Wild Child

In the darkened Casa 0101 Theater at the western edge of Boyle Heights, the tableau onstage looks homey, a fair approximation of the community just outside the theater walls. A small, sparely furnished house is occupied by a family of color: The father is black and overworked, gruff and caring but not the most educated of men; the mother is a spirited Latina who tends to house and family; their nearly teenage son sports cornrows and a restless, taciturn air common to 12-year-old boys, especially boys of color growing up with modest means in a big city. But the familiar ends here in Oliver Mayer’s Young Valiant, which is framed by race but hardly contained by it. The strains of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet that open the show hint at unlikely things to come, as unlikely as classical music enlivening a space that might otherwise be just another drab house in the hood, or the ’burbs. Almost as soon as the notes fade away, the boy is awakened by the sounds of his parents making love in the room directly above him; he is troubled because he wants a girlfriend now, and the girl he wants is not his sixth-grade sweetheart — his would-be mamacita — but his own mother. Why not? She is lively and passionate, a pleasingly Rubenesque figure who still likes what she sees in the mirror and who loves the cultural pleasures of Prokofiev and ballet as much as cooking up huevos and chorizo.The boy seethes, begins to hate his father, whom he admires for his boxing know-how but who he thinks is too old and unsophisticated to be real competition for him, and a competitor in the world. Toward the end of Act 1, at the height of the boy’s agitation, he advances on his mother and kisses her long and squarely on the lips, like a lover; she gasps, as does the audi-ence, but the chemistry between the two is unmistakable. As the lights go up for intermission, that chemistry hangs almost visibly in the air, and instead of feeling disconnected from the play for the next 15 minutes, I feel ex-posed by it. What would Eugene O’Neill say? Mayer has always been good at delving into complex emotional issues within the framework of race (Blade to the Heat, Joe Louis Blues) — no easy task, since race tends to swallow any other subject matter in its path. In Young Valiant (which premiered in New York in 2002), race doesn’t disappear and life doesn’t become magically balanced; to the contrary, life feels terribly askew. But in the end, it’s askew for reasons unique to the play rather than for reasons common to a whole demographic. Sometimes both the play and its demographic resonate in a single powerful moment: as when the father (Hansford Prince) talks about having to work his whole life and missing the occasion of his youth, and his sorrow feels intimate, but also ancient. Mama (the aptly named Marlene Forte) tries to resolve her nameless ambition — partly expressed in the burning sexuality that so fascinates her son — with memories of Mexico, mercado and home. As the boy, Chastity Dotson is a small miracle — a woman credibly playing a nascent man half her age, she is tough and ethereal, sullen yet wide open, the kid we’ve passed a million times on the street but never felt on this scale. Mayer’s signature role reversals and gender-bending add to the complexity that is so often missing in stories about colored people, as does keeping the characters nameless and therefore emblematic; whatever happens, they are bigger than the circumscribed life that beats down on them and their forebears. But neither does anyone in Young Valiant come up with any answers; things do not get better so much as they evolve, incrementally, into something else. That’s as good as life gets for most of us. Jack Rowe directs.YOUNG VALIANT | By OLIVER MAYER | Presented by LOS ANGELES THEATER PROJECT at CASA 0101 THEATER, 2009 E. First St., Boyle Heights | Through September 18 | (323) 263-7684


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