It’s often been said, “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” This idea is vibrantly explored in the new play, “This Land”–a deep, ‘painful here’, ‘joyful there’, story about a group of Californians with roots in assorted parts of the world, who make their home on the same plot of Southern California land over a span of 150 years. The latest from Los Angeles based playwright, Evangeline Ordaz, this intriguing new piece is the latest offering from “Company Of Angels”—LA’s oldest professional theater company. Directed by the company’s resident Artistic Director, Armando Molina, as the story unfolds, each successive generation grapples with their claim on the land which they live upon; and while that location basically remains the same (namely a residential street in the Los Angeles Neighborhood of Watts–before and after its development,) we’re taken on an unforgettable journey through time, with stops in the years: 1843, 1848, 1953, 1965, 1992—and even onto the near future of 2020! What’s more, these partial life stories we encounter are primarily revealed in increments, (also jumping back and forth through time) with each fragment, gradually coalescing into a more fundamental (and even profound) whole by the time the houselights are again brought to full.
Lacking a curtain, one by one the cast members meander on—some congregate around an ersatz trash-can ‘fire’ situated upstage, while several hunker down for what looks like a quick ‘roadside’ nap center stage. Soon a realtor materializes trying to make a bid on an old inner-city single resident dwelling—and we quickly learn why: he grew up there. More pointedly though, we’ll soon uncover the true significance and history of this particular locale by examining the lives of those who, at specific times, occupied it. Flash-back to 1843—when the area was known as the Tajauta Valley—a factual, historical, Mexican Land grant in what is now present day Los Angeles. Here we meet a young Spanish settler named “Enrique” as he tries to befriend a young maiden from the local “Tongva” tribe named “Toya” by offering her a strange new fruit he and his family are trying to grow called an “orange”. His “Ranchero” stands in close proximity to both the local Mission as well as the Indian Village they call “Tejuaawta”. While a stranger in a strange land himself, “Enrique” finds himself clumsily falling for this pretty and exotic girl which gives rise to several hilariously decisive moments for the couple: “The way Toya talks is so exciting—even though I have no idea what she’s saying!” He enthuses. Then we’re immediately taken to Watts—in the year 1953 where we find a recently widowed African-American woman named “Leola Piqueray’ who has pulled up stakes and left her home in the deep South to scope out new—and more independent—opportunities in the “City Of Angels” for her and her five year old daughter, “Leslie”. Principally among these, are moving into what in this time is a fully established suburban neighborhood—complete with Tract housing. Next, we’re taken to the same neighborhood circa 1992, where “Mrs. Piqueray’s” duo of grown Granddaughters (Leslie’s girls) named “Mel” (short for “Melanie”) and her sister “Sharon”, are worried that the new people next door (an extended family of Mexican immigrants) will “lower the property values” by parking their mobile Taco truck in the front yard (–and that’s on top of “Sharon’s” suspicions that they’re really using it to sell crack to all the black people who now populate the area as well!) The actions rockets back and forth between these basic set-ups advancing their storylines a little more each time. The Act-break comes very suddenly–and with a brief glimpse of partial nudity (well handled) when a miserable “Toya” tears off the wedding gown her betrothed, “Enrique” has given her to wear on their nuptial day (as opposed to her traditional tribal dress.) Act Two picks up with she and her now husband married with a baby they’ve named “Tomas” after her deceased father. Shortly after, they’re approached by a renegade U.S. Soldier (this is still when Mexico ruled over California) who asks to “surrender” to them. He explains his name is “Patrick”—the same “Patrick” who acquired the land then, decades later, one of his descendants (also named Patrick) bequeathed it to “Mrs. Piqueray’s” neighbor and friend, “Mrs. Hillman” on the occasion of her own marriage. When “Mrs. Hillman” is moved (by her yuppie son) into his more “upmarket’ Pasadena abode, she sells the property to the Mexican family, completing, after a fashion, an ever evolving cycle of sorts.
Ms. Ordaz has constructed an intricate jigsaw puzzle of a plot with a copious array of layers—but it all becomes crystal clear by the closing scene (set in the near future) which brings everything brilliantly full-circle! Along the way, we’re introduced to a plethora of rich, complex, and varied characters who encompass a multitude of cultures and ethnicities, from Los Angeles’ Latino, African-American, Caucasian, and California Native American communities who co-exist as if time were a giant wheel that constantly doubles back on itself. Through triumph and hardship, these families discover how deeply they are rooted in the dreams of those who forged ahead of them–and on the very land on which they dwelt. From the Mission and Ranchero days of Spanish Colonialism, to the tumultuous “Civil Rights” era, up to the present and beyond, this lady has certainly done her research as to the history of the area and the distinct cultures and mores that populated (and continue to populate) it! Utilizing often subtle but powerful commentary through Humor (periodically of a biting nature) she also has an easy and authentic way with natural dialogue—regardless of the ethnicity of the person speaking it. Another genuinely clever element to her script is how the contrasting characters speak to us—the audience—in English, while to each other it appears they’re speaking in their differing native tongues. When they do utter a few elementary phrases in their own language (sometimes Spanish, sometimes in the authentic language of the region’s indigenous natives,) the English translations are flashed onto the back upstage flats. She also shrewdly heralds weightier issues or plot points often through the most ostensibly mundane actions which we later realize have larger, lasting corollaries.
