Honk!: Drive-Time Stories

I HAD one of my first birthday parties at the Bob Baker Marrionette Theater, oh so many years ago. Puppets and sugar, who wouldn’t be happy?  So it will be a thrill to be part of this event next Wednesday evening, November 14.  Join me and these fine folks for a new episode of “Tom Explores Los Angeles” for an evening of  puppetry and storytelling, “told through the windshield.”

This will be one of the final performances at the treasure of an old space that miraculously still sits at that busy crossing where Glendale Boulevard meets Second Street at the edges of downtown Los Angeles.

To purchase tickets, follow this link. 

We will have a reception afterwards and books will be available for purchase.



A Tale of Two Neighborhoods

WHEN WE think about the place we’re from, what we are really pondering is something something much deeper than a recitation of street and family names. How you get there and who lived where, tell just one layer of the story.

Here in Los Angeles, for as long as I can remember,  I’ve noticed when someone wants to place (or categorize) you, the first question often is: “What high school did you go to?” Geography/affiliation is supposed to give away an essential clue or bIMG_9665uilding block.  (Or feeds a perception.) But with so many remade Southland neighborhoods, that location on the map we once knew so well for decades, may vanish overnight. Consequently, we hold onto our neighborhoods most reliably,  and most vividly,  in our heads, and through a series of personal sense memories.

Poet, playwright and journalist Jerry Quickley deeply understands this. For the last seven months, in collaboration with Center Theatre Group and the Community as Creators project, he has been working closely with members of two ethnically disparate crosstown neighborhoods — Montebello and Leimert Park –to tell their stories: the histories, struggles and joys.

I’ve been peeking in and out of their work in progress since early last year,  and met with Quickley before he and his team had identified both the community “connectors” (networkers and facilitators) and the writer/actors themselves.  (I’ll be writing a  piece for CTG looking at the process and the community impact). The play, Through The Looking Glasswill fold these individual observations, histories, and remembrances into an on-stage “across the fence” conversation, but one that, as rehearsals already suggest, goes deeper than one might think.

Participants took part in several weeks of writing workshops — asking and answering questions about what it meant to be from a particular place. Drilling toward a working definition meant reaching for precise language and examples. For both groups, the goal has been to shatter misconceptions — starting with their own.

We’re getting close. This past two weeks’ rehearsals revealed something rare and beautiful about creating safe and sacred spaces for dealing with unresolved business  and their attendant emotions — something this city is still rife with.  The play will be performed both in Leimert Park and Montebello with a final performance at the Kirk Douglas Theatre on February 8.

For more information about the project and upcoming performances click here.


The combined cast of Through the Looking Glass in rehearsal at @CTGLA in DTLA                 All photos by Lynell George

Freedom to Live

Claudia Rankine via KCET

Just before I hopped out of town for a brief pause, I was able to speak to writer Claudia Rankine about her book Citizen: An American Lyric and the staged version that will be up at the Fountain Theatre here in L.A. until October 11.

Here’s a snip from the intro:

On the American “stage” — within mainstream media and in public discourse — the discussion of race and racism is often defined by spectacle: an event that we can collectively point to that plays out on our screens, large and small. It might be the grievous roll call of black lives cut short by raw acts of violence; or it might take shape in next week’s headlines — a bungled arrest or denial of dignity — that eerily mirrors incidents of three generations ago.

While those high-profile, super-charged moments are indeed odious and shameful, they are indicative of a deeper malady affecting the American psyche, writer Claudia Rankine argues in her most recent book, “Citizen: An American Lyric.”

Often, Rankine notes, these high-profile conflagrations — New Orleans post Hurricane Katrina, the murder of Trayvon Martin — are viewed with confusion or are categorized as aberration by those who don’t move through life with black skin. For those who navigate daily through fraught territory, the belief or assumption that racism is largely “behind us” is both a powerful articulation of privilege and a violent act of erasure.

To read the interview in full click here.

The Round-Up: Collage Style


AS 2013 waltzes to its close, I’ve been going through the accumulation — ticket stubs, programs, over-the-transom galleys, gallery ephemera — reminders of some of the events that caught my eye and ear this year. It was a rich year. I been long out of the habit of making lists and ranking experiences, but this collage of where I’ve been is, in a certain way, a substitution for all of that.

