There are many ways that I discover the shows I go see — especially the non-musical plays. Most often, they come through a season subscription — rare is the small company that only does musicals, and so the artistic director’s vision introduces me to new plays. Occasionally, I know the playwright, such as with last week’s Mice. Even less frequently I’ll discover a play from one of my various theatrical feeds (Playbill, Broadway World, Bitter/Better Lemons). Even rarer is the publicist’s missive that catches my eye — typically because there’s something in the subject matter of the play.
That’s what happened with Company of Angels (FB)’s This Land, which we saw last night. The publicist, Susan Gordan (FB), sent a proposal for an article describing an upcoming world premiere. The pitch was: “a rich story spanning over 150 years about four families with ancestry from different parts of the world (Tongva Indians, African, Mexican, Irish) who make their home on one particular plot of Southern California land now known as Watts. A host of old curses and blessings, traditions and recipes, loves and betrayals travel down family lines from the 19th to the 21st century, forcing each successive generation to ask in times of hardship, “Should I stay or should I go?”” Little did Susan know that although I might appear to them as a theatre reviewer because of this blog, I’m really a cybersecurity guy who not only loves theatre but who also has an intense interest in history — especially California history (which anyone who reads my highway pages knows). I’m a native Angeleno (Los Angeles native, for those not familiar with the term) who has been studying Los Angeles history for years — not only just freeways, but transit, city growth, water, and city politics. This was a show on a topic that was truly of interest to me. So even though I couldn’t find discount tickets, I got tickets and went.
I am really glad that I did. This Land is — to date — I think the best play I’ve seen all year, and it is close up there for best show (and that’s putting it against Hamilton). Especially if you love history or love Los Angeles, this is a play that you must see. It tells the story well, it educates its audience, it makes the audience think and see the city in a different way. It does what a play is supposed to do: tell you a story, draw you in, and not only entertain but elucidate.
Additionally, it also does something to address a common complaint about theatre in Los Angeles: It tells a story about Los Angeles, to audiences that reflect Los Angeles. Let me explain: There are very few plays — and even fewer musicals — that tell Los Angeles stories. Just ask yourself: What shows do you know that tout the New York experience, are centered in New York, or that focus on New York? Now ask yourself the same question about Los Angeles. See my point? Los Angeles has an extremely rich cultural history, significant historical events, culture clashes and milieus. Yet Los Angeles is viewed by playwrights often as a collection of suburb in search of a city, a shallow car culture (witness Freeway Dreams from earlier this year). There are a few plays that touch on nostalgia (such as Bruce Kimmel’s LA: Then and Now, or the even earlier Billy Barnes’ LA). The large LA theatres rarely commission or present shows about Los Angeles (a major complaint of the LA Times critic). There are the occasional shows, yes — A Mulholland Christmas Carol occasionally resurfaces, and of course there is Zoot Suit, which packs them in at the Mark Taper Forum (which we saw in February). Further, the Los Angeles theatre audience is often unfortunately predominately a single shade, and aging (I’ve complained about this before: how the complexion of an audience changes only when the subject of the play is about that group’s experience — and that’s wrong). Yet This Land was not only a story about the diversity that is Los Angeles, it reflected the diversity of Los Angeles in the casting, and even more significantly, reflected the diversity of Los Angeles in the diversity of the audience — a melting pot of ethnicities and ages and genders. This is a play that touches and speaks to the diversity that is Los Angeles, that speaks to young and old, to the recent immigrant and the long time resident. Further, it turns out that this is a commission from the Center Theatre Group (FB), one of the largest non-profit theatre groups in the city, being produced by Company of Angels (FB), the oldest non-professional theatre company in Los Angeles, founded in 1959 by a group of television and film actors that included Richard Chamberlain, Leonard Nimoy and Vic Morrow, with a revised mission to provide a space for the voices and audiences neglected by the major regional theaters. This is not only theatre in Los Angeles, it is Los Angeles theatre — about Los Angeles, reflective of Los Angeles, speaking to Los Angeles.
Do you think I liked the show? 😊
This Land is a story that spans 150 years in a community in South Los Angeles called Watts. It is a small area, roughly bordered by 92nd Street on the North, Imperial Avenue on the South, Central Avenue on the West, and Alameda on the East. You might have heard of Watts: it was the location of the Watts Riots in 1965, and the Rodney King riots in 1992. It was one of the original suburbs of Los Angeles. It started out as the site of the Tongva village, Tejaawta, and became part of Rancho La Tajauta in 1843. It was incorporated into the city in 1926. Like Boyle Heights, this was a community that welcomed the worker. After the Tongva and the Mexicans, there came the American farmers and waves of farmers moving west around the depression. In the 1940s, it was one of the few communities in Los Angeles that permitted African-American residents (Los Angeles has a nasty history of restrictive covenants and red-lining, which affect the city to this very day). The influx of the black community had an impact on the existing white residents (again, another common nasty history in Los Angeles). With the growth of the hispanic communities in Los Angeles in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, Watts changed again. Now, with the rebirth and resurgence of rail in Los Angeles (Watts was along one of the original transit backbones of the city, and is again), combined with affordable prices and gentrification, well, you know what is happening and who is being pushed out, with no affordable solutions.
