World Premiere of Play Based on Esteemed Memoir “Always Running”
It got a standing ovation on opening night recently and it was well deserved. It just may keep pulling in satisfied audience by the time its run is complete at the end of October. “It” is the play that’s based on the iconic memoir by Luis J. Rodriguez. His slightly fictionalized memoir, “Always Running: La Vida Loca—Gang Days in L.A.,” has long served as a lodestone for those seeking social and cultural perspective on the historical draw, influence and consequence of cholo life in California. It is a life often permeated by street drugs and violence. (Something that the cops and the authorities demonstrably contribute to in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.)
The book, first published in 1993, remains a valuable window into a cultural world and irrefutable evidence of Rodriguez’s artistry with words. In some circles he’s best known as a dazzling poet. He has published several volumes of verse and he served as the Poet Laureate of Los Angeles in 2014. He draws on his poetry and other literary works in his workshops with “at risk” kids and with young men who are grim statistics in this country’s pernicious phenomenon of mass incarcerations.
“Poetry is sort of my biggest love,” says Rodriguez, “but memoir is very important to me too.” He tells me he was eager to be affiliated with Josefina Lopez’s eastside theater and to collaborate in the adaptation of his storied memoir. Lopez is the founder and artistic director of the theater called Casa 0101. He rolled up his sleeves and collaborated on the adaptation from the memoir with director Hector Rodriguez (no relation). Luis says, “I was glad to have the opportunity to be involved in the process – in adapting the book for the play and working with the director and actors throughout the process.” He says, “We agreed that we wanted to create and emphasize the authenticity of the period – the sixties and seventies in those (Chicano) communities. As the play took shape I would make suggestions at rehearsals and Hector would incorporate those things. So, I’m pleased with the project.”
Audiences on opening night were clearly pleased. The minimalist but expressive set design allowed for seamless action on stage. Creative lighting and on-the-money sound design utilizing a cornucopia of songs from Oldies to eastside pop hits to corridos contribute mightily to the production’s success. If there were any doubt that Chicano/Latino actors are as talented as any other actors, that is dispelled with the performances of the likes of Rufino Romero, Joshua Nicholas, Rachel Lemos and Haylee Sanchez. Fine actors all – contributing to a satisfying night of theater.
But of course, the play is the thing. The words are the foundation. And, for the most part, the script succeeds. It’s difficult to adapt a skyscraper of a book into a casita of a play while maintaining the essence of the original and accommodating to a new and substantially different format. So many words, so little time. Yet the skill is in the economy of the words. The audience liked what it heard.
The production successfully avoids the potential trap of cliché and proselytizing. Hard to do when characters grapple with issues such as the dead-end lure of drugs and the ultimately pointless chingazos reminiscent of a Hatfield-McCoy deadly generational dispute. The speeches in the play sometimes get close to the edge of political posturing, but step back from the line just in the nick of time. Realism and believability are the result.
The play focuses on a relationship between two characters, with a dynamic and complex background of characters and actions, who confront the themes of identity, community, independence and survival in a sometimes-hostile urban world. It’s a relationship between a troubled young man and a sincere adult who works to counsel him to seek the best in himself as he flails from one act of self-destruction to another. The young man in the play, named alternately Chin and Louie, is a representation of Luis J. Rodriguez. The interplay between the two is effective and it is the prism through which to examine vital concerns in the Chicano community. Fine actors. Solid dialogue. The other actors do a solid job of contributing to and illuminating the context in which the action occurs.
A dimension missing from the play is Rodriguez’s evolving political perspective, as revealed in the memoir. We’re talking about a realization that the oppression and alienation and powerlessness that strangle Chicano barrios are not accidental phenomena. They are consequences of political and, particularly, economic structures that strive to keep us in place. A fundamental restructuring of the economic system is required. Rodriguez understands that, but the play avoids that perspective.
The play is not a fairytale, but there are glimmers of hope. After all, without hope, there is nothing.
The play “Always Running,” is on stage at the cozy Boyle Heights Casa 0101 Theater. (There must be a more marquee-dazzling name for a theater than that; however the quality of the productions there belies the skeletal name of that important little theater.) It will run through the end of October and Luis J. Rodriguez will be present for question-and-answer sessions on Sunday matinees.
Information is available at www.Casa0101.org.
Copyright 2019 by Luis R. Torres. To contact Luis write him at: Luis.firstname.lastname@example.org. Torres is an award-winning journalist and author of Dona Julia’s Children, a biography of civil right activist Vahac Mardirosian. He is currently writing a book on the life of political pioneer Gloria Molina.