Culture Clash has done it again.
“Chavez Ravine: An L.A. Revival” has it’s audience laughing, clapping and tearing up when they see the actual footage of La Loma, Palo Verde and Bishop transporting them back to this painful period of L.A. history when families in 1959 were physically removed from their houses and their lives and close knit community was literally flattened by bulldozers.
More than just a play, “Chavez Ravine: An L.A. Revival” successfully captures the complex love-hate relationship with Dodger Stadium that many still wrestle with today.
After working together for 30 years, the powerful and seasoned Culture Clash trio –- Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas, and Herbert Siguenza — is stronger than ever. And this production brings a powerful, talented young female actor named Sabina Zuniga Varela who — in the words of Montoya — represents the next generation. Like the popular trio, she plays several roles including “Maria,” the voice of reason and the young activist who organizes an earnest attempt to save her community.
The play was first presented in 2003 at the Mark Taper Forum and is now running at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. The trio of musicians and stage production are outstanding. This time around, the play is fine-tuned with even more bite to it, underlining the strong similarities to issues today.
The group, having produced scores of plays, is often asked why “Chavez Ravine” was “revived?”
“In 2003 we were so happy to be at the Taper and it was about Culture Clash. Now, [years later] we are better writers and we have more to say, and we needed and wanted to go deeper,” Montoya said.
“First, artistically, it’s our most requested play and I believe it’s our best play as a collective,” said Siguenza who points to present day parallels. “Secondly, aggressive gentrification of Latino neighborhoods such as Boyle Heights and Echo Park have displaced and outpriced working class families.”
Siguenza moved to Sylmar just two years ago after living in San Diego, and was not aware that his play now literally resonates right in his own backyard with the proposed route to have the high-speed rail cut right through the Northeast San Fernando Valley communities of Sun Valley, Pacoima, the City of San Fernando and Sylmar, before heading into the foothills toward Palmdale.
Many Valley residents are just learning about what can be considered their “Chavez Ravine.” They’ve recently received letters from the High-Speed Rail Authority to ask for permission to enter their property to “assess it” and, like those residents depicted in this play, they are faced with the chilling prospect of “eminent domain,” which could literally remove them from their homes and businesses.
Residents who have started to organize in the Northeast San Fernando Valley have also called the proposed plans to encase the high-speed rail above ground through their neighborhoods as an unsightly “death wall” that would physically divide their community and, they believe, bring with it miles of destruction.
Following each performance of “Chavez Ravine: An L.A. Revival,” a discussion is held in the theater lobby that brings expected questions about the actors and the production itself. But like the brand of plays that Culture Clash produces, the discussion goes much deeper.
One man raises his hand to talk about the longtime fight in his community of El Sereno in Los Angeles to keep the 710 Freeway from cutting through his neighborhood, and the environmental injustice that his community has faced for years. This play for him is so much more than a documentation of history. He asks Montoya why the production can’t keep going beyond it’s scheduled run to “help bring more awareness?”
The trio hopes to have the play filmed, not just for posterity but also as an educational tool. Montoya explains he would like to see a “mapping” study of the period because he believes there are still holes of information that haven’t been well documented.
“Chavez Ravine: An L.A. Revival,” has been performed in other U.S. cities. Said Montoya, who points out that this play resonates, “for any town that has the construction of a stadium or has a displacement issue. But the question remains: what are we going to do about it?”
For Culture Clash, while they are fulfilling a mission far beyond the staging of meaningful productions, they are artistically pushing and inspiring the next generation of audiences and actors to take on this important work.
“We wanted to go deeper with this production and let the role of ‘Maria’ emerge. ‘Maria’ is a protagonist, not the victim,” Montoya pointed out.
Joking with those who stayed to hear the discussion, Montoya — referencing the trio, now all in their 50’s — said, “Culture Clash is now your (italics) tios.” (italics end_
A young man from the audience laughs and shouts out (italics)“Abuelos.” (italics end) Montoya responds to the comment by acting as if he is walking with a cane.
“The role of ‘Maria’ is near and dear to me,” said Montoya. “Another group and generation of artists need to [do this work] to say this.”
And at the end of the play, Culture Clash does exactly that. During the finale, “Maria” takes center stage in full spotlight to share her heartfelt commitment to her community.
Like a scene at Dodger Stadium, the crowd gets to its feet, stands and cheers. The audience bestows a standing ovation.
Chavez Ravine runs until March 1 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City.
The High Speed Rail Authority will hold a meeting on Feb. 24, 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., in the City of San Fernando Regional Pool Meeting Room at San Fernando Recreational Park.