By KATHERINE BRAY, Editor, USC MPL/Master of Arts
Most nights, you won’t find much going on at the corner of Anaheim St. and Walnut Ave. in Long Beach. This intersection is dominated by a massive one-block wide and half-block deep gravel-paved vacant lot, owned by the City of Long Beach.
But when I stepped off the Metro Blue Line last Saturday evening, I arrived to find the space transformed into a veritable open-air community arts center, complete with performance stage, sculptural sound art installation, community organizations sharing information on local initiatives, and of course, local culinary delights.
This was one installment of the Arts Council for Long Beach’s “A LOT” initiative, a series of public arts events staged on publicly owned vacant lots throughout Long Beach. I asked Shay Thornton, ACLB Grants and Community Projects Manager, what the Arts Council hopes to achieve by bringing arts programming to vacant lots. “Staging events on vacant lots allows the community to have ownership over their neighborhood,” says Thornton. “It engenders an understanding that urban blight is an opportunity to make a change.”
This may sound like a tall order, perhaps too much to ask of a few community arts projects. But I guarantee that if you ever make it to a performance by Teatro Jornalero, you won’t come away a skeptic.As part of Saturday’s A LOT program, Teatro Jornalero performed an excerpt from Caminos al Paraíso [Paths to Paradise], a play about crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. The story unfolds vividly through encounters between passengers on a bus. The north-bound vehicle is evidenced on stage only by a few wooden crates doubling as benches and a free-standing steering wheel. As we meet the characters and learn about their unique struggles, we discover an obstacle course of physical and emotional threats migrants face in crossing many borders – geographic, political, and social – between leaving home and reaching the one everyone here talks about.
What’s unique about Teatro Jornalero is that its cast, writers, and artistic directors are comprised entirely of immigrant day laborers, who use the ensemble to share the true story of their own experiences. The group started in 2007 through Cornerstone Theater’s production of Los Illegals. To develop the piece, Writer and Director Michael John Garcés interviewed day laborers waiting for work outside Home Depots around Los Angeles. He patched their stories together into a script, then invited contributors to audition for a part. This is how Juan Jose Mangandi, author of Caminos al Paraíso, got involved with theater and ultimately ended up forming the spinoff Teatro Jornalero project.
While standing for applause after their powerful performance of Caminos, I could see the actors were processing what had been an intense emotional undertaking. As they left the stage and rejoined the crowd milling about the lot, I asked members of the cast how it felt to perform characters drawn from their own real-life experiences. One woman, whose character is sexually harassed and ends up in the middle of a gunfight, is eager to answer. “It’s cathartic,” she says. “It opens the wound, but it’s a way of coping and of healing. It’s like medicine; it takes some of the load off my back so I can share it with others. The stage is a channel of communication that way. I know women in the audience are hearing me and connecting to my story.” She tells me that when Teatro interviewed her at the Home Depot not far from the lot we’re standing in, she was contemplating suicide. “Acting and theater made me feel human, like I have value. It literally saved my life.”
Another chimes in. He plays a checkpoint officer in Caminos, and really was a cop back in Mexico. “It’s important for you to understand,” he says, “we aren’t artists.”
One can think of public space as a kind of hardware; part of the basic physical infrastructure necessary for a vital democracy (or any form of social organization, for that matter). As a site of cultural expression, this is where society performs and observes itself; a dynamic usually about as conspicuous to us as water is to the fish that swim in it. But Teatro Jornalero takes hold of it and inverts it, exposing this seemingly passive, unremarkable, right-under-our-nose process for the elaborately choreographed spectacle it is. Here, individuals obliged on a daily basis to make themselves invisible enact their stories (through amps heard blocks away!) to an audience of strangers on a street corner in broad daylight. As philosopher Slavoj Žižek puts it, “reality is for those who cannot handle theater.” In a time when access to venues for public assembly and expression is increasingly contested, perhaps nothing protects free speech quite like the pretext of drama.
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Be sure to check out upcoming A LOT events throughout September and October 2013.
Also, don’t miss Love on San Pedro, a production by Cornerstone Theater coming this November 2013.