What Was It Like to Be a Latino Growing Up in the 1960s in Mostly Black Watts?

Sal Lopez explains his upbringing in his solo show, This Is a Man's World, at LATC.
Sal Lopez explains his upbringing in his solo show, This Is a Man's World, at LATC.
Photo by Stephen Mihalek

At 60 years old, the spry, lean, silver-haired Sal Lopez could well be Puck's dad. And it could be argued that Lopez's picaresque autobiographical one-man show, This Is a Man's World at Los Angeles Theatre Center, is a memory play. That's because it opens with Lopez screaming on a hospital bed wondering what he's doing there. As the doctor later explains, Lopez was working out at the gym, probably over-working out, and the next thing he's in the hospital. Well, not exactly the next thing, since there was his collapse and his medical transport, both of which he doesn't recall. The doc tells him he's suffered from a stroke-like incident called "transient global amnesia" — from which he's expected to recover fully, with almost no danger of a relapse.

Curiously, during the interludes when he's lost his memory, Lopez drifts into very specific memories of coming of age, of a childhood in Tijuana and Watts, of being in a minority of Latinos in the then-predominantly black Los Angeles neighborhood, of family and friends, of (as a kid) receiving a whipping from his dad for tossing a soda can into a neighbor's yard, of getting arrested for engaging in a bar fight and having to be bailed out by his dad, of (much later) dissuading his dad from beating up an arrogant barkeep after the guy punched one of Sal's brothers, of his father's authority keeping local street gangs at bay, of his dad's sudden death. All of this is recounted to us, the visitors around his hospital bed, accentuated by Yee Eun Nam's projections on the theater walls or the bedside curtains. Lopez moves gazelle-like, telling his stories with gentle, persuasive and sometimes lingering cadences.

One idea, under Jose Luis Valenzuela's tender, whimsical staging, is that memory is an entirely different matter from the present tense — that distant memory emerges within a coma state when recent memory (like, what happened half an hour ago?) falls away. Still, that's a vague concept.

More tangible is the diminutive Lopez's examination of what it means to be and become a man, via somewhat stock if charming permutations of young love, and where the threat of violence hangs in the ether, where pride becomes folly and reputation a burden.

Lopez recalls his family's deer-in-the headlights response to the 1965 Watts Riots — of how no cab driver would bring a visiting relative to the house from LAX, so they had to pick him up themselves, through burning streets. Like memory itself, the performance is a kaleidoscope of impressions, pleasing with no particular social agenda, and floating somewhat on Ivan Robles' atmospheric sound design.

Trent Dawson, left, Steve Spiro, Lesley Fera and Jason Downs in The Homecoming
Trent Dawson, left, Steve Spiro, Lesley Fera and Jason Downs in The Homecoming
Photo by Ashley Boxler

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"Why don't you shut up, you daft prat?" says Lenny (Jason Downs, resembling young Malcolm McDowell) to his father, Max (Jude Ciccolella), in Guillermo Cienfuegos' top-flight revival of Harold Pinter's 1965 comedy The Homecoming at Pacific Resident Theatre. He doesn't say it in a moment of fury. It's just part of the East London family's nonchalant repartee, spoken while reading a newspaper on a sofa. Dad calls all of his sons "bitches." He instantly insults his English daughter-in-law, Ruth (Lesley Fera), upon her arrival with her hubby, who is Max's prodigal son/professor of philosophy (Trent Dawson), visiting from their U.S. home.

Max greets Ruth (whom he's never before met) by calling her a whore and a tart, and she's absolutely unruffled. In a monumentally subtle, enticing and erotic performance, her stone-faced response to much of this family's perverted shenanigans comes laden with world-weariness. When enigmatic Ruth starts giving herself sexually to both of Teddy's brothers (in front of Teddy's nonplussed, glazed-over gaze), she's redefined by Max as "a woman of quality."

The words in Pinter's masterwork sound absurd, and have been locked into the theater's mid–20th century genre of absurdism, but they are really quite logical and vivid expressions of the collective unconscious — among a tribe that has been for years drinking a toxic brew of impotence and hubris as a response to the same kind of latent violence in the English ether that permeates Lopez's Southern California environs. The play is an antecedent to American works ranging from the plays of David Mamet to August: Osage County.

Cienfuegos' ensemble couldn't be better. It includes Antony Foux as Max's brother Sam, a fastidious taxi driver with questionable sexual predilections, and the third son, would-be boxer Joey, played with an impressive thick-skulled gormlessness by Steve Spiro.

Cienfuegos' timing of the poetically crafted repartee is brisk and seamless. Norman Scott's set design gives us a "home" with clashing wallpaper designs that are, even without the occupants, dispiriting, as are Christine Cover-Ferro's midcentury costumes. This is an awful, typical home, in an awful, typical world, and, in a way that's penetrating rather than glib, it's awfully funny.

GO! This Is a Man's World, Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring Street, downtown; through June 21. (213) 489-0994, thelatc.org.

GO! The Homecoming, Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd., Venice; through July 26. (310) 822-8392, pacificresidentheatre.com.


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