The revival of Chavez Ravine by Culture Clash at the Kirk Douglas has come to a close. Every night we had people on their feet during the final bow and I could feel a rush of emotion, knowing that this important story was heard. This was a story that hit close to home for so many people in that theater, on the stage and in the seats. Night after night audience members would share memories of that time period, current practices of eminent domain in their communities, comments about their thoughts on the production, thanks to the cast for their storytelling and questions about the process of the production. It was a town hall every night, a staff member would moderate the discussion and one or two cast members would attend as well.
On the nights that I went out I was pleased to meet a variety of young women whose parents had brought them to the show, ranging from 8 to 15 years old. These were young Latina women who reminded me of myself, their dark brown hair and eyes, their shy smiles. I always thanked the parents for bringing their daughters and would tell the girls “This play was written for you, you are the next generation of Maria’s.” This is why I do the work that I do. To know that the next generation of change makers were in the audience, listening to a story about history and politics and family and land, reinforced the reasons why I am an artist.
Read an interview I did for USC’s Digital News “Neon Tommy” by clicking HERE!
Among the youth, the LA theatre goers and the folks who maybe entered a theatre for the first time, we had some very special guests in the audience. We had local actors and politicians, activists and artists, celebrities and veterans and even people who lived in the area of Chavez Ravine during the time period in which the play takes place.
Lila Downs, a dynamic and beautiful musician, attended the show with her husband/collaborator Paul Cohen. I had the chance to meet them both in the green room after the show, my cheeks were burning from smiling. The music that this woman produces has been a part of my life for some time now. I first encountered her sound while working with Las Meganenas, an all female theatre troupe that I am a part of in Albuququerque, NM. We performed version of her songs in our production and would play her music, along with other Latina greats (Mercedes Sosa, Chavela Vargas, Lhasa) in the house of the various theaters we performed in. Her songs are haunting, folkloric, traditional, bilingual, earthy and full of magic. Her voice is like no other and her version of La Llorona is one of my favorites. She appeared in the movie Frida along with Chavela Vargas and I have always been in awe of her beauty and talent.
On another evening, unbeknownst to me, the widow of Frank Wilkinson was in the audience. The character of Frank Wilkinson is essential to the story of Chavez Ravine, his integrity and later his downfall are displayed by the heartbreaking performance from Richard Montoya. In his final monologue he says: “My name is Frank Wilkinson. I died in 2006. I was 92. One thing I know for sure, I outlived most of those crooked bastards. I love you Donna!” That night, as I watched him from my place on stage I heard Richard’s voice crack with emotion and he delivered those lines in a way I had never heard before. I have to follow his monologue with my own, but before I could speak I had to steel myself before speaking my lines, his delivery has really effected me. As we were taking our final bows we were instructed to stay on stage and Richard pointed to a woman in the audience and said “Is that who I think it is?” She nodded and he continued “Ladies and Gentlemen Donna Wilkinson is here with us tonight!” I just about fell over. She had been in the front row the entire night. She participated in our talk back sharing her thoughts on how necessary housing is still needed in LA, thanking the Culture Clash boys for their truthful and powerful work, and especially their portrayal of her late husband. She is a force, in the small time I was able to speak with her she embraced me and raved about the play. I was deeply honored to have performed for her, to have been on that stage presenting a story in which a her husband’s life was a profound part of.
When I first began my journey into Latino Theatre I was at the University of New Mexico in a Chicano Theatre class. I was reading Jorge Huerta’s books (Chicano Drama & Necessary Theatre) and a collection of Early Works by Luis Valdez. We also explored the work of Carlos Morton, Cherrie Moraga and Guillermo Gomez-Pena, to name a few. I was particularly drawn to one play by Luis Valdez called Bernabe. The main character of this play, named Bernabe, is in love with the earth and the entire play is filled with beautiful magic and heartbreak. I had just begin to explore theatre and acting but in the department there didn’t seem to be enough productions that included Latino/Chicano artists. Some of my classmate in the Chicano Theatre class wrote their own one act plays in the style of Luis Valdez’s actos and they were terrific. I submitted a proposal to the department to direct a show that had three of my classmate’s plays in the first act and Bernabe in the second. I had a cast of 25 actors, most of whom were Latino, and we presented Almas: An Evening of Latino Theatre. Now close to 15 years later I have worked in plays by a number of incredible Latino Playwrights: Lorca, Jose Rivera, Jose Garcia-Davis, Luis Alfaro, Tanya Saracho, Karen Zacarias, Quiara Alegria Judes and now Culture Clash. It’s been an incredible journey that I have ridden with pride and wonder. To have had the opportunity to share my work with one of the Godfathers of Chicano Theatre was a major milestone for me in my career. I was thrilled to share with Luis and Lupe that I directed one of his plays back in the day, during my first steps towards my development as a Teatrista.
Living in the story of Chavez Ravine since December 29th was an honor, a blessing, a challenge, a joy and a very necessary part of my path as an artist. I learned from Culture Clash the importance of comedy in storytelling and how much research goes into working on a piece involving untold and untaught history. I am forever thankful to the artists involved in this show, from the actors and musicians on stage to the dressers and crew behind the scenes. I am especially thankful to the producers, education departments and staff at Center Theatre Group for believing in Chicano Theatre being produced at such a high level and with great outreach to the community and students. There is great work being done at the Kirk Douglas Theatre and I am proud to have played that stage.