Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Where and When I Enter

May 23, 2012

LeRoy McClain and Pascale Armand in The Convert Photo: T. Charles Erickson/CTG 2012
Ben Vanaman was out and about this weekend catching up on some notable local theater productions wrapping up their runs and sent in this report.

A pair of provocative new plays that just completed their L.A. engagements –Danai Gurira's The Convert at the Kirk Douglas Theater, and Cornerstone Theater Company's production of Lisa Loomer's Café Vida at LATC- explore the essential and eternal human question, “who am I?” Though the two plays take place over a century apart, their narratives and themes are eerily reflective of one another. Each play features a woman of color as protagonist. Both women emerge from fraught social contexts and are forced to determine their place in the world while confronting and/or combating multiple forces acting against them. The actresses portraying these characters undergo an emotional workout that is as harrowing as it is cathartic.

The Convert –a co-production with the McCarter Theater Center and the Goodman Theater- takes place in the late-1890s at the time of tribal revolts against Cecil Rhodes’ British South Africa Company. At issue are land grabs and steep tariffs imposed on the Africans working British-controlled mines. Such matters, however, weigh little on the mind of young Jekesai (a thoroughly committed Pascale Armand), who seeks shelter from an arranged marriage in the home of an assimilationist African Christian minister named Chilford (LeRoy McClain) who dreams of entering the priesthood. Chilford agrees to harbor Jekesai on the condition that she submit to a Christian conversion under his tutelage in scenes, of occasional levity, that have a faint “Pygmalion” air about them.

Chilford gives Jekesai the Christian name Esther, and so thoroughly does she submit to his indoctrination, so unquestioning is her seeming devotion to Christ, that she quickly forgets that she was once an orphan from a polygamist tribe. In her attempts to convert others –Chilford’s “savages”- Esther/Jekesai is branded a traitor (“bafu”) by her uncle (Harold Surratt) and cousin Tamba (Warner Joseph Miller), an epithet set to rights when she must choose between “blood” and her newfound salvation as the past she shut the door on becomes present once more in a brutal turn of foreshadowed events: the tribal insurrection against British authoritarian rule, having hovered in the background of the action, takes center stage in the tragic but poignant conclusion. Jekesai/Esther commits a vicious attack of retaliatory honor that precipitates her seeking Christ’s salvation. Yet, clad in tribal costume again, no longer wearing the corseted dresses that Chilford made her wear as Esther, Jekesai paradoxically refutes Western culture in favor of her own heritage, delivering a riposte to Chilford’s ambivalently-Anglicized friend Prudence (Zainab Jah), who had earlier accused Esther/Jekesai of lacking a clearly-defined identity. In fact, Jekesai and Esther have become whole.

LeRoy McClain and Pascale Armand in The Convert Photo: T. Charles Erickson/CTG 2012
If The Convert ends with its heroine committing a crime, Café Vida begins with the fallout created by its protagonist’s criminal past. The production, a joint venture between L.A.’s community-based Cornerstone Theater and The Latino Theater Company in partnership with Homeboy Industries and Homegirl Café, is part of Cornerstone’s “Hunger Cycle,” which they bill as “nine world premiere plays about hunger, justice and food equity issues.” Though one might expect such a mission to produce polemical writing, playwright Lisa Loomer circumvents heavy-handedness in favor of a loose, free-wheeling style in her telling of the story of an ex-con, drug addict gang member named Chebela, a character based on the life of Lynette Alfaro, the non-professional actor portraying her. In fact, Loomer’s play is predicated on a series of interviews she conducted with various young men and women who form the basis of her characters.

Chebela has many strikes against her, but like Jekesai, her life is transformed via the intervention of a man of God, here a character named Father Tim (Peter Howard) who is based on Father Gregory Boyle, the L.A. priest who created Homeboy Industries as a means of giving ex-gang members the chance to go straight by working their way up from janitors in his café to waiters and chefs. The theme of food, both as sustaining agent and locus of excess, is embodied in Chebela, who introduces herself in a monologue where she plainly cops to being overweight. But this is the tip of the iceberg vis-à-vis her poor self-esteem. Painful memories of incest and the shattering reality of ongoing domestic abuse compete for Chebela’s mental and emotional attention as she seeks to start over and hopefully regain custody of a daughter given up for adoption.

During the course of the play, Chebela parries and bonds with two other Father Tim acolytes, precocious Rafi (Felipe Nieto) and fibrous Luz (Sue Montoya), whose fealty to a rival gang lands both her and Chebela in trouble before matters are sorted and Luz touchingly offers Chebela shelter against the brutal ministrations of her husband. Chebela is additionally abetted by her unbowed spirit and utterly disarming self-deprecations, and Lynette Alfaro delivers one of the most heart-wrenching performances I’ve seen on stage in recent memory. She is in fact so unflinchingly honest in her delivery that I sometimes forgot that I was watching a performer with little professional training. Virtually the same might be said of her fellows.

Both plays investigate the loaded topic of race and, to some degree, the disenfranchisement of women, but at the service of questions of identity -how it is shaped by one’s origins and ties to family and community- that are universally relatable. Can one escape one’s past, or transcend the expectations imposed by it? How are we to be fed: literally, emotionally, spiritually? The social inequity of 19th Century Rhodesia evokes parallel to life in the barrios and ‘hoods of contemporary Los Angeles. Chilford, self-exiled from his “witch doctor” father, and Father Tim, self-styled practitioner of “liberation theology,” are ultimately reconciled in service to man, yet their supplicants, Jekesai and Chabela, draw on tremendous inner strength in determining the outcome of their quest for self-actualization and enlightenment, even if in Jekesai’s case, the weight of the past can never be entirely lifted. Both plays merit attention, but though Café Vida feels more overtly like a message play, The Convert is given a more melodramatic treatment, at the occasional detriment to dramatic effect. Its most powerful moment is the quiet final encounter between Chilford and Jekesai, who stands before the crucible of her own heart, a plea for mercy that is granted to Café Vida’s Chabela in the form of grace.

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