Free Los Tres! Free Los Tres! – Part 2

COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program,) the program run by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI tracked, harassed and disrupted or destroyed political organizations considered subversive, and the Chicano movement was one of their biggest targets. Momentum was lost, people gave up, got burned out, and with the passage of time, the story of Free Los Tres was largely forgotten.

The play doesn’t try to turn Los Tres into larger than life legends, or some kind of barrio superheroes blasting away at The Man, riddling him with bullets. That would be silly, not to mention propaganda instead of storytelling. They are flawed characters, and the play lets you decide whether their intentions or actions were appropriate.

Carmelo tells me about a saying women used in the barrio – me puta ni santa, I am not a saint, but I’m not a whore either. “We’re not saying we are saints or holier than thou, but that we’re normal,” Carmelo says. “We have temptations, we are human beings, and that nobody is 100 percent good or evil.” On one hand, the authorities called Los Tres vigilantes and criminals. But on the other hand, and there are thousand shades of grey in between these two extremes, Los Tres believed they were protecting a neighborhood that was under assault. Carmelo says the shooting was not premeditated, and Los Tres carried weapons because they were dealing with a drug dealer – and that shortly after Los Tres got busted, the gates to the drugs opened.

“The neighborhood I grew up in – Pico Gardens and Aliso Village – after they squashed the movement and locked us up and things kind of died down—-that area became known as 31 Flavors. You could get anything there, from drugs to guns,”Beto says. The gangs became more powerful and the violence in Boyle Heights got out of control, with cliques from 1st to 4th Street killing each other.

The drug problem today is overwhelming. The so-called “War on Drugs” failed because arresting dealers didn’t work as long as the demand was so high and another replacement was willing to step up. Small towns across America, but particularly in Rust Belt states like Ohio and West Virginia, are being decimated by an epidemic of opioid abuse. Drugs overdoses killed more than 72,000 people in 2017, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control, the worst year ever. That’s nearly 200 people a day (there was a decline of overdose deaths in 2018, perhaps a sign the epidemic has peaked.)

When I asked Carmelo if the drug epidemic could have been stopped by a few men protecting their neighborhood, he said the idea was never that they could stop the entire drug problem. If Los Tres and others took care of their own barrio, and if other communities began to do the same, they could start a movement and slow if not stop the influx of drugs.

“When you give power to the people, when you let them handle it, the community can take control of the neighborhood and make it better,” Carmelo says.

Photo courtesy Alberto Ortiz

Before the bust, this was already happening: Boyle Heights activists were educating people in the projects, circulating petitions and bridging divisions, and Rudy thinks this sense of purpose may have attracted the attention of the authorities. “Also at that time, a lot of barrios were coming together – there was unity, there was even unity with theAmerican Indian movement, we were beginning to work with other organizations, the hippies, whatever–” and he believes this very unity was seen as a threat.

Rudy says an article called Strange Rumbling in Aztlan by Hunter S. Thompson(HST) also may have brought the Feds attention around to the neighborhood. It was published in Rolling Stone on April 29, 1971, just eight months after L.A. Times reporter Ruben Salazar was killed during the Moratorium march and rally against the Vietnam War.

Salazar was only tangentially involved with the Chicano Movement, but he became a martyr for it after a Sheriff’s deputy blew his head off with a tear gas canister fired through the door of the Silver Dollar Cafe in East L.A., the now defunct spot located a little less than four miles from where Casa 0101 is today. Tensions in the community were very high as evidence emerged that contradicted the official version of Salazar’s death, suggesting a cover-up.

Rudy is mentioned and quoted in Strange Rumblings, which like all of Thomson’s best work, mixes strong reporting and novelistic attention to detail with tales of his crazy but always entertaining antics. Rudy is not the center of that particular story, however.

He came from a pro-Union family and says he was politically conscious from an early age. His parents joined protests against unsafe working conditions and unequal wages at the Empire Zinc Mine in New Mexico; they are featured in the 1954 film Salt of the Earth, which recreated the strike using real participants as actors in the movie. Rudy grew up in Estrada Courts, a low-income housing project in Boyle Heights.

He had been in juvenile hall and in the prison system; he knew La Eme (the Mexican Mafia) and they knew him, and he had a drug problem. He started reading in prison and had an awakening. He sobered up, got out of jail and got involved in the Chicano Movement after he met Oscar Zeta Acosta, an attorney who defended scores of activists from East L.A.

Acosta was also the inspiration for Dr. Gonzo, HST’s partner in crime through the drug-fueled odyssey depicted in Fear and Loathing in Law Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. HST met Acosta when he was writing “Strange Rumblings in Aztlan” and they took that Vegas road-trip partly to escape the pressure surrounding the Salazar case.

Rudy became Acosta’s bodyguard. He met Free Los Tres through Acosta and some of his associates, gradually seeing the Chicano organization as more serious and his political involvement deepened. The set-up came soon after. “They weren’t interested in me when I was running around the hood, but they sure came after me this time,” Rudy says.

