If I didn’t already work for a pretty cool arts nonprofit, and if my theater background consisted of more than seeing Rent 14 and a half times and playing Ferdinand/Ginger in an ill-fated production of The Tempest/Gilligan’s Island, I would totally want to work for Cornerstone Theater Company.
Here is what they do: They go to different communities in LA—communities defined by geography, faith, age or initials (and once they did a play comprised entirely of people born on June 30)—and do theater productions that combine said communities’ voices, concerns and amateur actors with classic plays.
Friday night, this took the form of 3/7/11: A Lincoln Heights Tale, a fairytale remix acted by eight-, twelve- and sixteen-year-old Lincoln Heightseans. AK used to live and teach in Lincoln Heights, so I was like, “Let’s go see if they’re accurately representing it!” We showed up at Lincoln High School, and she was like, “Wow, they really shouldn’t have painted the building yellow.”
It was basically a school play, so it was a little weird being there as a non-parent. We had to strain our ears to hear over lots of babies in the audience, who apparently wanted to compete with their onstage siblings.
The play was broken into four segments. The first was an eerie and brilliant shadow play about a troll who placed a giant, enchanted mirror in Lincoln Heights—any child who looked into it would conclude, “Soy fea!” and then turn into a depressed shadow child as a result of the self-fulfilling prophesy. The shadow children were later represented by third graders in dark gray hoodies with the hoods pulled up. You’d be surprised how creepy that image can be.
The segments that followed tied in Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, and an evil ice queen, all with a sprinkling of Spanish and local in-jokes, as when a character’s car broke down, and he said, “There must be an auto repair shop somewhere around here. This is Lincoln Heights.”
All of the segments involved a battle of good and evil, light and dark, with good and light winning out. The enemies were vague: It wasn’t like the witches and wolves, trolls and shadow children clearly stood in for gangs, drugs, crime, poverty or bad public policy. The part of me that appreciates clear and specific allegory sort of wanted them to. I found myself watching a character named Xochi defeat the ice queen with the equivalent of a Care Bear Stare and thinking, Yeah, it would be nice if it were that simple.
But the thing is, while the problems that plague communities may very well be the result of poverty and bad public policy, their manifestations usually feel as abstract as blank-eyed children or tiny shards of glass that catch your eye and show you an ugly reflection. Real-life darkness is as vague and murky as a fairytale forest.
And could we conquer it by just speaking out, in a general kind of way, for light and young-heartedness? To say yes might be wishful thinking, a fairytale ending. Then again, something very real and magical happened in that high school auditorium. Kids called out their identities to the cheers of their parents and siblings. Twenty or so third graders sat still on stage for an hour and a half. Hell, just getting kids on a bus to take them from one school to another for rehearsal is a small miracle. And I think small miracles are a nice place to start.