The question is “Can you tell the players without a scorecard?” No, I do not mean the one player on the field. Vin Scully, the voice of the Dodgers since long before they arrived in Los Angeles, cheerfully gives the lowdown on Fernando Valenzuela's triumphant pitching at the opening game of the 1981 season in Dodger Stadium. You may have already noticed: I did not let you know which actor was Scully and which was Valenzuela. Here is the issue: there are 51 characters (most are real people) played by three men and one woman and the program only lists the primary character for each actor. Gender is no help as the uninhibited satirists change it with the addition of an afghan, a skirt, or a wig. The pace is fun enough and fast enough that I am not prepared to swear who was who, but Sabina Zuniga Varela was not on first at the opening curtain … I mean game. Of this I am certain, as the only female on stage was a musician.
On a more serious note this social satire romp through the local, checkered history of the building of Dodger Stadium on what had been the site of a poor but vibrant immigrant community is probably not recalled by all but the few audience members who were in postwar Los Angeles (that is WWII, not Vietnam). Seriously, a note to whoever makes up the program: a timeline of events from 1946 would help audiences enjoy what is one of the most entertaining pieces of social satire around, albeit based on an arcane history of times fairly recently past.
Let me give you my version of a scorecard. Culture Clash is a talented ensemble composed of actors and writers Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas, and Herbert Siguenza. All in their 50s now, they write and perform pointed, funny, and fast-paced social satire around Hispanic immigrant themes with the energy of a college comedy group. "Chavez Ravine" was first seen at the Taper in 2003; the current production is a reworking of the original. Music (provided by onstage musicians Vanez Mari Calderon, Randy Rodarte, and Scott Rodarte) peppers their creations, injecting a street-wise vibe. The McCarthy era, immigrant issues, and poverty are dished up and out so entertainingly you would be forgiven if you left the theater asking yourself, “If that all really happened, why did I just have such a good time?” Well, children, gather round. It did and you did and having a good time need not mean you cannot absorb the history or the message.
This updated production features images from the Getty collection of the pre-Dodger area that came to be called Chavez Ravine. It looks likes something out of the Tijuana hills.
The action opens with Vin Scully, the Dodger announcer, calling Fernando Valenzuelas’ first winning game at Chavez Ravine. It then flashes back to 1946, which was the beginning of the city's plan to uproot the scrappy but vibrant neighborhood. The streets were unpaved, goats and chickens roamed spitting distance from City Hall and the headquarters of the Los Angeles Times, which had its eye on developing nearby Bunker Hill, then a slum featuring location, location, location. Interesting that, in his review of this production, the Times critic, Charles McNulty, did not even mention the role of the paper's owners in uprooting these admittedly unsightly communities. Maybe that makes my case for having some solid information in the program. He is not an Angelino and much too young to know any of this history firsthand.
Don't get me wrong; the liberal solution was not exactly culturally sensitive. It was to bulldoze the scrappy neighborhood and replace it with public housing designed by mid-century darling Richard Neutra. Residents would get vouchers allowing them to buy back in years down the road when the project was finished. Not too appealing to the abuelas and others who had transported their Mexican traditions to L.A. The champion of this idea was City Housing Authority chief Frank Wilkinson, to whom the play is oddly dedicated; he, too, was advocating the destruction and sanitization of the community. Wilkinson, an obstruction to the force of private development, became the object of a McCarthy-era witch hunt culminating in his being jailed for a year for his alleged red activities. [Disclosure: My father and he were UCLA students and pals in the 1930s.]
All of this is dished up, rapid fire, in English and Spanglish. The plot includes the true story of the election of Mayor Norris Paulson, who had been handpicked by the money interests to rid the city of such so-called communists. Funny and easy to follow if you had had a ringside seat; superficial, but still funny, if the Chavez Ravine story was not familiar territory.
The plot is held together by the story of one family whose Mexican-born matriarch has refused to move, whose son (a vet of WWII) cannot wait to take the money and run with his new family, and whose daughter, Maria, is a young radical who opposes any project to destroy the neighborhood. By the end Maria is a law professor lecturing to her class on the importance of preserving basic rights. Culture Clash also fairly included the fact that the Mexican-American community has gone to embrace the Dodgers, aided by the presence of heroes like Valenzuela.
If you will accept it from me that most of the story is true, you will have painlessly learned a piece of local history while spending an enjoyable couple of hours. Looking for character development and dramatic structure more than an interesting story of real, live events? Maybe "The Price" at the Taper would be a better bet. For me the score tells the story: this reworked "Chavez Ravine" won me over.