The trial of Los Tres may not have attracted as much notice outside of Boyle Heights and in the Anglo world because it didn’t have the mystique, and the depraved glamour of the Manson trial. East Los Angeles even today is not paid its due. Most stories about Los Angeles are set on the Westside (after covering Boyle Heights, HST writes of his discomfort at ordering a drink at the Beverly Hills Hotel because he was “oriented to a completely different world – 15 miles away.)

Outside of some coverage by the Herald Examiner, the case didn’t get noticed by a mainstream media obsessed with a celebrity serial killer. Manson is a legend, but Free Los Tres were three guys from the barrio, and they were not civil rights icons like Bert Corona or Cesar Chavez. They never wanted the story to be about them. We were just soldiers for the movement they might say.

It was a time of different values in places like Boyle Heights – people didn’t necessarily aspire to be famous or gaudily rich, and there was of course no social media. These were working class people who wanted to make their communities safer and gain access for their people, achieve equality. Even now Beto says he is hesitant to be in the limelight – but Carmelo told him that you need to embrace your origins.

The trial itself was a farce. “Let me tell you, it was a goddamn Kangaroo court, that’s the way I saw it at the time,” Rudy says. His mentality then was that he was a political prisoner and the cops, prosecutors and the judge were the enemy.

“What I remember from the trial is that the judge, out of 27 motions we had, he denied all of them. He allowed like 5 of our witnesses out of twenty (we wanted to bring to the stand.)” says Beto. They were silenced at every step. “We never had a chance to tell our story. And we knew we were doomed,” Beto says. “It got to the point where when the bailiff came and out said all rise, we wouldn’t rise cause he (the judge) wasn’t respecting us, so we turned around and didn’t give him respect either.”

They were released on bail after two years, pending the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals review. One year later they were rearrested. Their sentences were eventually reduced by 25 years after a charge of violating the Federal Law known as the Jesse James Act was dropped. Each served about eight years in prison before finally being freed.

When I see Free Los Tres on preview night it is a small crowd, and there are the usual glitches in performance and technical quality of a show going through last-minute tunings before its opening. The play begins with the actors playing Los Tres entering in chains, and there are many potent images throughout the show, but I do have some reservations. I don’t believe this play has quite gotten the story down to its essence – but my qualms about the productions are terribly unimportant compared to what people from the neighborhood have said about Free Los Tres.

When I talk to a few people leaving the preview, they are all beaming, and yes of course some of that is because they are friends or family of the cast, but this is something more I think. One family I spoke with were excited to see a story about people from their own neighborhood, and they’d never heard of Free Los Tres before attending the play. They’d been to Casa 0101 only once before, but many of their friends already had tickets to see the show. Sold-out houses followed throughout the run, and a standing ovation ended each performance. Activists from the era reunited in the lobby, and their families came too: Beto, Rudy and Johnny’s sons, all juniors, were there, and they were taken aback by how close the actors portrayals matched their memories of their fathers. This is a testament to the power of storytelling.

Casa 0101 has been telling the stories of this neighborhood for nearly 19 years. Located on East 1st Street just across the street from a police station, the interior has an inviting warmth, the gallery in the lobby displaying images from local artists. You begin to get a sense of all the history found in this neighborhood, and realize that this is not just a theater, it’s a community resource.

Casa 0101’s existence unfortunately has been tenuous of late – as what is unique about Boyle Heights is threatened by another wave of white gentrification, and the theater has suffered financial setbacks and the loss of its 99-seat theater waiver. So far they are surviving–they have created theater on a low budget for years, mostly relying on volunteers from the community, but costs have gone up They have come up with a novel solution that has kept them going so far–they are seeking 350 donors to give them $25 a month, and so far they have found just over half.

Neither Rudy nor Beto live in Boyle Heights anymore, and the area has changed so much. Beto says when he grew up everybody knew each other in the projects. During Halloween, they used to have bonfires at the 4th Street gym, and everyone would come out. There were games too, like putting $50 at the top of a greased up pole and seeing if anyone could climb far enough without slipping to grab the cash. Now Beto is still leery of going there alone, although violence in the projects is down since the 80’s and 90’s. “I’m kind of scared to go in there now because one day I was driving thru there, coming home from work and reminiscing, and about ten guys tried to stop my car, but since I knew the area, I got out of there right away.”

“One of my grandkids told her grandpa that he didn’t know grandpa was a legend in the chicano movement,” Beto says, laughing at the memory. “We didn’t seek to be legends in the Chicano movement, it was an incident that happened and the organizations we were working with stepped up and supported us and defended us and created this whole movement behind Los Tres,” he says. For his part, Rudy finds it wonderful to see the story come alive for him and his children, as well as people from the neighborhood who haven’t heard about Los Tres before – lamenting only that his mother has already passed away and didn’t live to see the story reborn in this play.

The story isn’t over quite yet. Carmelo has already talked about turning the Free Los Tres into a film and Beto has begun working on a book with Professor Victor Viesca of Cal State Los Angeles. It’s almost, to steal a line from Beto, like they can’t quite get rid of Los Tres del Barrio. Maybe no one outside of Boyle Heights will notice Free Los Tres, or maybe it will become an inspiration for a new generation of activists, perhaps both. “If we can throw another yell, let’s throw another yell out there,” Rudy says, and for a story that has been asleep for 47 years, it’s the telling that matters.


