Though the Latino Theater Company’s newest production never delves into contemporary politics, it’s hard to imagine a more direct or effective counter-narrative to the kind of xenophobic propaganda that so often dominates immigration debates.
Emmy-winning writer Cris Franco’s ’57 Chevy is his first-person account of his family’s legal relocation from Mexico to a multiculturally utopian South Central L.A. in the late 1950s. The show borrows its name from the automobile that transports year-old Cris, his parents and three sisters to their new home and becomes a symbol of their newly acquired upward mobility.
The production offers a bracing, funny take on a Latino family’s journey toward middle-class prosperity, as well as the whitewashing effects of cultural assimilation.
Directed by Valerie Dunlap, the show stars Ric Salinas of the comedy troupe Culture Clash in a magnetic solo performance. Salinas’ natural charisma and kinetic performance style are given full rein here. The vignette-style story jumps around in time, with a pair of tables and a few office supplies serving as a versatile set and props.
Narrating in “Junior’s” voice, Salinas impersonates a range of distinct characters. The central figure is Cris’ father, a Volkswagen mechanic and Mexican patriarch who informs his stubbornly dreamy son that “life is work and work is life.”
Like many immigrants, the elder Franco wants his son’s professional sights set on traditionally high-status careers like medicine, law or engineering. He misses the signs, though we do not, that Junior’s passion for TV Guide and penchant for daydreaming have him destined instead for a career as a screenwriter.
That generational clash between immigrants with remaining ties to their homeland and their eager-to-assimilate offspring sponging up American mores gets explored in several scenes. Some of the best deal with the family’s first Halloween and Cris’ efforts to pass as a Valley skater dude once the family relocates again to the “Same” Fernando Valley.
Franco’s play doesn’t gloss over the ugliness of poverty that drove his father to leave Mexico, but the ease with which his family is allowed to pursue and then achieves the American Dream — at least as presented here — feels dreamlike, an arc as charming and assured as one of the Hollywood scripts Cris is forever imagining.
The first hint that an alternate outcome ever existed comes when Cris accompanies his mother back to Mexico. There, he encounters a boy whose own father left for the United States and never returned.
This awareness of the Francos’ luck at so many turns lends a poignancy that tempers the sweetness of this family saga. Other productions such as Luis Alfaro’s recent Mojada: A Medea have chronicled the Mexican immigrant experience in more heart-rending depth. But there is something profoundly satisfying, especially given the prevailing political rhetoric, about ’57 Chevy’s subversive, white-picket-fence wholesomeness.
Latino Theater Company at Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., in the Gallery, downtown; through Dec. 6. (866) 811-4111; www.thelatc.org