That history is the background and setting of This Land. It tells the intertwined stories of five families representative of the various eras of Watts: the original Tongva settlers interacting with the first Missions and Ranchers in 1843 (Tomas, Toya, and Enrique), the first influx of the Americans in 1848 (Patrick), the first black families moving into the area in 1949 and later in 1965 (Maeve and James, Leola and Leslie), the transition as the hispanic families change the communities yet again in 1992 (Fidel and Ricardo, Sharon and Mel), and the wave of gentrification as developers purchase homes from families to transform the area yet again in the near future of 2020 (Ricardo, Della, and Dalton). The storytelling is intertwined, moving back and forth between the historical periods. It shows how — in true LA fashion — there was hatred when new cultures came in, yet eventual cultural transfer of ideas and food. It showed the importance of water to the city — not only was the LA river near Watts, but Watts was one of the few areas in the city that was able to draw water from artesian wells. It highlighted the discrimination and restrictions that existed in the city not only for the people one might think of as minorities — the blacks, the hispanics — but other groups as well, such as the Jews or the Dust Bowl Refugees. It really speaks to the multicultural story of the city — not of a predominately single ethnicity experience as was seen for the 1940s Pachucos of Zoot Suit, or the rose-tinted nostalgia of the Los Angeles reviews such as Los Angeles: Then and Now (which tend to look back on kitsch and ephemera, and not the painful ugly aspects). For many LA plays, the ugly aspect is the gay history of the city — but there is much more ugliness under the surface. It also captures well the little LA things, from Dy-Dee Diaper service to the importance of the Aerospace industry and the automotive industry (and how the decline of both drastically impacted minority communities in the city).
Playwright Evangeline Ordaz (FB) has crafted a story that drew me in and kept me enthralled up to and including the closing scene. From my knowledge of the history, it captured things quite well. Interconnections that could have come off as forced coincidences don’t — they seem to flow well and a naturally, and work to highlight the impact of the story and show the ultimate connectedness of people to each other and to the land. Director Armando Molina (FB) handles the small cast in this large story well. Almost every actor portrays multiple characters for the different eras, and the performances are so distinctly different that in some cases I actually left thinking there were additional actors and one had been left off of the program. That is how well this director worked with the actors to individualize each performance to the character, and to make the characters believable. Very very well crafted both in the story and the stage realization.
As for the acting ensemble, what can I say but: I was impressed by their ability to become their characters. Unlike most shows, I can’t discuss them in tiers because this was a true ensemble — performances of approximately equal size and weight across the story. So let’s work across the eras.
Beginning in 1843, we have Toya (Cheryl Umaña (FB)), the Tongva village leader whose father, Tomas (Richard Azurdia (★FB, FB)) has gone to the Mission. There is also Enrique (Jeff Torres (FB)), the son of the rancher whose lands are encroaching on the Tongva village lands. There is also Pepe (Niketa Calame (FB)), the Mexican soldier who is helping Enrique. All are strong here, but the central relationships are Toya and Tomas, and Toya and Enrique. Umaña is great as Toya, trying to understand a culture and communicate in a language and with a changing world she does not understand. Torres is also spotlighted here as the rancher trying to do right by both the mission and Toya’s father, Tomas. As Tomas, Azurdia has a great portrayal of a man who tried to do right for his village, but who was broken by the Mission system (which was the beginning of poor racial relations in the City of the Angels).
Moving to 1848, we meet Patrick (Ian Alda (FB)) , an Irish-American soldier coming to the land with the Americans, as the days of the Mexican land grants are waning. This is a smaller era in the story, but Alda captures the Irish aspects well.
Jumping to 1947 and 1965, we meet Maeve (Johanna McKay (FB)), a white woman living in Watts who moved there during the depression-era dustbowl migration, and her new black neighbor, Leola (LeShay Tomlinson (FB)), who has just moved from Louisiana. Both were remarkable performances. McKay captures well the woman whose neighborhood is changing but sees her neighbors as people, not their skin (an attitude that, unfortunately, wasn’t too common). Tomlinson gives a wonderful portrayal of a woman who has escapes the overt discrimination of the South only to run into the covert discrimination of the West — or to paraphrase as she put it, in the South they are at least racist to your face, not behind your back. She also captured the proud woman just trying to do the best for her family while dealing with the changing circumstances of life (and I knew many people like that — both friends and parents of friends from those areas).
By 1965, the children are added to the mix: Maeve’s son James (Ian Alda (FB) in his 2nd role), and Leola’s daughter Leslie (Niketa Calame (FB) in her 2nd role). These two capture well the angst of their era: Alda capturing well the young white adult in Watts who wants his parents to move somewhere “safer” (which, yes, is code we still see today), and Calame capturing the young adult trying to make changes in society.
