When an Actor Bleeds Onstage Every Night
Craig SchwartzLuis Alfaro in St. Jude
The stage design is sparse: a wooden podium in the center, a table and school desk on either side. Luis Alfaro, the noted Chicano playwright and native Angeleno, walks over to the table, on which rests an old-school overhead projector. It displays a hand drawn map of Highway 99, that dusty stretch connecting the Central Valley. Fresno, Visalia, Bakersfield. This is where Alfaro's family and other immigrant farm workers -- "Los Californios," he calls them -- travelled to pick fruit and harvest the fields. "They told me it was vacation," he laughed, "but it wasn't. It was work."
As he recounts the major episodes of his life, he pauses before each new chapter, and crosses the stage. He picks up a pen needle. He rubs his fingers vigorously. He pricks one fingertip, wincing slightly as blood comes to the surface. Then he returns to the projector, where he dabs a single dark drop next to the name of each city he spent time in. He does this ten times during the show -- which ended its run at the Kirk Douglas Theatre on Sunday -- marking his journey across the state, and across his life, with a trail of blood. Each stab of the needle causes the woman sitting next to me in the audience to writhe in discomfort.
The play is called St. Jude, named for the Fullerton hospital where Alfaro's father, Jaime, passed away last Thanksgiving at the age of 80. The play came out of dozens of notes Alfaro posted on his personal Facebook wall, documenting the two years he spent caring for his father. He had to prick his father's finger every three hours, give him injections every six hours, and feed him 21 pills a day. "This is a journey I made in blood," Alfaro says in an interview. "I paid for it with my heart."
Alfaro was raised in a religious Pentecostal household and at the storefront churches in his Pico-Union neighborhood. He was gay, and terrified of the Holy Spirit and of God's wrath. He was an altar boy, though he jokes, "not a single priest ever laid a hand on me - damn it." It wasn't until he ran away from home at 16 that he discovered drugs and sex. But the church was also a sanctuary from the violence of the streets. Interspersed in the show are traditional church hymns, and Alfaro invites the audience to join in.
This one-man show is a return to form for Alfaro. In the 1980s he performed at small experimental theaters in downtown LA. His pieces were ritualistic, exploring the body and its limits. In one infamous piece he drank an entire bottle of tequila. In another, he ate two whole boxes of Twinkies. The audience would laugh at first, and then get disgusted. "It was a very interesting series of works that I was doing around what we tolerate in culture, and when is too much too much," Alfaro says.
He later went to the Mark Taper Forum and co-directed their Latino Theatre Initiative, which helped to earn him a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant." He spent the next chapter of his career traveling the country, like the farm worker actors of El Teatro Campesino, writing plays about the people he met in each city. Oedipus Rey reflects his time working in the Chicago prison system. But he took a behind-the-scenes role, allowing other actors to speak on his behalf.
The blood-letting in St. Jude was conceived early on, as he worked with director Robert Egan to adapt his Facebook entries to the stage. But with 13 performances scheduled over the past three weeks, as part of the Radar LA festival at Center Theatre Group's DouglasPlus series, Alfaro consulted with a doctor to make sure the repetitive finger-stabbing wasn't a health risk. She assured him that diabetics have to prick themselves several times a day, and that he'd be fine.
Alfaro says performing St. Jude has helped him cope with the loss of his father. He said the pain is more intense now. "I really miss my dad," he said. "I don't know how else to say that without getting all bluthery and crying, but I miss him so much." His family hasn't seen the show though. He said they feel it's too soon.
After each one-hour performance, Alfaro spends about an hour standing outside the Kirk Douglas Theater, giving audience members hugs and listening to their own stories of loss. One woman's husband had just died after a 50-year marriage. One man gave Alfaro the prayer card from his wife's recent funeral. "You've told your story, and now they tell you theirs," Alfaro said. "It's really kind of extraordinary."
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