Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Two reviews. Taix time. On-Line Floricanto.

Review: American Night: The Ballad of Juan José. 

Richard Montoya, developed by Culture Clash and Jo Bonney. American Night: The Ballad of Juan José. La Jolla's Potiker Theatre through February 26, 2012.

At Culver City's Kirk Douglas Theatre, March 9 – April 1, 2012.

Michael Sedano

Every couple of years I drive down to San Diego to attend a play, but I will not readily drive across L.A. to attend plays. Dago holds many nostalgic memories for me so going there is a sentimental journey. Besides, for me, the best places in El Lay for theatre are closer to the Eastside: the Los Angeles Theatre Center downtown, or the main stage of the Mark Taper Forum on Bunker Hill.

Prior to last weekend, my previous drive down to the La Jolla playhouse on the UCSD campus was to enjoy Culture Clash’s Zorro in Hell in advance of its playing Los Angeles. This year it was my turn to take in Culture Clash’s American Night: The Ballad of Juan José.

Great news, American Night: The Ballad of Juan José is heading north. Unbelievably sad news: not to the Taper main stage.

Zorro came to the Taper main stage, one of those rare genius decisions by Michael Ritchie, the fellow currently in charge at the Taper. Now Ritchie, in a stroke of semi-genius, is bringing American Night: The Ballad of Juan José north. In March, it plays the far edge of the continent in the Taper’s Culver City sucursal, the awkward and uncomfortable back-of-the-bus 317-seat Kirk Douglas. The Taper seats 700.

How typically Ritchie. After a few of these backhands, I begin to see something nefarious, not chowderheadedness. Ritchie’s chosen to shut out 400 people per show. Ritchie knows L.A.’s raza audience numbers in the millions. Gordon Davidson packed the house for Zoot Suit, both in its world premier staging in the New Theatre for Now Festival, then again in Zoot Suit’s fabulous regular season run. Obviously, a theatre director who cares about attracting new nalgas to fill seats can do it. But the teatro has to want to bring us in. Given effective marketing, L.A.’s Eastside gente would flock to the Taper’s nearby Bunker Hill location--the subway goes there, even. But, no way, Juan José, we’re not welcome any more, not with this guy.

American Night: The Ballad of Juan José resonates with any audience, though I suspect so much of the code-switching fun will be lost on most Westsiders. On our side of town, American Night: The Ballad of Juan José would be not only accessible entertainment, but also an inspiring educational vehicle. If you engage the play, citizen and aspirant alike learn the answers to some of the questions on the citizenship test.

What are the names of the original 13 colonies? Name the three branches of government. How many Amendments does the US Constitution contain? How many pendejos sit in the House of Representatives? What is the price of "playing by the rules?"

The nation puts immigrants through a meat grinder.The program offers a 10-item sample. Lots of folks in the audience Friday night were making excuses why they thought it was 20 Amendments, or couldn’t come up with the13th colony. “Y la Georgia!” Juan remembers, and passes the exam. Could a citizen pass the U.S. Citizenship test? Immigrants must study diligently, even obsessively.

That’s the premise. Juan José is going to pull an all-nighter studying his pocket Constitution and flash cards. But sleep takes over, launching Juan José into a series of side-splitting encounters with US History. Theodore Roosevelt killing everything in sight. Bob Dylan and Joan Baez emoting at Woodstock. Australian immigrant Harry Bridges organizing longshoremen in San Francisco Bay. Unknown freedmen saving KKK babies. Jackie Robinson breaking color barriers. A Chicano in Manzanar.

Juan José’s feverish dreams come with a subtext bite: Juan José’s Lydia—the enchanting Stephanie Beatriz--whom he’s left behind in Mexico, invades his dreams in the guise of characters in history. You can learn all that foreign stuff, amor, but don't forget where you belong.

There's Lydia with Lewis and Clark as the teenager Sacachihuahua. She talks funny because she’s wearing a modern retainer in her mouth. She is, after all, a 14-year old single mother. Sitting around the campfire, Juan José pulls out a history of their journey, gives them hope by pointing out all the place names honoring the clueless, eventually successful, adventurers. There’s Lewis this place, Clark that place. Even Sacachihuahua has a couple of geographies honoring her: Squaw Mountain, Panocha Creek.

