When Kimba Henderson was asked to write a play about the Black history of Boyle Heights, she had no idea such a thing existed.
“I was like, ‘You had me at Black Boyle Heights.” Henderson said. “Those three words together – I don’t know what it is, but I’m in it.”
Henderson received the commission from Company of Angels (CoA), a Boyle Heights-based theater company with which she had worked before. The result –after a year of research, writing and polishing– is “Rise,” a play that looks at a Black woman’s journey through several decades of living in the neighborhood that opens this weekend at Company of Angels’ theater at the Legacy LA campus.
“This play is a love letter to a neighborhood I never lived in,” Henderson said in an interview last week. “It is taking all this stuff I’ve read about its people and how it’s developed and what it is.”
“You know, I never lived there, so I don’t have that intimate connection [with Boyle Heights]. But [it’s] based on all this stuff, and the people I’ve talked to, what I’ve heard about it, what I respect about it, what fascinates me about it.”
According to CoA’s press release, ‘Rise’ is “a poignant journey throughout the decades of an African American woman born and bred in Boyle Heights. As the neighborhood evolves, this love story unfolds the ties that bind her to it, unraveling the tragic mystery behind her unrelenting resolve to never leave.”
Part of the creative process for ‘Rise,” CoA said, involved participating in “story circles” with African American men and women who either grew up in Boyle heights or had family from the area.
That research, Henderson said, quickly changed her perception of Boyle Heights.
“I was just fascinated, because you had people from all these different backgrounds, races, faiths… and they lived together.” she said. “And not just like, ‘Oh, that’s my Mexican neighbor, they’re having a quinceañera. We’re going, right?’ Lives were shared together. That is so hard for us to do in 2023, and people were doing it in the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s and’ 60s.”
Part of that research taught Henderson little known facts of Black history. For instance she found out about Harriet Owens-Bynum, who migrated to Boyle Heights from Texas in 1887 and became a real estate agent selling and renting to other Blacks, and her son John Wesley Coleman, who ran an employment agency and later developed an apartment complex with his mother. Henderson visited their graves at Evergreen Cemetery.
“They’re buried together, in the same plot. I thought that was fascinating. But then when you look at all that they’ve done… and I’d never heard of them before.”
Henderson said that part of her challenge as a playwright was finding dramatic tension for her writing about a community that apparently loved living in Boyle Heights and got along with its non Black neighbors. Her research led her to conclude that most of the strife in Boyle Heights came from exterior forces.
She cited the well-documented practice of restrictive covenants that forced some racial and religious groups to move to the few Los Angeles neighborhoods like Boyle Heights where they could buy homes. Other public policies and government decisions, she said, openly discriminated against Boyle Heights residents.
“You put a bunch of freeways in the middle of it, you put these weird factories in the middle of it, and it turned into this weird dumping ground,” Henderson said. “It almost felt like Boyle Heights versus out here. And I found that very interesting.”
“I think there’s tension in Boyle Heights now, but once again, the tension is from outsiders, mostly. The problems in the neighborhood are people coming in, trying to buy up stuff. The gentrification, you know, that’s what it is.”
Henderson admitted that there has been some racially-motivated tension in the community, and that some of that persists today in a small percentage of the population. She said the characters in “Rise” are aware of that and that one of them mentions the firebombing of Black homes in Ramona Gardens in 2014. In agreement with CoA, the playwright chose not to delve into that hateful event, out of respect to the residents of that community not far from the theater.
Some members of Black Boyle Heights, former residents and their descendants who formed a group on Facebook to call attention to the neighborhood’s Black history, participated in the “story circles” for the play’s development and attended early readings of Henderson’s work. Without giving details, the group recently disassociated itself from CoA’s production and asked media outlets covering ‘Rise’ not to reach out to them for comment.
Henderson said that she and others at CoA are unaware of the reason for the group’s disenchantment, but said that perhaps the group expected the play to be specifically about the individual stories from Black Boyle Heights and not a fictionalized, dramatic take on the history.
She said that some members of the group did reach out to her in support and expects that some of them will see the play.
What does Henderson expect audiences to get from ‘Rise’?
“People don’t want to be preached to unless they’re in church, and sometimes even when they’re in church,” the writer said, adding that she expects the play to start a conversation about where the neighborhood has been and where it’s going.
“The hope is that it informs people, that they have something to talk about, [that’s] my goal for this play,’ she concluded. “I want people to walk out of thinking, ‘Is it possible in 2023 for people [of] different backgrounds and races and colors and sexualities and identities to live together and share life together? Is that possible?”
“I believe in the power of art [to move people], whether it’s music or physical art, whether it’s a play, a film, whatever it is. It can, if people are open to it.”