Continuing its mission of interlinking theater with social justice, Cornerstone Theater Company launches its "hunger cycle" series of plays with Lisa Loomer's Café Vida, directed by the Cornerstone's artistic director, Michael John Garcés. The play was created in partnership with Homeboy Industries and Homegirl Cafe.
The former is a downtown L.A. missionary organization dedicated to helping former gang members shake off the chains of their affiliations with crime and violence, by offering technical courses in farming, the restaurant business and culinary arts. Homegirl Cafe, under the auspices of Homeboy Industries, is a Chinatown restaurant that hires former gang youth to help cultivate, prepare and serve food. Homeboy Industries also runs eatery Homeboy Diner in City Hall's second-floor rotunda, serving sandwiches and goods from its bakery.
Like Homeboy Industries, Loomer's play serves many functions: It tells the story of two women, Chabela and Luz (Lynette Alfaro and Sue Montoya), who land in a program very much like Homeboy Industries, following their struggles against their former lives, their drug addictions, the children removed from their care by the prison system and Department of Social Services, and the conflicts that made them cross-town rivals — as they learn how to compost and to sow corn and tomatoes. In one of the play's more farcical scenes, they learn how to serve cloyingly picky, self-absorbed patrons in the cafe.
The play contains the dramatic tug-and-pull of any rehabilitation saga, but filtered through a theme imposed upon it: hunger. There's a poetical chorus near the play's start that speaks of hunger for love, and for attention, and other ephemeral desires, but the heart of the matter is food, and not just for the soul. This is a story not just about poetry, responsibility and respect but about having the means to eat well. As Brecht notes in The Threepenny Opera, "Food is the first thing, morals follow on."
And yet, ironically, Brecht's line is a moral in itself, the very moral at the core of Homeboy Industries and of Loomer's play, based on that organization.
Cast with a combination of union professionals and amateur locals, the production contains the mix of brittle intelligence and squeaky, feel-good righteousness that characterizes so many Cornerstone shows, hitting its target when landing on the subtle insights — sometimes painful, sometimes idealistic — that are hard to imagine without a play like this to offer them.
Alfaro's chunky Chabela has a pleasingly tough, no-nonsense veneer, as though she's working to overcome an ingrained and almost pouty skepticism. When she bites into a tomato she grew herself, the expression of bliss on her face is a revelation. Growing her own food, she says, makes her feel that for the first time in her life, she's had a bit of luck, that she's done something good. Yet when she serves fresh homegrown corn and kale to her drug-dealer boyfriend, Eddie (Jesse Gamboa), he chastises her, saying that Father Tim (Peter Howard), who runs the play's equivalent of Homeboy Industries, is turning her into a migrant farm worker (as though Eddie's selling drugs is a step up from the farm). The divide between domestic farming as something demeaning versus something spiritual is determined by cultural history.
There's a bearded, tattooed, mythic character in a sombrero named El Maiz (the always excellent Shishir Kurup), representing the Mexican farmers. He goes on a rant about the ruination of Mexican agriculture by NAFTA (which allows the United States to sell its surplus corn to Mexico at cut-rate prices) and Monsanto's genetically engineered corn, whose pollen is destroying indigenous varieties globally, thereby ensuring its own monopoly of the commodity. This is what might be called the billboard moment, researched and hard to argue with, except for its clumsiness in broadcasting the larger culpability for global hunger, rather than revealing it, as the play accomplishes in so many other more striking scenes. Example: Exhausted Chabela returns home after working and trying to grocery shop with the incisive remark, "Nothing but liquor stores around here," which says so much in so few words.
Garcés' production is a kind of contemporary oratorio, well performed and peppered with songs and procession-like choreography, under Bruno Louchouarn's musical direction. Felipe Nieto is terrific as an energetic young ward of the mission with sex on the brain. The world-weary style in which both Chabela and Luz brush off his sexual innuendos fuels both the play's humor and its authenticity.
This work about food is clearly following a recipe, yet it's not easy to serve up a work of theater that's both noble and smart in the same gulp. There's an array of topical issues on their plate. Here, they remain fresh, rather than boiled down.
CAFÉ VIDA | By Lisa Loomer, created in partnership with Homeboy Industries and Homegirl Cafe | A Cornerstone Theater Company production presented by Latino Theater Company | Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., dwntwn. | Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through May 20 | (866) 811-4111 | CornerstoneTheater.org/CafeVida, thelatc.org