Free Los Tres! Free Los Tres! – Part 1

“The people in their quest for a better life have the right to destroy the forces that threaten their survival.” Origin unknown.

There are some stories that become legends, and we tell them over and over again. But there are other stories that are just as moving and powerful that we forget to tell. Sometimes those stories are found again, and in the telling we may wonder why we forgot them at all.

Free Los Tres! is a shout of defiance. It is also the name of a new play, and it is a powerful and sometimes flawed reminder of an essential moment in the history of Boyle Heights and the Chicano Civil Rights Movement. The story is very complex, spanning years and taking some of its dialogue directly from thousands of pages of court transcripts.

The play has already triggered a new reckoning of the events it depicts. It ran for only four weeks at CASA 0101 in Boyle Heights, but Free Los Tres! has been embraced by a community hungry for stories about their culture and history. The show sold-out every night of its run.

Rudolfo “Rudy” Sanchez, Alberto “Beto” Ortiz and Juan “Johnny” Fernandez – Los Tres del Barrio– were Chicano activists, and members of a community organization called La Casa de Carnalismo that wanted to drive drug dealers out of East Los Angeles. They were convicted of assaulting an undercover federal narcotics officer posing as a drug dealer in 1971. Los Tres became a rallying point for a community and a movement.

Photo courtesy Alberto Ortiz

We are living in a time that doesn’t allow us to entertain any sentimentality about how far we have come; instead, with the reemergence of white supremacy, and the scapegoating of immigrants who are called criminals and thugs, Free Los Tres! confronts how far backwards we have actually gone. Those times are our times.

“It’s not that I don’t want people to forget it, it’s that I want them to identify it with what is happening today,” says Carmelo Alvarez, who directed and co-wrote the project with Beto and Miguel Lopez Vigil. He is an eclectic man, and a natural storyteller perhaps best known for founding Radiotron, the iconic hip hop venue and youth center that was located near MacArthur Park. He has also worked as a youth advocate for more than 40 years, creating a dozen spaces where kids can learn about culture and art, and find shelter from the gangs, violence and drugs out on the streets. He lives simply, completely devoted to making his art: Free Los Tres is his passion project.

I met Carmelo when I was researching a script dense with thehistory of downtown Los Angeles and cultural issues like homelessness. A mutual friend introduced us because Carmelo is an aficionado of local history, and during our first meeting, we spoke for more than two hours. Somewhere along the way, between being peppered with my questions and barely pausing while I frantically scribbled notes, he told me about Free Los Tres.

The script was still too long – about 170 pages – and he was cutting and cutting material. He seemed inundated with information, still sorting the piece out, which would in the end take about 18 months.

He had been looking for the story for years.

He became aware of Free Los Tres when he was 14 and catching the bus to school. The bus stop was near the courthouse where the Charles Manson trial was concluding, and he saw young women with shaved heads and X’s carved in their forehead – Manson girls protesting his death sentence (later overturned.) The trial for Los Tres began just as the Manson’s ended, and when Carmelo looked across the street, he saw another group of people holding signs and heard cries of “Free Los Tres!”. The image stayed with him, and he wanted to know more.

Other stories about the Chicano movement have become celebrated, even iconic. Long before they became part of Los Tres, Johnny and Beto joined the high school walkouts of 1968. Thousands of students from Theodore Roosevelt High and other East L.A. schools protested against inequality in the Los Angeles Unified School District: classrooms were overcrowded and understaffed, and activists charged that the curriculum ignored their experience entirely.

A year later they the also joined the Chicano Moratorium, an Anti-Vietnam War movement which organized several protests, the largest of which drew more than 30,000 protestors on August 29, 1970– an essential date in Los Angeles history, and the same day LA Times reporter Ruben Salazar was killed. The war was placing a heavy burden on East L.A. communities like Boyle Heights as Chicanos were being drafted and killed at higher rates than other ethnic groups. The Moratorium was a continuation of what started with the walkouts; young activists taking to the streets to rally against injustice.

Moises Rodriguez (Rudy), Joshua Nicholas (Johnny) and Alex Anthony Correa (Beto) as Los Tres del Barrio. Photo by Rosa Navarrete

“They made a movie about the walkouts and the moratorium is celebrated every year, but this story has been hidden for 47 years,” says Carmelo. He wanted to know why. Little has been written about Los Tres. An internet search finds only an excerpt from a book which mentioned Los Tres very briefly, and also a few pictures and flyers from the era– but nothing cohesive, only fragments that hinted at the story he knew was there.

He kept looking, but the play might never have happened but for a chance encounter in 2017. Carmelo was at a funeral paying his respects to a relative who’d been a Chicano activist. He was talking to his cousin, who’d also been involved in the movement, and mentioned he was writing a play about Los Tres. Do you know where I can find them? “Do I know them, his cousin said, Dude, I know those guys, I was on the Committee to Free Los Tres!” An introduction was arranged. 

