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Ethnic Slights 

Race relations takes the stage

Wednesday, Jul 19 2000
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Lynn Manning‘s play The Last Outpost, presented by the Watts Village Theater Company at Los Angeles Theater Center, is a rare invitation for theatergoers to ponder the current state of race relations in America, a condition that has become far more complicated than the literally black-and-white dialectics of pioneering stage achievements like Dutchman and A Raisin in the Sun. This dramedy’s titular bar is one of those intimate Wilshire District cocktail lounges (think Frank N Hank‘s) that glow with a low-lit chumminess but which are rapidly vanishing, and its plot deploys all the tropes of what might be called the Last Call genre of theater. These kinds of plays are usually set in a neighborhood business that’s about to close (a bar, diner or taxi service) and involve a crusty but lovable owner, a romance or two, and long-running feuds between patrons or employees. Typically, the mood is informed by a lot of talk about how things ain‘t the way they used to be, while subplots are overshadowed by the unknown tomorrow that awaits regulars and workers alike once the establishment’s lights are turned out for good.

Outpost certainly comes equipped with these genre elements, but it is also draped by L.A.‘s complicated racial fabric. Its story, tinged by the memory of L.A.’s 1992 riots, concerns characters whose lives are silhouetted against a backdrop of shifting demographics -- namely, the absorption of the old Wilshire District, with its fragile ecology of black, white and Latino cultures, by the expanding, neon-lit amoeba known as Koreatown. Bar owner Danny (Tom McCleister) and longtime pal and customer Bob (Robert Schuch) are two middle-aged white guys sighing over the buyout of yet another local bar, Ricky‘s, by the Koreans. They are joined by Vernon (John Freeland Jr.), an angry black refugee from Ricky’s. Vernon especially has it in for Koreans, whom he resents for privatizing local watering holes by purchasing them and declaring them members-only “clubs.” He divides his time between such complaints and pitching woo to bartender and would-be actress Valerie (Kimberly Huie).

With all the badmouthing of Asians that occurs in the first 15 minutes, it isn‘t, perhaps, an altogether unforeseen twist that the next bartender Danny will hire is a Korean. (Why Danny, who’s in the process of selling the Last Outpost, would hire a new bartender isn‘t satisfactorily explained.) Fresh out of bartending school, Karen (Allison Sie) proves a capable pourer, splitting her attention among deflecting Vernon’s insults, bonding with Valerie and falling in love with med student Jermaine (Chaka Forman).

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Manning‘s play should clearly resonate with local audiences, for although the prejudiced Vernon and Bob are obvious cautionary figures, they also express legitimate feelings that most Angelenos feel about crime, racial identity and nostalgia for better times. “First they name it, then they claim it,” Vernon says of L.A.’s penchant for signposting one ethnic enclave at the expense of another. Manning tackles several themes, among them the antipathy felt by African-Americans toward other minorities who are splitting up the old black neighborhoods, as well as the unconscious prejudice expressed by even tolerant whites like Danny.

The Last Outpost‘s scenes, then, roughly fall into two categories: racial resentments and romance. When drinking together, Vernon and Bob dump on the Asians; when alone with Danny, Bob dumps on blacks and Hispanics. Even the interracial affair between Karen and Jermaine reflects the changing ethnic dynamic that so frightens Vernon and Bob. This romance also alarms Karen’s father (Francois Chau), a strict patriarch and liquor-store owner bitter over the riot-related death of his brother. Unfortunately, The Last Outpost is more of a long, staggering sequence of subplots than a fully realized play, an evening of talky blackouts that never accelerate to the momentum of action. Nothing ever really happens, until the very end, when a somewhat unbelievable donnybrook erupts, and even that lapses into an unlikely benign resolution, as though the can‘t-we-all-get-along principle is being applied to the stage as well as the city.

Director Roxanne Rogers, who has staged a number of Manning’s works in the past, including the acclaimed Shoot, ably moves her actors around with enough stage business to keep us from noticing that nothing is really happening, but some of her cast are underrehearsed (Sie and Forman have absolutely no chemistry together), and the uncredited set is composed of a few generic and unappealing chunks of stage furniture. (Instead of measuring out their patrons‘ drinks from bottles, Sie and Huie simply pull out pre-poured glasses from under a counter, which proves distracting, to say the least.) Costume designer Naila Aladdin-Sanders, however, perks things up by having Bob display the Stages of Polyester, while giving Vernon a cool, mid-’60s elegance. The Last Outpost is best when capturing the uneasy bonhomie of a city living in a prolonged cease-fire, but has a long way to go before it can translate its intentions into a believable stage language.

Manning first came to prominence with his spellbinding one-act, Shoot, a story about a sightless man trying to purchase a gun. (Manning himself was blinded by a gunshot fired during a barroom fracas in 1978.) There was an almost absurdist moral logic to Shoot, but in The Last Outpost one senses that Manning felt the need to write “a play play,” a traditional two-act narrative complete with a redemptive romance. No doubt this explains why much of the dialogue lacks the clipped poetry of his earlier work; if a line such as “You touched something in me -- something I didn‘t know was there” makes us cringe, then “Call it what you want -- I am not a whore!” hardly goes down smoother, especially when it’s delivered by a man. Perhaps worse, Outpost‘s heavy reliance on reminiscences and long explanations suggests that instead of the Wilshire District, a more aptly named locale would have been Exposition Park.

Like Michael Almereyda’s film version of Hamlet, Kirk Wood Bromley‘s Icarus and Aria, running at the Sacred Fools Theater, begins with the big bang of a press conference, this one an organized explosion of money and testosterone during which the owner of a fictional pro-football team named the Aztecs shows off his newest purchase: young prize back Icarus Alzaro (Matthew Troyer). It soon develops that owner Jimmy Jones (Edward Symington) has bought more than he bargained for, as Icarus’ swaggering gang leader of a brother, Primalo (John Rosenfeld), and his vatos are about to make trouble -- and Jimmy‘s own daughter, Aria (Kim Jackson), is one party away from falling in love with Icarus.

Icarus and Aria is a Southwestern shaking out of Romeo and Juliet, via West Side Story. But more than merely substituting contemporary characters for the Montagues and Capulets, Bromley has crafted a new dialogue written in verse, a gambit for which he caused a favorable stir last year in Want’s Unwished Work or, A Birthday Play. And like Lynn Manning, he has touched upon the thorny subject of American race relations.

His thematic ambition is matched by the show‘s design elements, particularly Burris Jackes’ lighting and spare but serviceable urban-desert set, and M.E. Dunn‘s costumes. It also benefits from some powerhouse performers, notably Symington’s Big Daddy and his money-hipster wife, Cindy (Amy Bryson), along with Rosenfeld‘s larger-than-life gangster, who, before you can say “El Pachuco,” runs off with our attention every time he appears.

Icarus and Aria is at its weakest when the lights go down on the ensemble scenes and Bromley focuses on the one-on-ones, especially in the idylls of the eponymous lovers. (Like Sie and Forman, the romantic leads here generate no wattage at all.) Perhaps worse, the themes so promisingly thrown up in the beginning (race, the greed of pro sports) get set aside and forgotten somewhere before intermission, to be replaced by a lot of cheap gags about shallow TV newscasters and skanky chicks. Not helping matters is the kind of reverse nontraditional casting that deprives the ensemble of a more Latino look in the moments when such a look is needed. In the end, it’s as though Bromley, like many of us, raises the issues of race, class and immigration in the conversation of his play, only to nervously laugh them away.

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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