The audience didn’t get that last one, except for the bilingual trio of women behind me who do a spit take on that and numerous other sly code-switches peppering Montoya’s script.

Indeed, playwright Richard Montoya packs this script densely, loading layer upon layer of funny, hilarious, fiendishly uproarious material. And, of course, the script packs a deadly punch, as all great satire will. There’s so much in the script that I—already suffering depleted memory resources--am overwhelmed, unable to remember all the joys this performance spreads across the stage and out into the audience. Fortunately, Google sells the Oregon version of Montoya’s script. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival commissioned the play.

Montoya’s not the only shining star in the production, he and Herb sparkle. Absent is CC co-founder Ric Salinas.

The play closes brilliantly with Stephanie Beatriz’ poignant solo. Her pitch-perfect pure soprano voice accompanied by soft ukulele chords burns into the audience’s hearts with the Patience and Prudence oldie, “Tonight, You Belong To Me.”

The script doesn’t credit a music arranger, but someone deserves credit for adding rests after the song’s opening line, “Tonight, you be-lo-o-o-o-onng…” And the word “belong” hangs there dangling off the end of a chord, four beats awash with telling ambiguity. “…To me-e-e-e-eee” the abandoned wife insists helplessly.

For the audience, palpable tension builds in the four-beat silence of the rest, Lydia's unstated fear that, in the face of citizenship’s place-switching allure, her husband belongs not to her anymore. The audience exits with tears in their eyes, humming that tune.

René Milián plays the whelmed, never overwhelmed, title character perfectly. Director Jo Bonney and Set Designer Neil Patel achieve equal brilliance from the opening blackout to Herbert Sigüenza's Neil Diamante glitzy production number, “Coming to America,” and that last solo. Lighting Designer David Weiner’s and Choreographer Ken Roht’s work complement this fabulous script, making American Night: The Ballad of Juan José a superb entertainment not to be missed, even if audiences have to drive all the way across town. 

Review:  The Last Days Of Ptolemy Grey. 

Walter Mosley. The Last Days Of Ptolemy Grey. New York : Riverhead Books, 2010.
ISBN 9781594487729 1594487723

Michael Sedano

Readers are fickle. Walter Mosley used to be my favorite Los Angeles writer, then I failed him. At first, I devoured every Easy Rawlins novel I could buy or borrow. In a series of novels, Rawlins arrives back in L.A. after WWII to set matters right in his community. Using righteous homegrown justice, Easy at first serves his community as a detective malgre lui, then as Mosley builds the character, Rawlins becomes an out-and-out private dick for hire. A Little Yellow Dog stands as the masterpiece of this wondrous series.

Mosley next introduces Socrates Fortlow, a superb fellow with arresting storyline. Unlike the situations Rawlins works into and out of again, Fortlow’s plots suffered from too much contrivance. The Easy Rawlins stories that followed those Fortlow titles progressively lost my interest. Discovering myself less engaged with his stories, I relegated Mosley’s newer works onto the “to be read if I get time” list.

Now I discover that Mosley’s contriving pluma produced a masterpiece back in 2010, The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey. (My paperback version in 2011). And talk about contrivance: old Confederate gold, a money-changer with a heart of gold, generational change, hard-edged innocence, evil clowns, well-deserved ass-kickings, a 90-year old man’s dementia miraculously reversed by the Devil’s illegal medical experimentation.

Walter Mosley is back. And wow. Especially compelling is the writer’s ability to reflect the ravaged displacements of dementia as seen through the disabled person’s fragile synapses.

Turning his eyes to the other side of the bed took all of his concentration. He saw and registered and forgot many things on his way. (275)

Equally arresting is the writer’s skill fashioning paragraphs holding time-future as past, and other writer’s gems that sound like this:

“The older you get the more you live in the past," Coy intoned like a minister introducing his sermon. "Old man like me don’t have no first blue sky or thunderstorm or kiss. Old man like me don’t laugh at the taste of a strawberry or smell his own stink and smile. You right there in the beggin’ when everything was new and true. My world is made outta ash and memories, broken bones and pain.” (166)

Within the covers, this wonderful story will keep readers occupied for a day or two at most because, beautifully written and plotted, once begun, the book is impossible to set down. Outside the book, readers with their own memory issues, elderly neighbors, ageing relatives, worthless trash relatives, find a special linkage between their own existence and this fiction. Would you cut your life expectancy to a month or two, if for that period you were free of dementia and able finally to wrap up a lifetime’s unfinished business?