Shortly thereafter, Carmelo met Beto and Rudy, and they gave him permission to write the script. Beto collaborated closely on the script with Carmelo – he had saved pictures and letters from members of the Committee to Free Los Tres, still in their envelopes more than 40 years later. Beto spent months getting the trial transcripts, nearly 3000 pages. He painstakingly copied them one page at a time. Those pages were very delicate, sometimes stuck together. Beto’s memories of that time had grown fuzzy he says, but as Carmelo picked at his brain they began to resurface. First they worked from memory, then they began interviewing committee members. They wanted the play to become something beyond a history lesson– Free Los Tres is a call to action.

“We’re kind of hoping that this will inspire the youths of today because I see the play being for this generation now, for those who didn’t know or never heard about it, and we want to let them know how the conditions were back then and hopefully it will inspire them to get involved,” Beto said when interviewed with Rudy at Casa 0101 just before rehearsals began late last year. “The issues have multiplied instead of diminished,” Rudy said, in no small part, he believes, because of the current president.

Los Tres were very young when the confrontation took place, Rudy being the oldest of them at just 26. Beto and Rudy are the two surviving members of Los Tres (Johnny passed away in 2012) and they remain politically committed: attending rallies and marches, and still consider themselves pro-immigrant and pro-undocumented. “We’re native born here,” Beto says, “and it gets me upset that people are saying go back to Mexico because we never crossed the border. Our people didn’t cross it and the Indians never did – the border crossed us.”

Photo courtesy Alberto Ortiz

Every play has its premise, its own life as Carmelo says, and Free Los Tres asks, do the ends justify the means, and when is it okay to take the law into your own hands. And what actions are ethical if the guys carrying badges are committing illicit acts themselves? The authorities were infiltrating the community, trying to disrupt the movement, beating suspects, and intimidating witnesses – but their actions were considered legal, at least at the time.

“That’s not justice, that’s not legal, so they’re breaking the law,” Carmelo says. “And they send in informants and infiltrators – is this legal? Why is it legal to infiltrate into a community and bring in arms, and tell them you need to fight them, you need to shoot the pigs, we need to have an armed revolution? Informants were paid to tell the movement these things. So in this case, the government was doing things under the color of law, but they’re not ethical, they’re right in the law of true justice, or true humanity.”

There is another message to this story: drugs have been been used as a tool of suppression to, as Beto says, “keep our people drugged up and killing each other.” Los Tres had already helped circulate a petition asking local shops to stop selling glue to kids in the neighborhood, and were working to get rid of the heavier stuff too – angel dust, reds and heroin. The movement believed the cops were at worst abetting the problem and at best doing nothing to stop it.

Carmelo takes this from an abstract idea to something more personal, an analogy that puts the question on what you might do to protect your own family. “If someone takes drugs into the community and you do something about it, you say, hey, don’t be selling that shit to my sister, get the fuck out of here, and then somebody moves into your neighborhood, and befriends you, and says I’ll take care of your sister, but he starts giving her drugs, and he’s doing it under the color of the law, is that legal?”

Los Tres began chasing drug dealers out of the neighborhood and for awhile Beto says it was working. They were partly inspired by the film Battle of Algiers, the 1966 film showing the guerrilla resistance against French colonizers. Rudy saw it when he was in prison, and it transformed his life and inspired his actions. The group would approach a drug dealer, tell them we don’t want you selling your junk here, and then intimidate them into leaving.

They did not initiate the meeting with the undercover agent. Rudy was contacted by a man who wanted to sell him drugs. In the play we see this exchange as two backlit figures behind a scrim, two shadows arranging to meet for a drug deal. “We didn’t go there to shoot the guy or kill the guy or anything like that, we went there to run him out of the neighborhood,” said Beto, but the transaction turned into a confrontation.

We see this incident several times during the play, reminiscent of Rashomon, the 1950 Akira Kurosawa film that demonstrated the slippery nature of truth. The shooting is dramatized from several different perspectives, especially during the court scenes when the actors rearrange themselves as the testimony continues behind them. This is a bit awkwardly staged, but it’s very funny when we see the actor playing the undercover agent enter on a moving cart with giant handlebars representing a lowrider motorcycle.

There is controversy about how many shots were fired, was it three or was it two. We do know that the officer did not identify himself as a federal agent or show his badge before reaching for his weapon (“if he’d shown one we wouldn’t be sitting here talking,” Carmelo told me.) Get of the neighborhood, Los Tres told him, and they demanded he give up his drug money. The cop, perhaps panicking, dropped his wallet to the ground, the money scattering, and reached for his weapon. Carmelo believes the agent expected Los Tres to go for the money. Seeing his weapon, they opened fire on him, and from there the incident gets even murkier.

There were four backup agents waiting in a car, and when they heard the gunshots they came running to the scene, the first of them arriving maybe 10 seconds later. Three claimed they didn’t have weapons with them – they said they had left them in the car – one of them using the rationale he didn’t have his weapon because he had taken off his shirt to blend in within the community (his exact words taken from the transcripts.)