Turning to 1992, we are dealing with the children of the prior era, and yet another transition. We have Leslie’s children Mel ((Niketa Calame (FB), in her 3rd role) and Sharon (LeShay Tomlinson (FB), in her 2nd role). Maeve has moved out, and moving in is a HIspanic family with a taco business, Ricardo (Jeff Torres (FB)) and Fidel (Richard Azurdia (★FB, FB), in his 2nd role). All of the performances shine here. Calame was spectacular as Mel, the young woman trying to make friends and accept her new neighbors, seeing them as people and not their skin. This was in contrast to her sister, Sharon, as portrayed by Tomlinson (who I didn’t even recognize as the character, the difference was that distinct). Tomlinson’s Sharon was more antagonistic, not trusting the new people in the neighborhood and moving to violence as the solution. Next door we had Azurdia’s Fidel and his Taco Truck, which was just a realistic and very human portrayal that could easily have gone stereotypical. Lastly, we had Torres’s Ricardo — a young man who was just trying to fit in the neighborhood. All great performances.
Lastly, there was 2020, where we had Dalton (Ian Alda (FB) in his 3rd role), James’s son, attempting to buy back the land and the houses from Torres’ Ricardo and Della (Cheryl Umaña (FB), in her 2nd role), Mel’s daughter. Smaller scenes, but still strong performances capturing the residents of today seeing the developers come in to try to move them out, with no place they could afford to go.
Simply put — all great performances.
Turning to the production side: This was Company of Angels (FB)’s first production in their new space at Legacy LA (FB) at the Hazard Park Armory (interesting history of its own) next to County-USC Medical Center. This is an expansive warehouse space creating one of the largest stages I’ve seen for a small company. Justin Huen (FB)’s scenic design worked well in the space, creating a backdrop for Benjamin Durham (FB)’s projection to establish the place, with the scenic design creating the house spaces, the truck spaces, and the land and river spaces well. This was augmented by Huen’s lighting design that created time and mood. Manee Leija‘s costumes (which presumably included hair and wigs, as there wasn’t a distinct credit) distinguished the characters well, although I can’t vouch on authenticity. Rebecca Kessin (FB)’s sound design amplified (get it, amplified 🙂 ) the environment, and provided the cues for the transitions. Rounding out the production credits were: Daniel Muñoz (FB) – Stage Manager; Heather McLane (FB) – Asst. Stage Manager and Prop Design; Susan Gordon – Publicist; Tamadhur Al-Aqeel (FB) – Producer. Company of Angels (FB) is under the Artistic Direction of Armando Molina (FB).
The World Premiere of This Land continues at Company of Angels (FB) through November 13. The remaining performances are Fridays at 8pm on Nov. 3 and 10; Saturdays at 8pm on Nov. 4 and 11; Sundays at 7pm on Oct. 29, Nov. 5 and 12; and Mondays at 8pm on Oct. 30, Nov. 6 and 13. Tickets are $25; senior $15; students $12; Monday performances are Pay-What-You-Can. TIckets are available through the Company of Angels website or possibly calling 323-475-8814. Discount tickets do not appear to be available on Goldstar. I have seen a reference that code “COMUNIDAD” may give a discount, but I don’t know if it was efffective (I paid full price). This is one of the best shows I’ve seen all year, followed closely by Hamilton and Zoot Suit. Go see it while you and, and learn about our great city.
Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) [the company formerly known as Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)], the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre(FB) in the West Adams district, and a mini-subscription at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.
The theatre drought has ended, and the last three months of 2017 are busy busy busy. October concludes with This Land at Company of Angels (FB) in Boyle Heights. Looking into November, we start with the Nottingham Festival (FB) in Simi Valley, followed by The Man Who Came to Dinner at Actors Co-op (FB). The following weekend brings a Day Out with Thomas at Orange Empire Railway Museum (FB), as well as The Kingston Trio (FB) at the Kavli Theatre in Thousand Oaks (FB). The third weekend will bring Edges at the CSUN Theatre Department (FB) on Friday, the Tumbleweed Festival (FB) on Saturday, and Spamilton at the Kirk Douglas Theatre (FB) on Sunday. Thanksgiving Weekend will bring Something Rotten at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) and hopefully Levi (a new Sherman Brothers musical – join the Indiegogo here) at LA Community College Camino Theatre (FB). November concludes with the Anat Cohen Tentet at the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB).
December starts with ACSAC 2017 in Orlando FL. As soon as we return, we’ve got Pacific Overtures at Chromolume Theatre (FB) and the Colburn Orchestra at the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB). The weekend encompassing Chanukah sees us back at the Saroya (FB) for the Klezmatics (FB). We also hope to squeeze in a performance of A Christmas Story at the Canyon Theatre Guild (FB). Of course there will also be the obligatory Christmas Day movie.
Right now, early 2018 is pretty open, with only a few weekends taken by shows at the Pantages and Actors Co-Op. I did just pick up tickets for Candide at LA Opera (FB). But that will likely fill up as Chromolume announces their dates, and announcements are received on interesting shows. Currently, we’re booking all the way out in mid to late 2018!
As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-Lemons, Musicals in LA, @ This Stage, Footlights, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.