A Process with Integrity

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

I always stand in awe of Cornerstone Theater Company's work. Regardless of how successful the 'play' is, it's hard not to be inspired and moved by Cornerstone's process.

More than any other LA theater company, to appreciate Cornerstone's work onstage - it helps to understand how the plays are made offstage and how each play fits into a bigger context. Cornerstone's current world-premiere Cafe Vida is no exception.

Stick with me this gets a little tricky.

Unlike most companies that make one play at a time or a season of plays, Cornerstone creates in five year "Cycles." Each cycle is built around a big idea or question. For the next five years that idea is hunger. Cornerstone will build nine plays that revolve around hunger, justice, and food equity. They call it "The Hunger Cycle" and Cafe Vida is the first play of that cycle.

Once they have the big idea, Cornerstone seeks out a community to partner with. Each play's voices comes from the community. For Cafe Vida, they've partnered with Father Greg Boyle and the Home Girl Cafe. Home Girl Cafe employs former gang members and trains them to run a restaurant. Their motto - "nothing stops a bullet like a job."

So with a big idea - hunger and a partner - the Home Girl Cafe, Cornerstone does a two-year residency to engage the community and discover their story. They begin with story circles where they invite the community to answer simple questions: "What was your kitchen like growing up?" Then a playwright, for Cafe Vida Lisa Loomer, interviews community members. The script takes shape from these stories.

The play is cast with Cornerstone ensemble members and members of the community - many of whom have never been onstage. More than half the cast of Cafe Vida are employees at Home Girl.

The story Cornerstone tells in Cafe Vida tracks the journey of Chabela and Luz, Two homegirls from different barrios who have just been released from prison and desperately need a second chance and a job to get their lives together and their kids back. They both seek out a job with Father T at Cafe Vida - the script's stand-ins for the real Father Greg and Home Girl Cafe. We follow them as they start mopping floors, working in the garden, doing prep work in the kitchen, and finally waiting tables for a less than sympathetic public. Along the way they struggle with old demons and new challenges as they strive to make peace with the past and define their own futures.

Critically, you could quibble that the story is a formulaic redemption tale. Or that mixed into the compelling and moving story Cornerstone gets sidetracked with overly simplistic lectures about our food supply. But to do that would be missing the bigger point.

What makes Cornerstone an LA treasure, is they commit to giving voice to these communities, to a bigger idea. As an audience, we're invited to not only be 'entertained' but also to bear witness, to listen.

If you've never seen Cornerstone's work Cafe Vida shouldn't be missed.

Cafe Vida plays at LATC in downtown LA through May 20.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes with an intermission

Banner image: (L-R) Magaly La Voz de Oro (Singer) and Lynette Alfaro (Chabela) in Café Vida. Photo by John Luker