“You’re the backup agent, but yet you leave your gun in the car?” Carmelo asks me incredulously, wondering if there might be a motive for this, if it wasn’t really an accident. We do not know the answer to that question, but even more mysterious is who fired the shot that hit the agent. Beto and Johnny each fired once, but there was a third shot that isn’t clear what weapon it came from, and no ballistics tests were done, except on Johnny’s weapon, and the results were inconclusive.

“Why didn’t anyone question that,” Carmelo says, “if you go up to anyone on the street, and you say three backup cops didn’t have their gun, they’d say…what??”

Photo courtesy Alberto Ortiz

The shooting, this one brief incident, lasting maybe 30 seconds or so according to Alvarez, had long reverberations. “That one minute transformed their life,” Carmelo says. “That one split second incident unraveled a lot of things.” Chicano activists considered Los Tres political prisoners, and believed they that had been set up by the Federal government and other authorities intent on dismantling the movement (and indeed anyone considered subversive or radical.) The National Committee to Free Los Tres eventually merged with a community center called CASA (Centro De Accion Social Autonomo) and fought for the release of the three activists. They were triumphant, but so much had already been lost in the long, slow struggle in the courts and on the streets.

Los Tres were arrested when the Chicano Civil Rights movement was at its height, but by the time they were released in in the late 70’s, it was badly weakened, it’s many factions beginning to splinter apart, its fragile unity having been wounded by years of governmental intimidation as much as ideological differences.

…to be continued


S.O.S.: Five Questions for Director Madeleine Dahm

I love going to The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. On a recent visit there, I happened upon a postcard for a new show called S.O.S. Looking at it closer, I learned that the Wallis had recently formed an acting troupe. Looking at it even further, I saw it was a new devised show being presented in conjunction with Circle X. This took me forward and back. Forward to some devising projects that I am working on this spring and backward to the nascence of Atwater Village Theatre, when Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA and Circle X were sharing what was a renovated either toy or pillow factory in a part of town that was quickly becoming a new hub for creative thought and millennial lifestyle romping. That was about 10 years ago.

I digress.

The task at hand: to find out what are S.O.S. and the Wallis Studio Ensemble. To help me on this quest, I got in contact with director Madeleine Dahm. Here’s what I learned from her.

Roger Q. Mason (RQM): To my knowledge, Wallis Studio Ensemble is a fairly new company here in Los Angeles. Tell me a little about the history of the group?

Madeleine Dahm (MD): In the 2016 I approached The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts about the idea of a company for early-career actors, that represented the diversity of actors here in LA and explored theatre as a force for social change – they liked the idea and so Grow at the Wallis joined with me in launching the ensemble. Since its inception two-and-a-half years ago, The Ensemble has steadily acquired a reputation for creating socially conscious, cutting-edge theatre, with a strong physical component. The Ensemble has mounted four full-length productions at The Wallis and performed at two international performing arts festivals.

2018 saw the mounting of Douglas Adams environmental satire The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (LA Times ‘Pick of the Week’) and Disposable – an original devised work that examined the intersection between environmental destruction and human displacement, also seen at The San Diego International Fringe Festival in June 2018. It was hailed as “hauntingly beautiful” (San Diego Tribune) and “mesmerizing….this is avant-garde theater that sticks with you long after the curtain comes down.” (ArtNow LA).

In 2016/17 The Ensemble premiered at The Wallis Thebes, a contemporary feminist adaptation of the Greek classic by British playwright Gareth Jandrell, and its first original devised play Word of Mouth, an examination of Post-Truth and a response to the 2016 election rhetoric. Word of Mouth was not only featured on National Public Radio by Priska Neely, but was also seen at Rise Up LA and at The Crisis Art Festival in Tuscany, Italy, where The Ensemble spent a week in residence in July 2017.

S.O.S. cast member Siera Williams, a member of The Wallis Studio Ensemble – photo by Jo Rodriguez

RQM: Your current show is being presented in conjunction with Circle X. How did you link up with the company?
MD: This is not a partnership with Circle X, we are renting their theatre for this particular run. We really wanted to get outside of The Wallis space this year and into the 99 seat theater community, and we are very excited that Atwater Village Theater and Circle X were able to assist us with that.

RQM: What was the inspiration for S.O.S.?
MD: As we discuss topics and themes for our yearly devised work, we are always drawn to contemporary issues that directly impact our company members and their communities. The one thing that we found ourselves coming back to as we began this process three months ago, was the general sense of alienation and isolation felt by many people right now. With so much focus today being on attaining financial wealth it’s interesting that a country’s GDP is not related to the overall happiness felt by all its citizens, in fact it seems to be the opposite. Recent studies by the World Health Organization and United Nations have revealed that feelings of loneliness and alienation are reaching global epidemic proportions, and that this general sense of feeling disconnected is reaching many communities worldwide. So much so that now many countries have actually appointed ministers for loneliness in their governments, the UK being the most recent. There is no easy answer or fix to this problem but we wanted to explore how small acts of kindness, and authentic expressions of love can help us reach across the divide, and remember more thoughtful ways to interact with each other.

