places an already famous Neil Simon and an unknown Sam Shepard into the same room so that they can collaborate on what Hunt imagines was an early draft of Simon's "The Odd Couple" -- in which the characters were not Felix and Oscar but rather Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh, who actually were roommates in Arles, France for nine weeks in 1888.

The ingenuity and wit here are abundant. If I had to choose, however, I'd still pick Hunt's "Absolutely Filthy," his 2013 play with adult characters loosely inspired by the "Peanuts" people. As an actor, Hunt hula-hooped throughout "Filthy" with unforgettable results, although his brusque van Gogh in this play is very funny, too.

In my last column, I wrote that I wouldn't comment on the recent trilogy of "Elliot" plays by Quiara Alegría Hudes until after I had seen all three. All are now closed, and I have to join the chorus of disappointment. The best production was the first, "Elliot: a Soldier's Fugue", directed by Shishir Kurup at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, but at the time it felt like a mere prelude to the presumably meatier "Water by the Spoonful" at the Taper and "The Happiest Song Plays Last" at LATC.

The opening night of "Water" was plagued by an actor's missed entrance, followed by an unplanned five-minute pause that put a damper on the rest of "Water." Also, this production's Elliot sounded too different from the Elliots in the other plays. "Happiest Song" is the least cohesive of the plays, and consequently the least memorable, or so it seemed at LATC.

Why did this trilogy receive a collaboration between CTG and LATC's Latino Theater Company, when the two companies might have joined forces much more easily and successfully on an effort to spread Evelina Fernandez's "A Mexican Trilogy, An American Story" beyond the relatively small audience that saw it at LATC, where it premiered in its trilogy format in 2016?

I'll speculate that the answer to that question is probably that "Water by the Spoonful" somehow won the Pulitzer Prize, while "A Mexican Trilogy" or its components never had a reasonable chance of competing for the Pulitzer. But Fernandez's work is easily the better trilogy, and part of it is set in Los Angeles - yet another reason to revive it for a wider, different LA audience. Unfortunately I'm afraid that the failure of the Hudes trilogy could now postpone the return of "Mexican Trilogy" for years to come.

On a brighter note, Sarah Jones' "Sell/Buy/Date" at the Geffen Playhouse is my favorite solo show so far in 2018, with large doses of insight, virtuosity, humor and humanity - and many diverse American women and men from many backgrounds, all embodied by the astonishing Jones.

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