Looking forward to what awaits in 2014.

Happy New Year, All.

water runs through it

SATURDAY NIGHT a troop of friends and acquaintances (12 of us in all ) convened at the Kirk Douglas Theatre to take part in the DouglasPlus run of three one-act monologues —Trieu Tran‘s “Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam”, Roger Guenveur-Smith‘s, “Rodney King” and Luis Alfaro‘s “St. Jude.”

It’s been decades since given myself over to an afternoon-into- evening set of performances and each of them conveyed deeply intimate stories about family, blood, place, love and belonging.

Threading through each is the metaphor of immersion — a baptismal or conversion. A cleansing.


This cycled through my thinking as the day wore on and I continued to bump into even more acquaintances, contacts and connections from various corners of my past — my different beats at different news desks and posts over the years: Poets and actors. Journalists and teachers. Community activists and preachers. We all were reconnecting, it seems, with a past still to be reconciled. It brought up old business — riots and divisions and territory: wounds that had formed scabs, but never really healed correctly. Each piece struck so many in tender or forgotten places. I watched audience members emerge red-eyed or simply glassy. Not just out of sadness but, I think, feeling a deep sense of connection to the many tributaries of the stories — fathers and sons, the flow of family shifts and allegiances — and perhaps most significant of all what happens when you push outside of pre-perscribed lines.

What also hit home was the fact that two of the pieces are set here in Los Angeles, and the third, — with its immersion in the identity politics and the arm-wrestle of assimilation — could very well have simply swapped in L.A.’s physical coordinates and progressed without a disorienting hitch.

There is about another week to this run — and the Douglas is an easy and intimate spot to experience theater. See them if you can.

— After the show with Luis Alfaro

Al Freeman, Jr., 78


As my friend Emory just said: “One of our best. Ever.”

To me he symbolized the future for African American actors — or so we all thought — serious roles, serious subjects, a range of characters to be inhabited. Who knew that that would only be a moment — a blink really.

This one really makes me sad.

Chicago Tribune Obit here.



Peg Leg ~ Wilhelm: from The Black Rider

TOM WAITS will be inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, or so it was announced earlier this week. So that’s sent me digging for something purely idiosyncratic Waits — and that exercise nudged me here.

I had forgotten how moody, off-kilter and compelling this production was. I ended up seeing The Black Rider, twice when it was here downtown at the Music Center. The piece is a collaboration: Tom Waits, Robert Wilson with the ghost of William Burroughs hovering close by — even in the singers’ cadences and intonation.

This is a German production, but there is a fair amount of English throughout this video sketchbook. The actor playing “Peg Leg” is good, but I remember the performer here in L.A. as being incantatory. Just the way he moved on his peg leg — his limp didn’t make him appear at a disadvantage at all, rather it was powerful.

Based on a German folktale, the piece blends myth and lore with threads of fact (allusions to Burroughs’ infamous accidental shooting of his wife during a William Tell-like stunt.) The music is pure, classic Waits, clanging, bawdy and spanning several eras while crossing genres. It’s thoroughly haunting.
What also sticks with me about those evenings was the audience. When the season ticket holders fled the orchestra seats, a pack of erstwhile punks (and post punks) filled the empty seats ~ a little more posh than a mosh pit, I’d say. But theater too nonetheless.

Still waiting for this to be released as a cast album, right now there’s just Waits’ rendition of the song cycle on a CD. Not bad, of course, but even with his inventiveness and ability to stretch, you don’t get the stunning cacophony of voices.
So in honor of Mr. Waits’ nod, let’s hear him at his most elastic…

"We’re going to live the way you talk"

My story being done,
She gave me for my pains a world of sighs;
She swore, in faith ’twas strange, ’twas passing strange;
‘Twas pitiful. ’twas wondrous pitiful,
She wish’d she had not heard it, yet she wish’d
That heaven had made her such a man . . . .

— Othello, the Moor of Venice, act 1, scene 3, lines 158–163

“Slaves got options . . . . Escape, revolt, death — options. But cowards ain’t got shit. Cowards only have consequences.” dig me?”

— Mr. Franklin, from Passing Strange

THE LAST TIME I sat and watched something that had such deep cultural resonance/relevance was when I had to drive out for an early morning screening of Charles Burnett’s To Sleep with Anger for a piece I was putting together about the director for L.A. Weekly– 20 years ago! Sitting in that small screening room alone, it took me awhile to realize that I was crying — me? Yes, albeit quietly.

