Remembering the Hills of Chavez Ravine…
Culture Clash’s remount of Chavez Ravine at the Kirk Douglas Theatre is up and running! We opened to a fantastic audience and this past week presented four student matinee’s to Los Angeles High School and Middle School students. (Watching a theatre cast and crew perform at 11am can be very entertaining, a show within a show, and it is proof that we really love what we do despite the exhaustion!) This is an incredibly important part of Los Angeles history, a history that is rarely told. Center Theatre Group (CTG) does an incredible job of informing their audiences with background information of the play. There are opportunities to share their memories, views and responses in various activities and resources online and in the lobby before and after the show. To read an interview with Culture Clash click HERE, and for a glimpse into Los Angeles history surrounding the time period of the play click HERE.
I myself had never visited the Chavez Ravine area, let alone attended a Dodger Game. The weekend before we opened my parents came for a visit and on my day off we hit the beach for some whale watching then decided to drive toward the stadium. We first drove by the Chavez Ravine Arboretum. According to the City of Los Angeles website: ” The Chavez Ravine Arboretum in Elysian Park was founded in 1893 by the Los Angeles Horticultural Society. Planting of rare trees in the Arboretum through the 1920s. Most of the Arboretum’s original trees are still standing in their regal grandeur. Many of the trees are the oldest and largest of their kind in California and even the United States . ” It was a beautiful and peaceful area, and as we drove closer to the stadium we were able to see a few houses that may have been from the original neighborhoods before the area was cleared for the stadium. We followed the signs and eventually found the gate to check in and drive up to the stadium and gift shop. We were only able to peek into the stadium from the surrounding gates, but what I was most interested in was the view from the hill overlooking the City of Angels.
I tried to imagine a smaller skyline, more trees and dirt. I tried to see from the eyes that inhabited that little piece of land filled with such struggle. I had the black and white images from Don Normark’s book flashing in my mind’s eye, photos that are predominantly used in our production’s scenic design. I kept thinking of the long path to the top of the hill, a path that many must have walked with groceries, with their children in tow, returning from work. The sun was setting, and the February full moon was rising in the east, it was a breathtaking view. I looked through the chain link fence and pointed out to my parents the various buildings my character names in the play, City Hall, the LA Times, Walt Disney Center, Our Lady of Angels Cathedral and the Department of Water and Power. All buildings I had seen before in the years I have been living in Los Angles, each of these places now taking on a more significant and haunted meaning.
I have a very strong connection to two parts of this show, organizing and baseball. My character Maria, who shares the same name as my mother, is a strong young Chicana who finds her voice and her purpose during the fight for Chavez Ravine. She is an organizer, activist and at the end of the play a professor. My mother is all of these things and more. When I first read the scenes for the audition I was amazed at how much this character reminded me of her. The play begins and ends with the 1981 Dodger game against the Houston Astros when Fernando Valenzuela, a 20 year old left handed pitcher from Mexico, pitched a perfect game. My father was an all state third baseman, and along with his best friend (who is now my Uncle) they took the state championship their senior year of high school in Albuquerque, NM. My father was drafted for professional baseball after high school, but then enlisted in the Marines and served two tours in Vietnam. I knew they each would connect to the play on a personal level and I couldn’t wait for them to see it!
An added bonus to discovering my connections to this story is that one of my Uncles, who married my father’s sister, is related to a family from the Chavez Ravine area and my great uncle from my mother’s side worked for a construction company in Los Angeles that built Dodger Stadium.
We had a talk back the other night and I was asked if I was scared to take on the role of Maria. I answered that it is a challenge to take on any role, to attempt to truthfully portray what is intended in the writing. I added that with this role I also feel an added responsibility to my bloodline, my ancestors, my genetic memory and I know the universe reveals the stories I am supposed to tell. With the spirit of those before me I take the stage each night. Honoring this connection within myself is what has helped me rise to the challenge of taking in the role of Maria.
My character breaks the fourth wall with a final monologue that reveals what the fight for Chavez Ravine meant to her. She concludes with, "Struggle was my gift, it made me the Chicana I am today. So, do me a favor, remember Chavez Ravine eh?" Maria is a symbol in this play for the youth, the next generation of organizers, activists, teachers and fighters. She is a reflection of those who are continuing to blaze trails, carrying the torch and breaking new ground. She reminds us that whatever cause affects us, we can do something about it, we can stand up, that everyone has the right to be seen and heard. This is especially true when it comes to matters of community, land, home, history, spirit and dignity.
Amidst the political satire, the quick changes in to various costumes, the incredible live music, the occasional ad-libbing and the re telling of history lesson we are continuing a sacred tradition of storytelling. We are conjuring up memory, paying homage to those who have left before us. We are giving people a chance to visit the hills of Chavez Ravine, a moment to think about what they would fight tooth and nail for, a space to remember places and people they have lost. Every night I hear the audience react with laughter, gasps, tears and applause and I know that the ghosts of the hills are present and participating in our ritual. The hill is alive and well in all of our hearts and souls.