Ptolemy has a secret treasure but he cannot remember what he knows. He’s sleeping under a table because he long ago sealed the bedroom and hoarded himself into a tightly confined space, a mirror of Ptolemy’s mind. He rarely ventures outside alone nowadays, owing to a local junkie who slaps Ptolemy around and steals his money, once even invading the place to rob him. The grand-nephew who used to look after Ptolemy has been murdered. A grand-niece sends her loutish thief of a son who, to his credit, bullies the junkie and sends her scurrying away, and steals only a portion of his great Uncle’s pension checks.

Enter an angel. Robyn, a beautiful seventeen-going-on-thirty distant relative with a heart of gold and a 5” knife in her purse. What goes around comes around: Robyn is to Ptolemy what Coydog was to the boy. Robyn drives the story by giving Ptolemy back his memory. An orphan living with her auntie and the lout, she’s helplessly desperate to escape to a space of her own. When Robyn digs in and cleans Ptolemy’s disgusting bathroom bare-handed, and then everything else, the newly opened space helps revive some of her uncle’s energy. If she was twenty years older and Ptolemy forty years younger, eros would rule their nest. But it’s puro agapé that grows between them after Robyn moves in.

Coydog is a magnificently contrived character who functions as a kind of prosthesis for Ptolemy’s memory. As the plot needs a new twist, Mosley whips out a Coydog tale. There are lots of them. When the now old man was a tiny boy, he spent significant hours learning from Uncle Coy, who’d taken the boy under his wing though they probably are not related. Coy teaches the boy African history, white people’s behaviors, community wisdom, practical advice, and infects the grown man with a lifetime of nightmares.

Readers, too, will get nightmares when Mosley describes the process of Coy’s lynching by a mob of piggish whites. The little boy, hidden in the forest, looks down on the ugly scene as the white men string up the old thief, stand him on an unsteady crate, pour gasoline on his feet and set them ablaze. Who could ever forget that sight, nor not seek solace in revenge?

Living well is the best revenge. And that’s what Ptolemy sets out to do—not for himself, but keeping a lifetime’s promise to use the treasure to save his people. Whom would you save, if you owned a boxful of old gold coins liberated from a slaveholder? Mosley/Ptolemy answers: those who deserve it.

So, what are just desserts? Who merits saving, who deserves a bullet in the chest? The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey makes the latter question entirely logical. As for who earns being saved from the emptiness of existence in central L.A., that’s the novel. 

TAIX Time in Los Angeles

One of my favorite restaurants in Los Angeles is Taix French Restaurant. Gente will say "tays" but the name sounds more like April 15, se dice "tex."

My first visit to Taix was on a debate trip back in 1963, when Taix was a sawdust-floored picnic-table table d'hôte establishment in the shadow of the Brew 102 building and gas storage tanks where the 101 becomes the 10. Since then, Taix moved to fancy digs in Echo Park, and carpeted the floors.

The restaurant this month honors three 50-year employees with a special celebration prix fixe dinner. The food is superb country chow, the potage alone reason enough to eat there. This month brings a superb  reason to dine at Taix: a display of mutual loyalty between employer and employee that deserves notice.

50th Anniversary Celebration
Jose Fragoso, Fernando Gomez, and Bernard Inchauspe
Wednesday, February 29th, 2012 at 6:00 p.m.
Join us in celebrating a Rare and Unique event.  "50 years of Family, Friends, and Service."  
$75.00 per person (all inclusive) Family Style Dinner.
Paid reservations Only.
Seating is limited.  
Tickets may be purchased starting Tuesday, February 7th, 2012 at our front desk.

Last Chance News

eSe Amor: Great Works of Love

La Bloga supports teatro wherever it is, San Diego or Seattle, East Los or SanJo. Here, for instance, is news of a fundraiser up in Sherman Alexie country.

Quien: eSe Teatro: Seattle Latinos Take Stage
Que: Fundraising gala and performances
Cuando: Tuesday, February 14, 2012 at 6:30pm
(Doors open 6pm, Curtain Call 7pm)
Donde: ACT Theatre in the Bullitt Cabaret, Seattle

We have worked tirelessly during the last few months to put together an event that celebrates Latino culture and community; both of which are fundamentally based in amor.