A Prime example of this has “Enrique” digging a well in 1843, for which “Mrs. Piqueray” (now in 1965 Watts,) casually extols the benefits she has living on a property that has its own well, making her much less dependent on the metropolitan water department. (Water rights–and who controls them–also seems to be a major theme here too!) Likewise, whether it’s inadvertent or otherwise, Ms. Ordaz handily demonstrates here that at one time or another, every group has been oppressed by–and has oppressed–nearly everyone else. For instance, “Mrs. Piqueray’s” white neighbor “Maeve Hillman” confides to her that when she moved to the area years ago (as part of the mass migration of Midwesterners fleeing from the “Dust Bowl”–those better known by the disparaging moniker, “Okies”,) no one wanted them around either! Director Molina also takes full advantage of this bounty of textual strengths at his disposal–and all the technical assets as well—giving us a fast paced, tragi-comic production that’s always riveting. Moreover, making use of his full playing space, he demonstrates the parallel lives of his characters often by having up to three pairs of interactors supposedly subsisting in three alternating time periods, performing the same (or very comparable) actions. “What’s so exciting about this play is that it’s not your typical history play. The stories are intimate and small, yet they seem to whisper a big question so pertinent to Los Angeles today: Is gentrification just another form of manifest destiny?” Molina proclaims.
The entire seven-person cast doubles at least one other character and each do a remarkable job at conjuring their on-stage personas to be vastly dissimilar from the other(s) they may be playing. Jeff Torres exudes a great deal of sincerity and a boyish type of charm in each of the roles he assays here. First, he’s “Enrique”—a young Spaniard in the early years of the nineteenth Century, who lives at “Ranchero La Tajauta”, his family’s domicile in the Tejaawta Valley Flash forward to the present (more or less) and Torres also takes on the role of “Ricardo”, a young Mexican newcomer to the city. Originating as an awkward teenager, at this inaugural phase he’s just trying to make sense of all the “Do’s,” “Don’ts”, and established adolescent (and racial) hierarchy of Urban Los Angeles. Subsequently, in the future of 2020 AD, we catch up with ‘Ric’ who’s now completely “American-ized” and speaking fairly un-accented English, while running a successful line of Taco trucks. Cheryl Umana also impresses as “Toya”—the feisty Tongva Indian maiden whom “Enrique” falls hard for. Fiercely trying to maintain the sanctity of her small village even as so many from it—including her own father—have been taken up by the Missionaries, her funeral speech, articulated after her father has been beaten to death for daring to “escape” the ‘sacred’ confines of the Mission, is as raw and bitterly affecting as acting gets. Afterward, “Toya” reluctantly consents to marry “Enrique” even though it means leaving everything she knows and values behind. As her father, “Tomas”, Richard Azurdia himself hits on all the right emotions—kicking things off as that Tongvan Indian Tribal Patriarch who portentously laments early on, “These Padres, they love to count Indians!” (underscoring the fact that he, like much of the areas natives, were virtual prisoners and slave labor to these Spanish interlopers.) Later, Azurdia also stands-out as the hapless “Fidel”, a good-natured Mexican Émigré (and “Ricardo’s uncle) who moves with his extended family into the old “Hillman” house.
Tackling the role of “Mrs. Hillman”, Johanna McKay also does a completely laudable job, and it’s very clear that she too, has found the ubiquity of her character. We all know (or have known) someone like her (–or wish we did!) The brash, outspoken ‘peacekeeper’ of their street, McKay paints “Mrs. Hillman” as one who’s always looking out for the ‘little person’, chiefly because she recalls to us that she once was just such a person herself. Judging not, nor liking judgment upon others, hers is the personification of a “good neighbor”. Although not of Jewish descent herself, “Mrs. Hillman” also proudly upholds her late husband’s Semitic dignity even as her son “Jim” wants to shorten their name to simply “Hill”, because it sounds less ‘ethnic’ to his impending bride’s WASP-ish and decidedly more conservative Pasadena family, (not to mention his business associates whom he feels will “trust him more” were he not thought to be “a Jew”.) As her son (and eventually, Grandson) Ian Alda has perhaps the widest range or variety of roles—and as such is initially seen briefly as “Dalton Hill”, then several scene changes ‘earlier’ as “Jim Hillman” (nee Hill”.) Back in 1848, he re-emerges as “Patrick”–a star-crossed boy in uniform, relying on the kindness of strangers to escape his own servitude. When he crops-up in the second act, “Patrick” is an AWOL Soldier on the run from the U.S. Army, seeking refuge, and appealing to the newlywed homesteaders, “Enrique’ and “Toya” for help. It’s interesting as well, that Ms. Ordaz has chosen to make him an Irish Immigrant himself, probably fresh off the boat and suborned into the Armed Forces before he even knew he had the choice. When we finally see him, it’s once more as “Jim’s” equally “Yuppie-fied” son, “Dalton”—now a developer who pays a call on “Ric” and his cousin about buying up their house, in advance of all the urban planning and renovating he’s part of, making their property values…well, ‘less valuable’ (there a lot of talk of that in this play.)
