“Best of 2019 LA Theatre: the race act.”

Hosted by

"Gem of the Ocean" Photo courtesy of A Noise Within.

It’s time for the best of theatre of 2019. Like last year, the best theatre in Los Angeles - the theater that spoke with the clearest voice this year - was political. But where last year the politics had to do broadly with who was leading who. This year, the politics were mostly about race and gender.

I want to work backwards, and quickly, because one of my favorite show is still playing. “Jitney”, at the Mark Taper Forum through December 29th - is August Wilson’s grappling with the 1970’s. This production, which won the Tony award for best revival, brings Wilson’s words to musical life.

This New York production of “Jitney” was made all the sweeter - having just gotten to see Gregg T. Daniels home grown production of “Gem of the Ocean” at A Noise Within. As I’ve said more than once, Mr. Daniels is building a stunning and undeniable body of work giving voice to the African-American experience across Los Angeles theaters. His “Gem of the Ocean” navigated this tricky, spiritual play, Wilson’s most formally daring, with grace. While sadly, unlike “Jitney” - you can’t see this one - put anything Mr. Daniels is directing on your radar.

Now, let’s jump all the way back to the beginning of 2019. Back in January REDCAT shared the latest chapter in the Wooster Group’s multi-year residency. The play’s title is a mouthful: “The B-Side: “Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons,” A Record Album Interpretation.” It also contains within it a complicated world of paradoxes. “The B-Side” was a sort of response to the Wooster Group’s “Early Shaker Spirituals.” Where that piece showcased a group of white women, “The B-Side…” was a trio of black men singing a-capella spirituals from a chain gang.
As an audience, it was a complicated and layered experience. There was the stunning beauty of these men’s voices but there was also a reminder of our painful collective past.

“Scraps” at the Matrix was also haunted by the past and the legacy of a black man killed by the police. Act one was realistic street corner drama circling playwright Geraldine Inoa’s complex characters. Act two, if I’m candid, was a mess… but the best kind of dramatic mess: a playwright breaking open their own play, shifting formal languages and turning realism into a nightmare. Act two of “Scraps” was hard to rap your mind around but no harder than imagining a son losing his father to police brutality. Like “The B-Side…”, “Scraps” was theatre that demanded a personal reckoning.

Where these plays focused on the characters that filled them, Cornerstone Theatre Company and director Nancy Keystone made the *place* the character. In “A Jordan Downs Illumination”, that place is the public housing project in Watts - Jordan Downs. Cornerstone has long done pieces that share the untold stories of community but that usually takes shape around the people. With “A Jordan Downs Illumination” that had an audience rethink a place by walking us through it. In a city where we drive by and through countless communities we’ll never truly know, to take a moment to drive to a community and catch a glimpse of it’s history was a rare Angeleno gift that could only exist here in LA.

That’s just the beginning of my list - next week the best of LA theatre tackles gender. (If you can’t wait to hear the rest, subscribe to the KCRW Theatre Newsletter for a sneak peak: kcrw.com/theatre).