Before the opening performance of La Víspera (The Eve) at 24th Street Theatre, a young man named Edgar translates the pre-show welcome into Spanish for the bilingual audience. When he stumbles over the Spanish word for “rehearsal,” a voice from the back — belonging to Jesús Castaños-Chima, the show’s director — rings out, helping him: “Ensayo!”
After the show, there will be a traditional Posada, or Christmas procession, through the University Park neighborhood, culminating in a piñata free-for-all in the parking lot across the street for the kids. There will be tamales in the lobby. It’s all in keeping with the concept of convivir, to coexist, which fuels this primarily Latino community near the USC campus.
Co-directed by Chima and Sayda Trujillo, La Víspera is the second play under the banner of the Teatro del Pueblo program, 24th Street’s non-professional theater program for adults. Most of the cast members had never been onstage before the program’s debut last year.
Featuring more than 20 actors, the play follows the struggles of a closeknit immigrant community over the holidays. Playwright Victor Vazquez derived the plot from a series of developmental story circles started back in March. Open only to adults, these emotionally charged sessions provided the fragments later woven throughout the play.
Vazquez, whose parents moved to the United States from Mexico in their teens, said he based the main character Jo, an emotionally withdrawn roofer, on his father and grandfather. Like them, Jo is “a quiet man who doesn’t want to acknowledge his past.” (Jo is played by Tony Duran, the show’s only professional actor.)
“As a kid you do theater, and it’s fun and playful. But as an adult, it’s therapy,” Vazquez says. “A lot of these folks work two jobs and have a family to support. They’re just tired. Coming out here, it’s like finally they’re allowed to play. It was a whole new concept for a lot of them.”
Liliana Vásquez, who first participated last year, used to hate the sound of her own voice. “I always shied away from presenting myself in a public forum,” she says. “I’m finally overcoming that. Now, I like the sound of my voice.”
One of the most transformative experiences belongs to Abel Flores, who plays a security guard given to speaking in lyrical flights of fancy. In real life, Flores runs a recycling plant with his brother. His wife, Verónica, also has a part in the show. Flores says that before the play, he and “Veró,” as he calls her, had little to talk about. He would come home from work, eat dinner, watch TV and go to sleep. Now, they discuss the show, rehearse each other’s scenes, and practice with their kids, who have memorized their parents’ lines.
In an interview, Flores speaks in Spanish, with Vazquez translating. He spends several quiet minutes talking about his mother, a woman who rode horses and bulls in Mexico when only men did so, and who loved to sing and dance. After his mother died, Flores says, her seven sons and three daughters dispersed. He didn’t dance for 15 years, until a rehearsal exercise last year got him on his feet again. Through the story circles, he began to reflect on his mother’s legacy and his relationship with his own kids.
“I’ve learned the definition of convivir. My mom would bring everyone together, but when she left, no one was playing that role anymore,” Flores says. “With this process, I learned how to take that on myself, how to build community, even within my own family — how to coexist with them and take the role of my mother.”
Flores has memory problems, so he captures audio and pictures of his lines on his phone so he can practice while at work. Initially, his brother disapproved of the play because Flores’ rehearsal schedule took him away from the recycling plant. Now, he plans to come see Flores onstage.
“He’s seen that this is something really great for me. There have been significant changes in the way I behave,” Flores says. “In the past, I would explode for any little reason. Now, I’m just relaxed and enjoy things a lot more. Less rage, less stress. And now I have a lot more new friends.”
24th Street Theatre, 1117 W. 24th St., University Park; through Dec. 14; (213) 745-6516, www.24thstreet.org.
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