From passionate readings of celebrated literary works performed in Spanish and English, to a sampling of music and dance from Latin America and the Iberian Peninsula, the performances we have lined up for you encompass great works of love from Spain, Mexico, Panama, Colombia, Argentina, Peru, Uruguay, Chile and Brazil.

Details at the Seattle teatro’s website.

On-Line Floricanto 1st of 4 February Tuesdays

This first On-Liine Floricanto of Valentine month brings six poems from five poets, including Sonia Gutiérrez, Mari Herreras, Diana Left, Elena Díaz Bjorkquist, Iris De Anda. 

Next Tuesday--The Day--La Bloga brings you a special expanded Valentine's Day On-Line Floricanto. As always, instead of a fifty dollar box of See's Chocolates or Bon-bons, print out the On-Line Floricanto and read it aloud to your loved one. You're welcome.

"Entrenched/Atrincherada" by Sonia Gutiérrez
"Arizona Sometimes" by Mari Herreras
"If It Wasn't For The Mountains" by Diana Left
“Saguaro Tanka” by Elena Díaz Bjorkquist
“Por Siempre...” by Iris De Anda

By Sonia Gutiérrez


earth propels the palms 
of my feet, and I walk arm
in arm with nature
all around me.
I spread my arms
and fly past
the walls of prejudice—
longing to live
the Dream.
I spin spiral
rainbows, rainbows
rainbows in full glee.
I wake, labor, and rise
until this small universe
of mine whispers, “No more.”


la tierra empuja las palmas
de mis pies, y camino de brazo
en brazo con la naturaleza
a todo mi alrededor.
extiendo mis brazos
y vuelo pasando
los muros de prejuicios—
anhelando vivir
el Sueño.
tejo telarañas
espirales, capturando
arcos iris, arcos iris
arcos iris en pleno júbilo.
me despierto, laboro, y me levanto
hasta que este pequeño universo
mío me susurre, “No más”.

Arizona Sometimes
by Mari Herreras 
Arizona sometimes
you remind me of the boy
I write poems for
who doesn't realize
each word is my heart.

Which only means
each sunset,
every shadow and light across the Catalinas,
the coyote's yips and howls,
our sultry nights during monsoon
seem Arizona sometimes.

It is as if you know
that as you hold my heart
that every book hidden,
every child told no,
every cry met in indifference,
every family chased away,
is Arizona sometimes
and you've no choice but to
break my heart.

If It Wasn't For The Mountains
by Diana Left 
if it wasn't for the mountains
that said my name
the mountains that
welcomed me
and clearly said
they had been
waiting for me
these mountains
i have been
and where i am
before again
in dreams
in reality
and in battle
i have often
mentioned that
i am a
piel morena
como la
misma tierra
i am
the only
one in these
of my kind.
part now of
these mountains
that tell me
they are ashamed
sometimes of man...
but they also
tell me
they forgive him
as some of them do
come in to
pray before they
take their
these mountains
have made way
for paths in his
escape from pain
and many paths
they allow him
for his
and his gain.
if it wasn't for these mountains
i would never have
painted my
i would have never
what mountains sound
like when they speak.
oh man!
oh little, little imbecile
the road you travel
belongs to them
from Patagonia
to Arizona.
Where you have
these are the mountains
that make
this is Machu Picchu
in what you call america
Las Andeas
you plant your
stake to.
these are the mountains that
never crumble
when they speak
like the Popocatepetl en
tu Mejiko.
if it wasn't for these mountains
oh if it wasn't for these mountains
banned books would not
survive their ban.
these mountains
have read all of
our books
of the chacanismos
they have heard chicanas
crying through the willows
they have heard the one called
lamenting through the
Aspen leaf dances.
oh crazy crazy crazed one.
stop it.
Mexican American
is here in the mountains.
on the borders,inside the wombs
of tomorrow.
Book banning them
will not stop them.
They are children of the
In honor of mountain's which protect me,and protect us!

