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Kirk Douglas Theatre's Three Solo Shows Are Respectable But Don't Push the Envelope

Roger Guenveur Smith performs his solo show about Rodney King.
Roger Guenveur Smith performs his solo show about Rodney King.
PHOTO BY CRAIG SCHWARTZ

In his absorbing solo show, St. Jude, at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, gay-Latino writer-performer Luis Alfaro talks sincerely about himself, about growing up in California's Central Valley, and about his dad. In the same theater, performing in repertory, Vietnamese-American writer-actor Trieu Tran also talks earnestly about himself and about his dad. Tran's compelling immigration saga spans the horrors of the Viet Cong to gang warfare in Boston. His play, co-written by its director, Robert Egan (who also directed St. Jude), is called Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam.

There's another solo show in this trinity of performances, the latest entries in the DouglasPlus experimental series: black performer Roger Guenveur Smith's marvelous Rodney King, in which Smith does not talk about his dad, and his earnestness comes at least through a filter of sarcasm and irony. After seeing the first two, this one comes as something of a relief.

All three shows are also part of the second biannual Radar L.A. Festival, dedicated to presenting local and international work from the Pacific Rim.

I'm a bit perplexed by what guys purging angst by talking about relationships with their dads are doing in two festivals advertised as being dedicated to experimental work. (From the Radar L.A. website: "We've gathered some of the most influential companies from around the globe alongside innovative Los Angeles artists to highlight vibrant interdisciplinary approaches and new forms of theatrical expression.")

Standing or sitting on a stage to talk about your life, and about your dad, may have been a "new form of theatrical expression" when Spalding Gray did it for about a decade starting in 1985, but that was almost 30 years ago.

With no disrespect directed at Alfaro or Tran — the former is a distinguished political activist and poet in his own right — or to the passions that moved them to create their shows, St. Jude and Uncle Ho appear to have emerged from a time capsule where ethnicity and earnestness are primary, and irony is kept largely at bay.

Where is Kristina Wong, and the weird, wonderful balance she strikes between reverence and irreverence for her Chinese heritage? Even an old-schooler like David Henry Hwang, who has a theater named after him in Little Tokyo, took to mocking the earnestness of identity politics in his 2007 play, Yellowface.

Where is the new generation of writer-performers who bring, yes, theatrical innovation, to questions of assimilation and its discontents? The selections here send the discomfiting message that our L.A. artists are not interested in new and different means of performance — which I don't believe — or that our curators and programmers haven't been looking rigorously enough for this new breed of artists, or that they don't have confidence in those they might have found.

That said, the three works under one roof raise some interesting questions about the importance of being earnest.

Alfaro's St. Jude juxtaposes his memories from towns along California's Route 99 between Fresno and Bakersfield with other excursions to SoCal destinations, from Alhambra to Orange County.

There isn't a word spoken in the performance that Alfaro doesn't mean, in earnest. And as absorbing and beautifully told as his story is, its unmitigated sincerity constricts it theatrically.

Alfaro is now a big guy, physically, and he makes reference to his culinary, erotic and spiritual appetites, stemming in part from one parent being a Protestant Pentecostal and the other being Catholic. He invites the audience to sing along in gospel favorites from his youth between scenes.

Alfaro's focus is on his father who, in flash-forwards, enters Fullerton's St. Jude Medical Center after an infection in his foot travels to and threatens his heart. Between hospital visits, the performer morphs from being the child of his father to parenting him in the emergency ward.

Alfaro offers simply rendered descriptions of incidents from his youth in places such as Visalia, Delano and Bakersfield. There are scenes of being groped by a Santa Claus at the Sears in Alhambra, of sexual abuse by a cousin, and of an uncle who returned from the Vietnam War a sadist, holding Alfaro's head underwater until his head spun. Alfaro says he learned how to cope with the stress of air deprivation by learning to "let go," as though accepting death, and this lesson guided him through later travails.

Takeshi Kata's set design and Lap Chi Chu's lighting present a slide-projected map of the towns in Alfaro's memory lane. Between scenes at each locale, Alfaro crosses to a table, where he slices his finger to draw a drop of blood, to be placed on the projected map as an indicator of the town being visited. This mirrors the daily tests for blood sugar that his diabetic father must take. The dual symbolism is self-evident.

There were many students present at the performance I attended, and the scene in which Alfaro held his father elicited sniffles and quiet sobs. The story clearly scores on an emotional scale, less so on one for innovation.

Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam is a picaresque adventure about Tran leaving Vietnam after his father was tortured by the Viet Cong. The family relocated first in Canada, then in Boston.

Episodes from urban gang warfare — Tran says he actually joined an Italian gang, but a school principal misidentified him as being in a Vietnamese one, which is quite amusing — are the show's highlights. The rest is an abuse-fueled coming-of-age story from the point of view of a young man trying to find light in America, to defy the curse of invisibility.

The material is scintillating, the presentation of it less so. Physical gestures replicate what's being said, reinforcing, again, the primacy of being earnest — and obvious.

Roger Guenveur Smith's Rodney King, with original sound design by Marc Anthony Thompson, is magnificent. This is probably because Smith doesn't just tell the story of the sexually conflicted victim of the Los Angeles Police Department who unwitting set off an L.A. race riot in 1992 following the acquittal of the officers who beat and electrocuted him, all recorded on videotape.

Smith performs it as a poem while sliding around the stage with balletic grace. Armed with a microphone, which he uses for sound effects, he speaks in hypnotic, rhetorical cadences. Smith intones his prose-poetry sometimes leaning at an angle so as to create the illusion that he's floating. You can't take your eyes off him, or remove focus from the sarcastic twists and turns that fuel his gently expressed rage.

Where the pieces directed by Egan are evocative and nostalgic, Rodney King is a horrifying yet sardonic indictment of race relations in this country. Propelled by its blend of social urgency and poeticism, it's at least in the margins of what might be called "new forms of theatrical expression."

ST. JUDE | Written and performed by Luis Alfaro | Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City | Thu., Sept. 26, 9 p.m.; Sat., Sept. 28, 8:30 p.m.; Sun., Sept. 29, 1 p.m.; Tue., Oct. 1, 8 p.m.; Fri., Oct. 4, 9 p.m.; Sat., Oct. 5, 4 p.m.; Sun., Oct. 6, 7 p.m. (213) 628-2772 | centertheatregroup.org

UNCLE HO TO UNCLE SAM | Written by Trieu Tran with Robert Egan, performed by Tran | Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City | Fri., Sept. 27, 8 p.m.; Sat., Sept. 28, 4 p.m.; Sun., Sept. 29, 7 p.m.; Wed., Oct. 2, 8 p.m.; Sat., Oct. 5, 8:30 p.m.; Sun., Oct. 6, 4 p.m. | (213 628-2772 | centertheatregroup.org

RODNEY KING | Created and performed by Roger Guenveur Smith | Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City | Thu., Sept. 26, 7:30 p.m.; Sat., Sept. 28, 7 p.m.; Sun., Sept. 29, 4 p.m.; Thu., Oct. 3, 8 p.m.; Fri., Oct. 4, 7:30 p.m.; Sat., Oct. 5, 7 p.m.; Sun., Oct. 6, 1 p.m. | (213) 628-2772 | centertheatregroup.org

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Kirk Douglas Theatre

9820 Washington Blvd.
Culver City, CA 90232

213-628-2772

www.centertheatregroup.org