Meanwhile, LeShay Tomlinson is practically a theatrical force of nature as “Mrs. Piqueray” (–and that’s what she prefers everyone—including her own Granddaughters–call her!) She’s also magnetic in the part of “Mrs. Piqueray’s” opinionated Granddaughter, “Sharon”—who herself is not above a few petty prejudices in her own right, (especially when it comes to those “Messicans” next door!) However, this too, is another example of the Playwright’s keen understanding of the universality and interconnectedness of viewpoints, feelings, and attitudes that flow through us all (even those we’re loathe to even admit having!) As “Mrs. Piqueray” in 1953, she finds herself on the other side of such narrow-mindsets and hostilities when she’s harassed by the man across the street shortly after moving in. In her frustration and anger she allows as how she hoped such problems had been left behind in Louisiana, but is disheartened to find that hasn’t necessarily been the case: “Here the law IS already changed—and things are still bad!” she fumes. In the end though it’s “Mrs. Piqueray’ who expresses perhaps the hallmark idea of the entire show: Proud to at last be a full-fledged property owner she beams “Money you can lose—but Property, Land—ain’t nobody can take that away!” Right there with her, Niketa Calame makes a masterful impact as well—and in a trio of roles. Notable among these is “Mel” (short for “Melanie”) a perky, likable lass, the granddaughter of “Mrs. Pickeray”. She also plays “Mel’s” mother, (and “Mrs. Pickeray’s” daughter,) “Leslie”, starting out as an idealistic teen coping with the incendiary 1960’s cultural revolution (including the infamous Watts Riots,) then later, when it’s discovered that she’s become a sad, addicted adult, whose dreams of changing the world have all gone up in smoke—gratis the perpetual crack-pipe in her hand. As “Mel” and “Sharon”, Calame and Tomlinson share a terrific scene with Torres as their new neighbor, the young “Ricardo”. Side-splittingly funny in a goofy sort of way, but also sublimely touching, they find him after he’s been chased down the block by a pair of gang-member wannabes, so they ‘teach’ him what it takes to be ‘cool’ in L.A. In addition, Ms. Calame also delivers a brief but captivating turn as Pepe—a male former slave, who has escaped to the West. Acting as a guard for the local Mission, “Pepe’s” one dream is to someday make enough money so he can purchase the freedom of the young daughter he had to leave behind in Louisiana—on the “Piqueray Plantation” (do you sense some subtext developing here?) Both Calame and Tomlinson are so unique in each of their various characterizations, it will take you a bit to realize they’re even the same actresses!
A multimedia experience in every sense of the word, “This Land” thrives on its exceptional technical elements, commencing with the Scenic and Lighting designs by Justin Huen, which are so intimately connected with the innovative video projections by Benjamin Durham it’s honestly difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. These projections, which adroitly open the play up so creatively, allow the times and environment to change—quite literally—in a flash. Physically, the set is composed of a series of sharp-edged, geometric flats that span the full length of the already sizable stage. On to these are projected sumptuous impressionistic water-color paintings–half, old-time Pueblo etchings, the other half modern representations of graffiti and urban street-art. Furthermore, the costumes by Manjee Leija are simple, but also do the trick and then some—persuasively bridging the gap between epochs. Cast doubling often means some quick changes of costumes and wigs, hence Mr. Leija wisely gets much mileage from simpler articles of clothing while also demonstrating how, over time and despite differences of cultures, basic apparel has (generally) remained obstinately similar. Not to be overlooked either is Rebecca Kessin’s dexterous Sound-design, which incorporates numerous ‘sync-sound’ effects throughout the on-stage goings-on, all of which also add much to helping create the overall atmosphere presented.
Fascinating, engrossing and diverse, having officially opened on Saturday, October 21st, “This Land” is slated to run through Monday, November 13th, 2017 at the “Company of Angels” theater, located at 1350 San Pablo Street in Los Angeles, California. Showtimes are Friday, Saturday, and Monday evenings at 8:00 PM and Sundays at 7:00 PM (Monday performances are Pay-What-You-Can.) Tickets can be obtained by logging onto: http://www.companyofangels.org ; or “Like” them on “Facebook” at: http://www.facebook.com/billberrymusic
Production Stills By “Grettel Cortes Photography” Courtesy of “Susan D. Gordon Public Relations” and “Company Of Angels” (www.CompanyOfAngels.org) Special Thanks To Susan D. Gordon, Evangeline Ordaz, Armando Molina And To The Cast And Crew Of “Company Of Angels” 2017 World Premiere Production of “This Land” For Making This Story Possible.