Late on a recent Thursday evening, Watts Village Theater Company members gather in a large, nearly bare room on the fifth floor of the L.A. Theatre Center. The second week of rehearsals for WVTC's new site-specific spoof, Hollywood in the Hood, has just commenced, and two groups of actors, not even yet off-book, face off for a West Side Story–style “rumble.” “Murder, murder, murder, kill, kill, kill,” one side chants tauntingly to the other.
To understand the experience of watching the play, you have to imagine the actors are brandishing oversized, cartoonish cardboard weapons. You have to imagine the Watts Towers, one stop on the production's brief walking tour, rises up behind them. And you have to imagine (probably not a hard task) that much of what you've heard about this South L.A. neighborhood is a “gangster porn” caricature.
“Because Watts has an ingrained reputation as someplace you do not want to go, it's a good place to make some art happen on the streets,” says playwright Lynn Manning, who also serves as WVTC's artistic director. “I hope passersby catch a glimpse and get some juice out of it.”
A lauded actor, playwright and poet raised in South L.A., Manning wrote the play in a bid to offer up theater for people to “stumble upon in nature.” Comprised of four, 15-minute scenes built around a small neighborhood loop, the show travels from the Mafundi Institute, built as an arts and community center after the 1965 riots and home to the storied Watts Coffee House, to the landmark Watts train station, opened as a Red Car stop in 1904, and across to the Watts Towers Arts Center Campus for the dance number before circling back to the Mafundi.
“To some degree, we have a greater number of friends and followers from outside the community,” Manning says. “We are about the business of building a higher profile inside the community.”
In addition to showcasing some iconic locations, the play engages in a little good-natured Hollywood bashing. The play centers on two interlopers — over-the-top film director Terence Tarantino and a posh British actor famous for his starring turn in a slavery epic — who have arrived in Watts in hopes of finding the requisite thugs needed to lend an air of authenticity to their project. However, their found-footage pseudo-documentary about ghetto brutality — a wall-to-wall orgy of violence and mayhem where “human life isn't worth the SD card it's shot on” — doesn't go over well with the locals. “You want that kind of violence in yo' movie,” Terence is informed, “you need to be studyin' a Chicago accent.”
“I was a big fan of I'm Gonna Git You Sucka and Hollywood Shuffle,” Manning says, referencing a pair of 1980s comedies that famously mock blaxploitation films and the stereotypical roles typically assigned to African-American actors.
Hollywood in the Hood does its nose-thumbing from a similarly cracked perspective. “A lot of the lines are really funny, but Lynn doesn't want the play to be slapstick,” director Hector Rodriguez says. “He wants to go for the absurd.”
Embracing outright absurdity is a bit of a departure for Manning, whose works often are rife with dark themes and a poetic sensibility. But work inextricably connected with the city is no departure at all. Manning's plays might riff on the likes of Othello or Bertolt Brecht, but they're also about L.A.'s conversations with itself.
Shows with a local angle are part of Watts Village Theater Company's mission. The company has built its reputation with well-received productions onstage, such as the Manning-penned Private Battle, an adaptation of Woyzeck set in South L.A., and with the recent site-specific series Meet Me @ Metro, which brought live theater to public transportation.
The company is part of what Manning calls small L.A. theater's thriving cadre of “hopeful, disgruntled artists like me” with a diverse sensibility, such as Towne Street Theatre, Casa 0101, the Robey, East West Players and Deaf West.
WVTC went through a rough patch last year when its then–artistic director resigned in protest over a disagreement with the board's decision to stick to works about South L.A.
Manning, who co-founded the company in 1996, stepped in. “I feel driven to tell stories born of L.A. The stories I've witnessed, experienced, are in many ways unique to [the city]. … There's so much … to be blown away by here. Gun pun not intended.”
Gun puns carry an extra edge coming from Manning, who was blinded at 23 when a drunk shot him in the head after an altercation in a Hollywood bar. Little wonder he expresses little patience with the gangster porn that Hollywood in the Hood is spoofing.
“I'm a free-speech advocate,” Manning says concerning the genre. “But I don't fool myself that being exposed to certain dehumanizing depictions doesn't affect people. I've seen it. Homeboys acting out the stupidity they see in films.”
Hollywood in the Hood, presented by Watts Village Theater Company, starts at the Mafundi Institute, 1827 E. 103 St., Watts on July 26-27, 11 a.m. (424) 265-98820, wattsvillagetheatercompany.org.
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