S.O.S. cast member, Viva Kanani Obiajulu Wittman, a member of The Wallis Studio Ensemble – photo by Jo Rodriguez

RQM: This piece is devised. What was your devising process for this show? I’m curious to learn more about the dynamic between you and the ensemble members specifically.
MD: The devising process usually begins by brainstorming topics and themes that are of interest to the company – as we begin to narrow down themes that we would like to explore, each member brings in support materials that can include text, photographs, music, newspaper articles, videos, all kinds of references. There is a lot of discussion in the early stages but, once we have landed on a specific focus for the work, we primarily begin developing the piece through improvisation. The devising process is very long and much of the material that is originated in the studio actually ends up on the “cutting-room floor.” As we hone in on the arc of the piece, many wonderful moments that we have created simply no longer have a place in the work and so we have to let them go. As the Director of a devised work it is my job to be the keeper of the initial vision and to bring all of the elements together in a cohesive way. It’s like shooting a movie out of sequence, sometimes you’re working on a section that will end up being at the end, but you’re working on it first. Devising can be challenging for actors because there isn’t an obvious through line that you would have with an existing play, and so there is a lot of trust that has to develop between director and actor, and actor and actor. It requires actors who are willing to jump off at the deep end, and have faith that we will get to where we need to by the end of the process.

RQM: What’s next for Wallis Studio Ensemble?
MD: We hope to bring S.O.S to the Hollywood Fringe Festival this year. Then we have our second production of the season, which will be at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts June 6th through 9th, that will not be a devised piece but rather an existing play, on which we have yet to decide.

Featured photo: Cast of S.O.S. – photo by Jo Rodriguez


The Winners at the 29th Annual LA STAGE Alliance Ovation Awards

The 29th Annual LA STAGE Alliance Ovation Awards were presented on Monday, January 28, 2019, at the Theatre at Ace Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles where 36 awards were bestowed on theater productions, producers, directors, artists, and technicians.

Sixteen different Southern California theatre companies won thirty-six awards, including the Center Theatre Group for “Soft Power“, Rogue Artists Ensemble and East West Players for “Kaidan Project: Walls Grow Thin,” the Bootleg Theatre for “Theater Movement Bazaar’s Grail Project,” the Geffen Playhouse for “Ironbound,” “Sell/Buy/Date,” and “Skeleton Crew,” the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts for “South Pacific” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” the Celebration Theatre  for “Priscilla Queen of the Desert,”  and  The Echo Theater Company  for “Cry it Out.” A Noise Within received the Best Season Award  for “A Raisin in the Sun,” “A Tale of Two Cities,” “Henry V,” “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” “Noises Off,” “The Madwoman of Chaillot.”

Members of The Kilroys, hosts of the 29th Annual LA STAGE Alliance Ovation Awards at the Theatre at Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, Monday, January 28, 2019. Photo by Monique A. LeBleu.

The Ovation Honors, which recognizes outstanding achievement in areas that are not among the standard list of nomination categories, were awarded to Adrien Prevost (Music Composition for a Play, Kaidan Project: Walls Grow Thin, Rogue Artists Ensemble co-produced with East West Players) and Brian White, Sean Cawelti, Greg Ballora, Morgan Reban, Jack Pullman, and Christine Papalexis (Puppet Design, Kaidan Project: Walls Grow Thin, Rogue Artists Ensemble co-produced with East West Players).

The Center Theatre Group presented the 2018 Richard E. Sherwood Award to writer, comedian, and performance artist Kristina Wong, which also includes $10,000 endowed by the Sherwood family for innovative and adventurous artists.

Wong, who took the unique opportunity of this night to announce her candidacy for Wilshire Center Koreatown Neighborhood Council Subdistrict 5 Resident Representative, said in acceptance, “In this line of work there’s a very fine line between being a madwoman and a visionary. It is so validating to be recognized as the latter by this vibrant LA Theatre community that has made me the performance artist slash political candidate that I am today.”

The Kilroys came with their message to the theater community at large to encourage the hiring and support of more women, trans, and non-binary artists in theater in order to achieve gender balance. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Paula Vogel, offered words of encouragement to the theater community as well, aligning with The Kilroys message of the evening with “The sooner produced, the sooner prolific.”

This year’s show, held at the glorious landmark United Artists 1927 movie palace that is now the Theatre at Ace Hotel, was directed by Artistic Director of Coeurage Theatre Company Jer Adrianne Lelliott, also featured live performances including by women’s choral group Vox Femina.

The Ovation Awards is annually produced by LA STAGE Alliance, “a non-profit organization dedicated to building awareness, appreciation, and support for the performing arts in Los Angeles” and companies DOMA Theatre CompanyUCLA School of Theater, Film & Television, F&D Scene Changes Ltd., USC School of Dramatic Arts, Bakers Man Productions, Venture Hill Entertainment LLC, Seven Waves Entertainment LLC, Requiem Media Productions LLC, Variety, and Ken Werther Publicity sponsored the event.

