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|A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
By Jana J. Monji
Rumors drift through a city. Chavez Ravine? Wasn't it named after Cesar Chavez? Weren't needy Latino families cast out of there to make way for the big business of baseball, Dodger Stadium? Sure, that's what someone said. I saw it written up that way in a newspaper the other day. But in Culture Clash's Chavez Ravine, now performing at the Mark Taper Forum, it's not a simple confrontation of an oppressed ethnic group against the bureaucracy of an Old White Boys Club.
Certainly baseball is part of the story. Culture Clash's Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas and Herbert Siguenza resurrect Fernando Valenzuela, who represents one of the Dodger's cross-cultural PR success stories. While Jackie Robinson broke the race barriers playing with the Dodgers, Valenzuela, though not the first Latino player in the big leagues, won over the historical heart of Los Angeleno culture. The signing of the Mexican pitcher with the Dodgers brought on 'Fermandomania. When Valenzuela pitched, game attendance swelled by an extra couple ten thousand or so.
Chavez Ravine begins in 1981 with Valenzuela (played with a goofy dimness by Siguenza) pitching. Dodger radio announcer Vin Scully (Montoya) gives a running commentary. Ghosts from Chavez Ravine's past rise and speak to Valenzuela.
Slowly the community comes to life in brief sketches: family at a turning point, a man about to meet professional disaster and a political puppet brought for a winning performance as mayor. We're back in the late 1940s.
A poet narrator named Manzanar (Siguenza) directly compares himself to the stage manager in Our Town and the starkness of Rachel Hauck's set design suddenly makes sense. Perhaps this collage of real stories told in a loving, tongue-in-cheek, fast food style isn't as satisfying as a traditional play, but it makes issues as easy to swallow as a Dodger dog.
It turns out that Chavez Ravine was named not for Cesar Chavez but for Julian Chavez who lived in the 1840s. A hundred odd years later, the Los Angeles City Council approved a public housing project for 11 sites --one of which was Chavez Ravine. In 1950, a year after its founding, the City Housing Authority informed the twon residents of the housing plan. Eminent domain proceedings began. Henry Ruiz (Salinas), his sister Maria (Eileen Galindo) and their mother (Montoya) have differing needs. The mother wants the comfort of the familiar. The sister is propelled into activism that will shape her future. The war veteran son feels a need to go beyond the narrow confines of this ravine.
The site manager Frank Wilkinson (Montoya) fervently believes in public housing, but in the paranoid 1950s, this sounds suspiciously like communism. In 1952, he is forced to testify before the California Senate Committee of Un-American Activities. He refuses to answer questions, is fired and subsequently supports his family by working as a janitor, the only work he could find. It wass not until 1957 that Chavez Ravine was considered as the possible site for Dodger Stadium but by then only a few families remained in the ravine to resist the eminent domain orders.
Director Lisa Peterson gives this story a ripping pace. If you don't understand Spanish, you won't mind the few seconds of incomprehension (although if you understand some you'll want a more remedial speed).
This isn't a piece that needs pondering and pregnant pauses. After all it, includes the famous Abbott and Costello Who's on first routine, first in English, next in Spanglish and finally in Spanish. There's also a bit of Southern California, Los Angeleno and even LA-culture vulture trivia (for one joke you must know who Gordon Davidson is) so some of the humor may be lost if this production moves on to other national venues. This should be no deterrent since Culture Clash manages to make this play funny while asking provocative questions about the meaning of community and its need.
While there is no dramatic arch as such these comedic sketches cohere and widen our understanding of how McCarthyism's blacklisting shattered the lives of not only the stage and silver screen luminaries, but also ordinary men and women. Even decades later, at the start of a new century, the city of Los Angeles is scarred by this lost battle with Cold War fear. Housing is still too expensive for the average person trying to get by on a minimum wage. According to the Census Bureau reports, Californians spend the highest percentage of their income on rent nationwide. We gained the Dodgers, but the dream of public housing was squashed.
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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