Culture Clash returns to Center Theater Group with its indictment of Los Angeles racism and corruption.
In 2003, the Latin-American troupe Culture Clash presented Chavez Ravine, a mixture of history, comedy, and outrage, at the Mark Taper Forum. Now the group has, in its own words, "remixed, relived, reloaded" its sociopolitical piece, this time at the more intimate Kirk Douglas Theatre.
In the 1940s, as Hispanic sons returned home from World War II, a small low-income housing community just north of downtown Los Angeles became a target for political maneuvering. Beginning as a "best intentions" dream to reestablish the neighborhood with more stable homes and apartments, the community became pawns for the elite, who used Communism-baiting fearmongering to uproot home owners and steal the land for a new baseball stadium for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Chavez Ravine employs popular Hispanic theater styles and original music along with cast members in multiple roles, including men in drag, and the skits are occasionally outrageously funny. The Culture Clash smartly gives the story context by starting it in 1981, when the newly drafted Mexican pitcher Fernando Valenzuela opened the '81 Dodgers season by shutting out the Houston Astros. From there, ghosts of the past educate Valenzuela on the history haunting the field. The story takes its time introducing characters, like Maria (Sabina Zuniga Varela), the young Marxist who rallies the unions, hoping to save her community, and Frank Wilkinson (Richard Montoya), the site manager of the City Housing Authority whose ambition to refurbish Chavez Ravine brings about both his and the neighborhood's downfall.
Unfortunately, for such a powerful subject, the presentation is lightweight, and much of the humor comprises lowbrow jokes in the style that TV audiences will recognize from The Simpsons with Bumblebee Man or of the telenovelas spoofed on Arrested Development. Director Lisa Peterson allows the cast's cartoonish performances to distance the audience from the inequity being portrayed. The tone is schizophrenic, including clashing styles like soap-opera histrionics and anachronistic 1930s screwball comedy. Humor can be as potent as drama, but here, the comedy deflates the tale when it should be punctuating it.
Despite these issues, the cast is very funny, and though much, if not most, of the dialogue is written, it has an improvisational flow. Montoya's tirade as the Dodger Dog girl (spouted while floating through the air) is a stand-up comedy highlight. Zuniga Varela brings pathos to the spirited but overpowered Maria. Ric Salinas has great moments as the puppet mayor Norris Poulson, sidestepping around the stage like the Warner Bros. cartoon character Michigan J. Frog while allowing his evil ringleaders to greedily fill their pockets on others' blood labors.
The music and lyrics by Montoya, John Avila and Scott and Randy Rodarte use mariachi-like tunes to transport the audience in this small, close-knit Mexican-American community. The characters interact with the onstage band members.
To set the scene, Jason H. Thompson's projections show the impoverished but loving community before being torn down, the faces of those neighbors protesting their eviction, and the hill as it is now, the popular and populated Dodger Stadium.
The costumes, by Christopher Acebo, feature both authentic Hispanic-American clothing of the ‘40s and ‘50s as well as heightened villainous trench coats for the shady powerbrokers.
Chavez Ravine wants to entertain and inform Los Angelinos of dirty secrets befalling the city. For many who had no idea of what was tragically lost to bring baseball to L.A., it is another smirch in a city filled with noirish corruption. In the end, however, the play is unable to foster outrage or empathy toward a community and a story that deserve both.