The theatre of place: Jordan Downs

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A Jordan Downs Illumination Photo credit: Noé Montes

It’s pretty easy in LA theatre to learn something about New York what with all the plays that are either set there or rehearsed there or coming from there. It’s a lot harder to learn something about Los Angeles, our city.

Cornerstone Theatre Company is the consistent exception to that rule.

If you’re not familiar with Cornerstone, their mission is to tell the story of community. Their process is intense and long. It usually takes them a couple of years to make a play because they engage deeply with the community they are giving voice to forging partnerships, leading story circles, encouraging community members to join the process.

Conceptually the work is always stunning. Practically, the final product can be hit and miss. What you end up seeing, or maybe witnessing is a better description, is a performance that’s just the tip of the iceberg or the artefact of deeper process. You usually *meet* the community through the people onstage. They become the subject.

But for Cornerstone’s latest piece “A Jordan Downs Illumination” the focus is really space and time (or more accurately *place* through time). That place is the public housing project in Watts - Jordan Downs. And the time is from World War II when the project was built through now when - After decades of conversation and controversy, the entire project is phase by phase being rebuilt as an urban village.

Cornerstone has partnered with LA director Nancy Keystone and her company Critical Mass Performance Group to create a deeply moving and sensitive experience of a place with a rich and complicated history.

The play begins outside the Jordan Downs rec center where the audience is gingerly asked whether this is our first time to the projects. On opening night a lot of hands went up. What takes place over the course of the next 90 minutes is an immersive mash up of theatre piece, history lesson, art installation, and crash course in the perils of public housing.

The audience, split into three different groups, makes its way through a series of stations that range from a sound installation of ghostly, illuminated fabric walls that, from tiny speakers inside of them, capture the voices of the community - to a hall of decades that in boxes reminiscent of a convention booth or a passion play trace the story of Jordan Downs from the 1940’s to 2010 a decade at a time - to what feels like a crash course in public housing where the audience is asked to decide based on a set of bureaucratic criteria and thumbnail personal descriptions which of the current residents should get moved into the newly renovated phase one.

It’s a remarkable experience. Whatever you know of public housing and Jordan Downs, specifically, this play will change how you feel about it.

My only complaint is that “A Jordan Downs Illumination” is only playing for two weekends. Your last chance to see it this weekend.

Don’t miss this production - don’t miss this chance to experience community.

“A Jordan Downs Illumination” plays in Watts through this Sunday.