LA Theater: A Study in White?
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Do you know how many languages are spoken by kids in the LAUSD? Ninety-two. Ninety-two different languages.
And how many languages do we normally hear in LA's theatres? One and half . . . maybe two.
Okay, I know that's an exaggeration . . . but not by much. If you tried to figure out LA's demographics based on the work in its theaters, you'd think the place was a study in white with a couple of darker shades for color.
Against that backdrop, it's great to see the LA County Arts Commission support The Romance of Magno Rubio as part of the [INSIDE] the Ford season.
The play is set in the fields of 1930's California and chronicles the lives of Filipino migrant workers known as Manongs. Against the familiar hardships of chasing the harvest for less than a fair living is the resilient innocence of a man named Magno Rubio. Magno's only four foot six, but he's fallen in love with a tall blonde goddess in an ad from a lonely hearts magazine. Magno's smitten. He's convinced that if he simply sends enough love letters - and wires enough money - his fair maiden will marry him.
What's exciting is there are two versions of the show - one in English and the other in Tagalog - one of the main languages of the Philippines.
Given that Southern California is home to close to half a million Filipinos, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the Tagalog performances are selling well. Hint to LA theatre makers: LA has adventurous tastes and profoundly deep communities. Plays that give voice to those communities find a committed audience - whether it's last year's hit at 24th Street Theater called La Razon Blindada or Zoo District's Master and Margarita from a decade ago.
But the reason to go see The Romance of Magno Rubio isn't a passion for diversity. In fact, that's rarely enough to make good art. It's the remarkably touching and human performance given by Jon Jon Briones as Magno Rubio. It's a tough role. Magno's a beautifully trusting sucker and it's tough to root for underdog when they can't catch a clue. Briones brings a wide-eyed silent wonder to the role, like watching the world through the amazed eyes of a baby.
A great example. Magno can't write his own love letters. He doesn't know enough English. So he enlists the help of a fellow worker who on occasion goes to college and serves as his translator. After a particularly promising letter Magno goes to hug him but rather than a typical embrace, he leans forward as if to place his head on the other man's belly. It's childlike and endearing.
It's appropriate that when the inevitable heartbreak finally crashes down on Magno there are no words, no language. Actor Briones captures silently and profoundly the anguish of discovering our love is not always as it seems - that the world can be a cruel and deceitful place. Then with a touch of the divine, he finds joy even in his sorrow.
It's a moment worth experiencing in any language.
The Romance of Magno Rubio plays through December 11 at the [Inside] Ford Theatre in Hollywood.
This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theatre for KCRW.Run time: 90 minutes (no intermission)
Banner image (L-R) Antoine Reynaldo Diel, Jon Jon Briones and Jet Montelibano in The Romance of Magno Rubio. Photo by Hydee Abrahan/Studio 1003