There’s a palpable feeling of the sacred suffusing director Deena Selenow’s captivating staging of Donald Jolly’s 2011 retelling of the 1965 Watts Riot (aka the Watts Rebellion, depending on which side of the truncheon one is on).
For one thing, the Watts Village Theater Company’s production of Riot/Rebellion, which commemorates this month’s 50th anniversary of the uprising, is at the Mafundi Institute Auditorium, the venerable cultural center that literally rose from the ashes of a commercial stretch of 103rd Street so gutted by the conflagration that it became known locally as “Charcoal Alley.” As site-specific theater goes, the ground doesn’t get more hallowed.
For another, the play’s ritualized invocation of South Central L.A.’s circa-1965 social and political tinderbox of a landscape, together with Jolly’s blend of first-person testimony and his use of overlapping choral blow-by-blows delivered mostly from set designer Mark Kanieff’s raw wooden lecterns, carries more than a hint of the liturgical.
The play is structured in three parts, each punctuated by an increasingly theatricalized and tongue-in-cheek re-enactment of the now-legendary arrest by white CHP motorcycle cop Lee Minikus (played by Javier Ronceros) of 21-year-old Marquette Frye (the fine Roberto Martin) and his older brother Ronald (an outstanding Jacob B. Gibson). It gives a compelling voice to the simmering resentments of a neighborhood hemmed in by racially restricted housing covenants and beset by unemployment, bad schools, worse health care and systemic cop-on-black violence. (Kori Denise, Carol A. Simon and Ashley Wilkerson round out a versatile ensemble.)
Although he makes evocative use of period music and poignant eyewitness detail, Jolly’s most potent insight is his conception of Riot/Rebellion as a grim prequel of things to come. Martin’s final Marquette Frye reprise culminates in an emblematically inchoate, not-quite-quotation of Rodney King’s famously televised plea, “Can we all get along?”
GO! Watts Village Theater Company at Mafundi Institute Auditorium, 1827 E. 103rd St., Watts; through Sept. 26. Wattsvillagetheatercompany.org.
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