As the imaginary curtain rises on “Tacos LA Brooklyn,” the first thing you see is the silhouette of a chola in typical gear –baggy pants, tank top, the works. “Another play exploiting the stereotype” you might immediately think, exhaling a not-so-imaginary gasp.
That perception is quickly shattered when the character is lit and her Asian features are identified. The audience soon realizes that she and two other characters, another woman and a man, are Japanese cholos: part of an existing subculture that identifies with LA’s Chicano aesthetic.
No need to decry “Cultural Appropriation.” That’s the job of social media influencer Yesenia Tapia, a central character in Joel Ulloa’s wonderful new play at the Los Angeles Theater Center, who wastes no time in calling it as she sees it.
In a thoughtful, provoking look at cultural identity, gentrification and the power of social media, Ulloa delivers a play that dares to explore existential issues of life today in an Eastside barrio without ignoring the humanity of the characters that he puts on stage.
Said humanity is best expressed in the character of Chino, a young Korean man who was raised by a Mexican “abuelo” and whose goal is to realize the old man’s dream of opening up an Hidalgo-style birria restaurant at a prime location on César Chavez Ave. He loves Hidalgo birria, he says, he treats it with respect, he wants to “elevate” it.
And the young Latinx influencer will have none of it. His “elevated” birria is too expensive for her own grandfather, she argues. The conflict between Yesenia and Chino, appropriation versus appreciation, plays out in the fictitious L.A. River Night Market (inspired by the real, former Ave 26 Night Market). Chino is among the vendors trying to survive under the constant threat of a city shutdown.
Ulloa, a Boyle Heights native, knows his characters well and is unafraid of working with their idiosyncrasies. His characters speak in three languages (with projected supertitles in English as needed). His dialogue is crisp, funny and poignant; his use of language, at least in English and Spanish, is masterful (and it probably is in Japanese too).
At LATC, these characters come alive in a superb cast headed by Esperanza América as the loud, outspoken Yesenia and Gavin K. Lee as the hopeful, hardworking Chino. As these two characters face off against each other, the complexity of the “cultural appreciation” issue is laid out and given very human and very likable faces.
Along the protagonists, there are several standout performances from a small cast, many of whom play multiple roles. Among these, Paul Dateh is striking as Benjiro, the Japanese cholo who sings oldies as if he were in East LA, and Xavi Moreno, the annoyingly loveable barbecue vendor Mike, who takes Ulloa’s dialogue and makes it his own.
It’s always a pleasure to see Latino Theater Company stalwart Sal Lopez on stage; he masterfully plays various characters in this production but is best as the “abuelo.” As that character he is accompanied by Lencha, a fellow vendor who feels like the soul of the barrio, beautifully played by Alejandra Flores.
Director Fidel Gomez gives “Tacos La Brooklyn” the energy that Ulloa’s writing requires, smartly utilizing his design team to recreate the fast pace of life on social media in today’s society.
The play is a welcome collaboration between two LA classics: the aforementioned LTC and East West Players, and it runs through Nov. 5 at the beautiful LATC in downtown LA.
A very different, multicultural story from the neighborhood is on stage now at Company of Angels Theater in Boyle Heights. In “Rise,” author Kimba Henderson looks at the real history of Blacks in the neighborhood and creates a powerful story of a woman born and raised in Boyle Heights holding on to a family secret that keeps her from abandoning the neighborhood.
In an interview with Boyle Heights Beat, Henderson said that the play was “a love letter to a neighborhood I never lived in,” and that love is palpable in her writing and her care for her characters.
In a strong cast, veteran actor Bernadette Speaks stands out as the old Emmeline, the central character who comes to terms with a past that’s haunting her. A solid creative team backs the actors’ work, especially director Lui Sanchez. “Rise” continues at Company of Angels through Nov. 5.
Another world premiere play is currently on stage at Boyle Heights’ Casa 0101. “Queen of the Rumba” is Josefina Lopez’s take on the life of Cuban dancer Alicia Parlá. It closes out its run this weekend and in his review, my colleague Alex Medina said “it’s something you won’t want to miss out on.”
It’s a good season for theater in and about Boyle Heights.
‘Tacos La Brooklyn’
Plays Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 4pm and 8 pm, through Nov. 5 (no performance on Nov. 4) at:
The Los Angeles Theatre Center
514 S. Spring Street
General Admission tickets are $48; Students, seniors, veterans and LAUSD teachers: $22 with valid ID.
For tickers www.latinotheaterco.org or (213) 489-0994
Plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm, at:
Company of Angels Theater,
1350 San Pablo Street
Tickets for all performances: $25; $15 students and seniors (65+); $12 group tickets (10 or more – use code GROUP)
‘Queen of the Rumba’
Plays Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday at 3pm (final performance) at:
2102 East First Street
Tickets are are $25.00 General Admission; $22.00 for Boyle Heights residents and Groups of 20 of more; $20.00 for Students and Seniors 60+.
For tickets call 323-263-7684, E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or buy online at www.casa0101.org.