Diana L.--joe
Chuska Mountain Fortress near the Sky.
Aztlan, February 1,2012

Saguaro Tanka
by Elena Díaz Bjorkquist ©2012

Like a saguaro
I stand tall and patient
Forever waiting
Housing words for poems
To reconcile all people

Por Siempre...
by Iris De Anda

once upon a time 
habia una ves
in a place not far from here
a binding together of thoughts
like paperbacks
that tell a tale
no holding back
of outrage
that emerges
as you burn me
stamp me
condemn me
take away my cuentos
try to censor the spirit of mi gente
we are here to stay
because the more you ignore me 
the closer i get
the louder i get
the stronger i get
linking memories
of our saga
like hardcovers
the first edition
never the last
always a story
to be told
life unfolds
the twisted hair
holding cosmic words
uses breath like ink
that spills forth
truth on paper
the cantos 
the versos
the simbolos
that rewrite
the mentiras
the fairytales
the lies that failed
ban me 
suppress me
prohibit me
take away my books
try to limit the soul of mi pueblo
we will not submit
we will awaken
because our memoirs
both tragic & epic
are authentic & sublime
they will transcend
time, people, & borders
& even if the pages 
of our storytellers
are set ablaze 
our leyendas will spread 
like the fire that consumed them 
& flourish in the hearts of our semillas
in flor y canto
por siempre...

"Entrenched/Atrincherada" by Sonia Gutiérrez
"Arizona Sometimes" by Mari Herreras
"If It Wasn't For The Mountains" by Diana Left
“Saguaro Tanka” by Elena Díaz Bjorkquist
“Por Siempre...” by Iris De Anda

Sonia Gutiérrez—poet, mother, translator. educator and social critic—teaches English at Palomar College and for the Upward Bound Program (CSUSM). Sonia uses her craft—poetry, prose, and libros cartoneros as tools that promote social awareness and human compassion. To learn more about Sonia Gutiérrez’s work, visit Chicana in the Midst, una bloguita bien chingona. 

Mari Herreras, a fifth generation Tucsonan, is an award-winning journalist who works for the Tucson Weekly. When she’s not writing about the ugly and beautiful that makes Tucson weird and wonderful, she writes with the Sowing the Seeds women's writing collective. The group recently published its second anthology, "Our Spirit, Our Reality: Celebrating Our Stories." 

Elena Díaz Björkquist, a writer, historian, and artist from Tucson, writes about Morenci, Arizona where she was born. She is the author of two books, Suffer Smoke and Water from the Moon and is nearing completion of another collection of Morenci stories entitled Albóndiga Soup. Elena has been on the Arizona Humanities Council (AHC) Speakers Bureau for ten years performing as Teresa Urrea in a Chautauqua living history presentation, and doing presentations about Morenci, Arizona and also the 1880’s Schoolhouse in Tubac. AHC recently selected her to do a presentation on El Día de los Muertos.

Elena is co-editor of Sowing the Seeds, una cosecha de recuerdos, an anthology written by her writers group. The project was funded by AHC. She co-edited a new anthology entitled Our Spirit, Our Reality; our life experiences in stories and poems that was released in November 2011.

A SIROW Scholar at the University of Arizona, Elena conducted an oral history project funded by AHC; “In the Shadow of the Smokestack.” A website she created contains the oral history interviews and photographs of Chicano elders living in Morenci during the Depression and World War II. Another project funded by AHC and the Stocker Foundation is “Tubac 1880’s Schoolhouse Living History Program.” Her website is www.elenadiazbjorkquist.net/.

 Elena is one of the poet moderators for the Facebook page “Poets Responding to SB1070. She recently received the 2012 Arizona Commission on the Arts Bill Desmond Writing Award for excelling nonfiction writing.

Iris De Anda is a writer, activist, practitioner of the healing arts, and co-founder of the company Las Adelitas: Moda, Cultura, Revolucion. A native of Los Angeles she believes in the power of spoken word, poetry, storytelling, and dreams.  She can be reached at evoluxion777@yahoo.com.


Rafael Herreras-Zinman and Friends said...

Em - Thanks for the wonderful review on the Culture Clash show and the insight on the significance and stupidity in showing it at the Culver City venue. -- Mari Herreras

cindylu said...

I like the Kirk Douglas theater. It's within walking distance. The westside is much more diverse than a lot of people give it credit for. Culver City itself is about a quarter Latino. We're all over LA, not just on the Eastside.

I'm not sure I'll see this show. My last Culture Clash experience (their 25th anniversary show at UCLA's Royce Hall) was pretty bad.