The film filled me with something amorphous, ineffable. It didn’t just feel like slipping into a life that was familiar, but the more close-to-the-bone-and-heart things: like, the footfalls, the nuances, points of references even the and silences. Sure it was L.A.: the light, the strapping California Craftsman the family clustered within, even the linen cloth covering the dinner table, the china and crystal arranged just so — all of it found someplace at my core — and landed a powerful punch.

Passing Strange — the film, shot and directed by Spike Lee (now just out on DVD) — struck me precisely the same way. It was if I was walking through a house where I knew where everything was. This time, I sat on my own sofa in my living room and cried.

This time the emotion was even more complex. I’d been angered about the fact that the play hadn’t been offered some place to sit a spell in Stew, the playwright’s city of origin.

It found its shape and form at Berkeley Rep first, then leapfrogged to NYC. I was thrilled to see the Tony win. But that of course created something else inside me: a mix of frustration, anger, regret with my happiness. Why not here? The place that not just inspired it, but instigated it.

Passing Strange confronts something I’ve long considered to be a moving target — identity.

Stew, who is best known as one-third of the band “The Negro Problem,” tackles post-Civil Rights/integration identity in Los Angeles — just at the time disco is pressing against punk, just as black kids are being bussed over the hill into the valley and closer to the beaches. L.A. integrated, grudgingly. Stew didn’t have time to wait for the results. He pressed on over the pond.

The music captures a mix of that moment and weaves in Stew’s trajectory: psychedelic late-60s, funk, obtuse jazz, noize, shudder punk, Weil and Brecht — “til chaos feels like home…” It’s hard and hopeful. Tragic and transcendent, but not in an easy, happy ending way. In other words, there’s always a crossroad — what do you gain and what do you lose? The soul always figures prominately as component in the transaction.

While the title plays on a trope familiar to most African Americans — light-skinned blacks “passing” as white to slip through antique social and economic barriers, Stew, however, is dabbling in a bit of triple entendre. “Passing Strange,” taken from a line in Othello, means “surpassingly strange”—stranger than strange. He is playing with various levels of meaning however. He, the “youth” (Daniel Breaker) who would become Stew, and the gay but closeted minister’s son, “Mr. Franklin” (played with note-perfect longing and repression by Colman Domingo), discuss matters of “blackness” and escape while getting high in a blue VW bug “floating above” South L.A.. (“If I were any more real, chile, I’d be fiction.”) Mr. Franklin talked — painted Europe impressionistic strokes, though he had never been, hadn’t had a chance to live it. Both of them consider the weight of “race” and what comes with it, what ties them down — the assumptions and definitions, they understand their position, or rather, “plight” as — “passing for black.”

“I’m a resident of Los Angeles — I know what it’s like to be dead.”
— the Youth

Stew grew up not far from where I did. This I learn by piecing together lyric shards — the streets and vistas that make up my memories. He reminisces about Arlington Hill (“Thrill Hill,” my parents called it) — the dip that shocks you as you sail south, away from from the I-10; he reanimates storefront churches; he critiques “those L.A. ladies in their Mercedes who lock their doors if you just sneeze” and a “South Central” L.A. that put his “soul in the deep freeze.” Young Stew knocks around Europe only to find there are no answers — ones that work for keeps that is. All of this leaves him not so much between worlds or between cultures — but more poignantly still at odds with locating himself. Defining himself for himself would take something else all together.

“Adams and Crenshaw are beautiful”
— from Arlington Hill

Black in L.A. in the 70s and 80s: We were in a paradise sure enough, but someone else’s. “Black in America” was supposed to mean something much different by then, so much sacrificed? But did it? And what would that be? Especially when black people ourselves were creating and enforcing confining regulations and language around the entire concept.

“Passing Strange” moves so fiercely into those quiet spots of conversation. The things we often don’t utter even to one another. Stew and his partner Heidi Rodewald have given those swirling emotions — dread, fear, claustraphopia, elation, frustration — language. Actually, more than language. They’ve turned them into music and lyrics — complete with rhyming couplets — they’ve turned the messy business of identity into a cycle of indelible art song.

the view floating above southwest l.a.