Holding an imperfect mirror up to LA (vida loca)

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"La Vida Loca" Photo courtesy of CASA 0101. Photo credit: Ed Krieger.

Okay, it’s theater metaphor time, ready?

Imagine you were given a mirror. Or at least you were told it was a mirror. So you put it up in your room but every time you looked at it you saw someone else’s face not yours. Every once in a while, you’d see a face that looked a little like yours but then it’d disappear. Mostly this mirror just showed pretty faces you didn’t recognize.

I’m guessing it wouldn’t be long before you stopped trusting that mirror. Maybe you’d keep the mirror but you might treat it more like your TV - a place to see others not yourself - but you wouldn’t rely on it.

That mirror could be LA theater and that face could be Angelenos - broadly - but Angelenos of color definitely. Said more simply, the faces on LA’s stages don’t capture the diversity of Los Angeles.

Now imagine you’re walking through your neighborhood and you stumble on an old, damaged mirror. Maybe it’s a little hazy and a little cracked so the image is fragmented but it’s *your* image. You can see a part of yourself. You’d cherish that imperfect mirror, wouldn’t you?

That metaphor describes what’s going on at CASA 0101 with the adaptation of Luis J. Rodriguez’s memoir “Always Running.” The book and the play chronicle “La Vida Loca”, Mr. Rodriguez’s time growing up in the barrio gangs of East LA.

This isn’t an easy story to hear but judging by the sold out crowds and standing ovation - it’s a journey that is letting a community see a reflection of itself and their struggles.

We follow Mr. Rodriguez or Chin, as he was known on the streets, from his moments getting jumped in to agang, through dropping out of school and finding his way back in; to slipping into drugs and finally swearing off of them. There’s standing up for his homies. There’s crime. There’s retaliation. There’s going to jail. There’s even devastating young love.

Structurally, the play feels like a book. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover and a lot of little details. The adaptation tries to make sense of the journey but to do that we get a lot of short scenes that give us information if not necessarily drama. Or there are moments that are profoundly dramatic but handled so briefly they never go beyond the first level or impulse.

What keeps the whole project together is the power of the redemptive story and the actors who manage to connect these tiny scenes with a feel for the bigger story.

For Mr. Rodriguez that story was the journey from violence to art: from fighting for his territory to fighting for social justice and peace. It’s hard not to root for that guy even if that story is fragmented and choppy.

The production, which was scheduled to run through October, just extended through Thanksgiving. Clearly, the community is seeing something they recognize and value in this less than perfect mirror. It’s an LA story, maybe not one we’re happy about but it’s ours and audiences are rewarding it.

For LA theater, it’s one of many tough lessons. If we do plays about New York, maybe the theater audience will only be folks who used to live in New York? But if we want to do plays for audiences that look like our city, maybe those stories won’t be as tidy but maybe there will be an audience clamoring to see themselves - even just a glimmer.

“Always Running” plays at CASA 0101 in Boyle Heights through November 24th.