Here’s the complete list of winners. For more information visit LAStageAlliance.com

The awards show was broadcast live on YouTube and Facebook, in case you missed the show or would like to relive it.

Featured top photo: Rachel Myers accepts her Ovation Award for Scenic Design (Large Theatre) for “Skeleton Crew” (Geffen Playhouse) at 29th Annual LA STAGE Alliance Ovation Awards, Theatre at Ace Hotel, Downtown Los Angeles, Monday, January 28, 2019. Photo by Monique A. LeBleu.


Marsha Hunt, Actor, Activist and Survivor

In today’s volatile political and social climate, actors and celebrities are often as well known for their causes as for their movies and plays. Angelina JolieOprah WinfreyYoko Ono, and Alyssa Milano, to name just a few, are known for numerous foundations and humanitarian causes, for speaking up and out, and for making huge financial donations. It seems as if this is a new development, due to the omnipresent information that fills our screens regarding the famous. However, if you travel a little further back in time you find Jane Fonda fighting the Vietnam war, and prior to that, Audrey Hepburn leaving acting to focus on humanitarian work for UNICEF. The intersection of arts and activism is not new, and it doesn’t always have clear cut benefits for those who engage in it. Especially in certain eras, morals and integrity stood in direct opposition to fortune and popularity. Many who stood up for the former ended up fading in the latter. For those who aspire to use public platforms to create and facilitate change, Marsha Hunt is a person to both honor and emulate.

Marsha Hunt is a retired actress and activist. She is 101 years old and still lives in her beautiful home in the San Fernando Valley. She has led an amazing life, both as an incredibly gifted and intelligent performer and as a forward thinking activist championing both individual rights and institutional evolution. Everyone should know her name, her unique voice and be aware of her legacy. This article serves simply as an introduction to her incredible life and work. It is impossible to condense all that she has created and stood for into one piece. I’ve included numerous links and additional information at the end of this post.

Ms. Hunt was born in Chicago in 1917. She did it all. While training as an actor, she began to work as a model, becoming one of the industry’s highest paid by 1935. Although she wanted to do theater, she moved to Los Angeles in 1934 at the age of 17 and was initially signed by Paramount, where she starred in several films. Even at this tender age, she started to assert her rights. She refused to do pin up photos (known as “cheesecake” and “leg art”) and did not take part in the social party scene. She was starting even then, to find her own voice and to stand up for her values. Although she showed promise, Paramount released her from her contract after a few years. She freelanced for a while before ending up at MGM, where she stayed on contract through 1945. Notable films include Pride and Prejudice and Blossoms in the Dust. She also starred in the only wartime film to acknowledge the Holocaust, None Shall Escape (1944). While she did not become an A list star, she worked constantly as a supporting actor in quality films. During the war she also sang on USO tours and developed a career in radio. She appeared in over 50 films in her career, over the course of several decades.

Ms. Hunt’s film career came to an abrupt halt when she was caught up in the Communist witch hunt of the McCarthy era. Ms. Hunt was and continues to be outspoken, with a liberal belief system that she guards fiercely. Ms. Hunt, along with her second husband, screenwriter Robert Presnell Jr., were so disturbed by the actions of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) that they joined the Committee for the First Amendment which was formed in 1947 and made up of many A list actors and Hollywood players. The group went to Washington to protest the hearings and produced Hollywood Fights Back, a star-studded radio program which was co-written by her husband.

Like many other notable actors and screenwriters who dared to stand up to the government and studio system, Ms. Hunt’s career came to a complete stop in Hollywood. She was asked to denounce her activities if she wanted to find more work and she steadfastly refused. In 1950, Hunt was named as a potential Communist or Communist sympathizer (along with 151 other actors, writers and directors) in the anti-Communist publication Red Channels. Though she would continue to work through her 90s, the blacklist effectively stopped her ascent in major motion pictures.

Not one to sit still however, Ms. Hunt simply knocked on other doors, returning to her first love; theater. She made her Broadway debut in Joy To The World, in March of 1948. She continued to go between theater, working both on Broadway and in Los Angeles, television and radio for the rest of her career. She starred in the first live televised Shakespeare play, playing Viola in Twelfth Night. In 1950 she appeared on the cover of Life Magazine as the star of the Broadway play, The Devil’s Disciple. In 1987 she even appeared in an episode of Star Trek! In addition to opening up time for theater, the blacklist also opened up her time for activism. This was not a new avenue for her to travel. She had worked throughout the war years at the Hollywood Canteen dancing and socializing with service men, especially on Saturday nights, when no one else wanted to. But, after the blacklist, the world opened up to her. As she stated in an interview with Film Talk in response to the question:

“How did you get involved in all the charity work you did for so many years?”
When I had so much free time because I wasn’t allowed to act, I discovered the outside world. I went around the world with my husband and I came back as, what I called, a planet patriot. I fell in love with the planet, not just my country, but all of us. I learned about the United Nations which was right here in this country and I spent twenty-five years working as a volunteer on behalf of the UN, I worked on the Year of the Child, international cooperation, and made a documentary film during World Refugee Year with fourteen stars appearing in it to tell the stories of different refugees. There were still twenty-five million people floating around the world, stateless, with no travel papers, no identity papers, no work permits – fifteen years after World War II ended. The United Nations was trying to get the governments to open their borders and let their fair share of refugees in, so I made this film to acquaint Americans with it. It was very rewarding.

