Tom Jacobson's The Chinese Massacre (Annotated) and House of the Rising Son 

Thursday, Apr 28 2011

Click here for this week's theater reviews on Steven Leigh Morris' Stage Raw blog.

With 50 of his own stage plays in his flash drive, Tom Jacobson may be Los Angeles' most prolific playwright. There's no particular aesthetic that defines his work. His urbane dialogue carries ideas that seem to rise higher in his horizons than the emotions of his characters. This would make him a local literary descendent of Tony Kushner and Charles L. Mee. For example, in 2004 Road Theater Company presented his whimsically macabre Ouroboros, about two vacationing, Venetian catacombs–visiting American couples caught in a Twilight Zone time warp between two Italian cities. The next year, Playwrights Arena presented his The Orange Grove, a realistic and slightly goofy riff on Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, concerning the death throes of a small, local Lutheran choir. Last year, Cornerstone Theatre Company commissioned a musical about the creation of the city of West Hollywood, Making Paradise, while Theatre @ Boston Court presented The Twentieth Century Way, a "rehearsal" of a play about gay entrapment in early-20th-century Long Beach, in which two actors portrayed an entire gallery of characters in a theater dressing room.

This year, Circle X Theatre Company and Ensemble Studio Theatre L.A. — which now occupy two theaters side by side in Atwater Village — are putting on a festival of concurrently running plays by Jacobson, The Chinese Massacre (Annotated) and House of the Rising Son. (Click here for our recent cover story on the Chinese massacre.)

click to flip through (2) PHOTO BY SHANE WILLIAM ZWIENER - Culture clash over a 19th-century Chinese Massacre
  • Culture clash over a 19th-century Chinese Massacre

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If you're not familiar with Jacobson's work, you'll be hard-pressed to believe these two works were created by the same writer. The Chinese Massacre is a prodigiously researched, self-consciously Brechtian parable about what may be L.A.'s first officially recorded race riot in 1871. A number of "annotators" playfully interrupt the action to identify historical inaccuracies that have been interjected for the flow of the story — and, citing Brecht's style of epic theater, to prevent the play's larger ideas from being overpowered by our emotional reaction to various lynchings and other brutalities depicted on the stage. Those ideas swirl around the essences of ethnic bigotry that just seem to keep recycling themselves, like our race riots, as the decades roll by.

House of the Rising Son is a comedy, of sorts, about the initiation of a young L.A. man into a secret gay dynasty now situated in New Orleans, but dating back to ancient Rome.

For all these plays' seeming idiosyncrasies and divergent styles, they contain a trinity of pivotal and interconnected concerns that define Jacobson as being among the region's most important theatrical voices. The first of these is history, and the making of it — from Ouroboros to Making Paradise to Orange Grove to Twentieth Century to Massacre to Rising Son; the distinctions between what gets recorded in legends (and plays) and what actually happened. Massacre and Twentieth Century are infused with both a metaphysical playfulness and an earnest compulsion for social justice, which is where Jacobson holds hands with Kushner.

The second related idea circles around Jacobson's deeply abiding love for the theater — playwrights in whose style Jacobson riffs include Anton Chekhov in Orange Grove, Tennessee Williams in Rising Son, Bertolt Brecht in Massacre. He toys with and chides the art form, sometimes through dialogue, sometimes through emulation, and sometimes through plays (or rehearsals) within plays (as in Twentieth Century) depicting through theater the process of arriving at a completed drama. This process parallels the metamorphosis of dubiously known facts into the even more dubious fictions we call history. These passions for history and for the theater come tethered to a third and, in American theater, rare concern that completes Jacobson's three unities — and that's theology.

Aside from land grabs and massacres, history is the clash of tribes and of notions held sacred. Jacobson engages these notions in styles sometimes approaching flippancy, as in the local Lutheran choir on the ropes in Orange Grove; and sometimes gravely, as in a litany of Christian hypocrisies expressed by a condemned Chinese man in Massacre.

In that play, it's an opportunistic reverend (Silas Weir Mitchell) who fuses the trinity of Jacobson's passions in a single line: "History is past."

Or, to paraphrase a line from Brecht's adaptation of Marlowe's Edward II, trying to scoop up history is like trying to "catch the wind in a sieve."

Meanwhile, in the venue across the courtyard, at almost the same time, in Rising Son, the following dialogue unfolds between the young man, a collector of folklore named Felix (Steve Coombs), and Trent (Paul Witten), the older biologist who brought Felix to New Orleans: "But you believe in history, don't you?" "I guess so." "Of course." "And history's what holds us together." "That, and secrets."

In an earlier scene, Felix, newly arrived in Gothic old New Orleans, speaks with a man who appears to be Trent's father (Patrick John Hurley) about the urban "design" spew of Los Angeles, a city that, as one character points out, in the brief time since it was annexed into the United States, has destroyed more of its historical buildings and neighborhoods than any city in America: "It has no history to speak of." "It's not trapped by its history." "Nothing to build on." "L.A. hasn't found itself yet."

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