Among the greatest challenges Los Angeles continues to face when it comes to building a culture is that of developing a public sense that the city has a time line, with origins that feed into its future. Aside from various noir potboilers (novels like Raymond Chandler‘s, movies like Chinatown and L.A. Confidential) and the dubious “truths” espoused in Mike Davis’ City of Quartz, Los Angeles is famous for hastily burying its past in a frenzied, often foolish quest for an unconditioned future, for ripping down its landmarks (and one very efficient mass-transit system) in the name of all manner of ephemeral pursuits.
But that‘s certainly not the whole story. The Southwest and Autry museums, say, or the Los Angeles Conservancy, among other institutions, have made noble efforts to preserve and spotlight certain aspects of local history. Now add to the list of such endeavors the L.A. History Project, brainchild of L.A. native Mark Seldis, whose rich knowledge of local history comes in part through his bloodline (Mark’s father, Henry J. Seldis, was the L.A. Times art critic from 1960 to 1978) and in part from his experience as managing director for the Actors‘ Gang Theater (until Tim Robbins’ return there earlier this year).
Seldis had been incubating the idea for some such history project for about six years. An early concept was to have different theater companies stage a chapter apiece from City of Quartz, in different corners of the city. Although that specific plan never materialized, last year‘s inaugural project, in which different companies did indeed act out various chapters of local history, was among the highlights of the annual Edge of the World Theater Festival. This year’s LAHP offering — for which co-producers Seldis and Stephanie Bell have enlisted L.A. city schools to host on-site performances, and charged theaters with tutoring students in how to build their own history-theater pieces for possible inclusion in next year‘s EdgeFest — will also take place over a single weekend. The slate includes:
INAB Productions’ presentation of Boogie Down Central Avenue, a look at L.A.‘s black jazz scene of the ’40s;
Playwrights Arena‘s presentation of Henry Ong’s The Silkworm Scientist, about Tsein Hsue-shen, the Caltech scientist accused of being a communist and deported to China before becoming the father of China‘s guided-missile program;
Theater of NOTE’s presentation of Bill Robens‘ A Mulholland Christmas Carol, in which a Scrooge-like William Mullholland returns the water he lifted from the Owens Valley;
Zoo District’s presentation of the ensemble Looking for Los Angeles, who pose the question “How does Los Angeles history speak to our present?”
Open Fist Theater Company‘s presentation of Chelsea Hackett Tuttle’s The Freedom Ball, about why an 1853 party, hosted by Don and Dona Stearns, was attacked by ruffians;
Elephant of Main‘s presentation of Tony Foster’s Greystone, based on the unsolved 1929 murder — involving the Doheny family — in Beverly Hills‘ Greystone Mansion.
The L.A. History Project performs at Los Angeles Theater Center, 514 S. Spring St., downtown, Saturday and Sunday, November 10 and 11, noon to 6 p.m. For more information, log on to www.edgeoftheworld.org.