In addition to world wide charity work, Ms. Hunt made a huge difference right in the San Fernando Valley, opening the first homeless shelter for women and children. This is especially poignant because her own baby did not survive. During the turmoil of the McCarthy era, she gave birth to a baby girl, born prematurely, who later passed away. This was a true heartbreak for her and she did not have any other children.

Ms. Hunt’s creative spirit is expressed in numerous ways. In 1993 she published The Way We Wore … a beautiful coffee table book detailing fashion of the 1930s and 1940s. All of the photos are of her, in glorious outfit after glorious outfit. Many are studio shots used as publicity for her 50 movies, some are fashion shots for the designers. Each photo is explained and detailed by Ms. Hunt in her own charming manner. I actually met Ms. Hunt when I was directing and costuming a play set in the 1940s. She lent us clothes, making sure that each piece was truly representative of who would wear it. Her knowledge of fashion rivals many who made it their life’s work. Her generosity of spirit was on display even in such limited contact.

One of the most charming surprises, but one that goes to the heart of Ms. Hunt’s belief system is the song that she wrote about love and marriage equality for same-sex couples, titled Here’s To All Who Love. She wrote it at age 95, and it has become an anthem at marriage ceremonies. She wrote it as a gift and it is has been received as one.

There is a documentary by Roger Memos about Marsha Hunt. It had a short run in 2015 but in order to recut it for streaming services, Mr. Memos is raising funds. The documentary was filmed in collaboration with Ms. Hunt and features countless interviews, clips and insight. It is a labor of love and an amazing project. If you would like to read more about the documentary you can check out the Facebook page. If you would like to donate to the GoFund account to help with the sound mix, closed captioning, the film’s website and the film trailer, please click here.

In preparation for this article, I sent Ms. Hunt some questions to answer via email. Rather than edit them, I will share them with you as is.

Marsha being surprised by the crew of her documentary for her 75th anniversary. She is in her late 90s in this photograph.

What similarities do you see in the political climate today and during the 1940s and 1950s? Are there differences that you feel are more or less dangerous? 
At 101 years of age I am not as well informed as I once was. But of course I favor, as always, the most peaceful, most even handed solution to problems.

I don’t know if you would remember, but we have actually met! You were extremely generous in helping me costume a play that I directed, set in the 1940s. I came over and you lent us clothing and gave me a copy of your book, which I treasure. How do you feel that fashion (or the lack of it) affects women’s power and collective voice? I have been watching the new congress and all of the new younger and female members of the House in their bright clothes and fashion forward choices. Does this, in your opinion empower or diminish them?
I think there is an effect but it’s hard to define. I think how well, how effectively, a woman legislator dresses can tell us something about her IQ, the effective, the becoming, the appropriate, which then empowers them. I don’t think “fashion” diminishes unless it’s extreme – then it can be negative, but I think that’s pretty rare. I guess women in government dress without “headlines’. If they were fashion plates it would be distracting from their effectiveness in what they are there to do. It would become the wrong topic.

What do you want to tell women and actors who find that their activism is more important to them than their acting careers? Do you think it is worth it, if being known for your politics is hurting your castability. Do you think that is a truism, or simply a fear?
When you take positions you lose some people just as you gain others. On matters of importance to me, it is worth it.

What role do you think that the unions should play in helping actors become activists? Should the union be neutral or an active partner? (NB: Ms. Hunt was active in SAG prior to the blacklist and served on the board)

The union is there to protect and help the actor so when one’s union takes a position the individual is spared blame or credit for it. At that extent we are protected by our unions.

Do you see any positive aspects to social media as it it used today? Do you see it as a danger (do you not care about it at all??)
The internet/social media is a way of “getting it out there” but then nothing remains private including opinions.

What changes would you like to see, both in the nation and in the entertainment/film industry, in regards to women specifically.
The changes in the entertainment/film industry ideally would be that it that it be an open opportunity to write, direct, produce whether a woman or a man.

Sweet Adversity Documentary:
Review

Book website:
The Way We Wore

Links to additional articles:
NPR: Actress Marsha Hunt, 100, Has Matters Of Principle
Movie Maker: Marsha Hunt at 100: The Actress Recalls the Blacklist, Film Noir and Being Cast in Gone With The Wind
IMDB bio
British Film Institute: Marsha Hunt: American girl, Un-American woman, upstanding centenarian
LA Times: Actress Marsha Hunt survived the blacklist without apologizing for her activism
Film Talk: Marsha Hunt: “MGM let me play absolutely everything, the studio gave me such joy”
Huffington Post: Marsha Hunt Pens ‘Here’s To All Who Love’ Gay Rights Anthem

Video:
Marsha discusses her career and the Hollywood Blacklist