With 50 of his own stage plays in his flash drive, Tom Jacobson may be Los Angeles' most prolific playwright. There's no particular aesthetic that defines his work. His urbane dialogue carries ideas that seem to rise higher in his horizons than the emotions of his characters. This would make him a local literary descendent of Tony Kushner and Charles L. Mee. For example, in 2004 Road Theater Company presented his whimsically macabre Ouroboros, about two vacationing, Venetian catacombs–visiting American couples caught in a Twilight Zone time warp between two Italian cities. The next year, Playwrights Arena presented his The Orange Grove, a realistic and slightly goofy riff on Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, concerning the death throes of a small, local Lutheran choir. Last year, Cornerstone Theatre Company commissioned a musical about the creation of the city of West Hollywood, Making Paradise, while Theatre @ Boston Court presented The Twentieth Century Way, a “rehearsal” of a play about gay entrapment in early-20th-century Long Beach, in which two actors portrayed an entire gallery of characters in a theater dressing room.
This year, Circle X Theatre Company and Ensemble Studio Theatre L.A. — which now occupy two theaters side by side in Atwater Village — are putting on a festival of concurrently running plays by Jacobson, The Chinese Massacre (Annotated) and House of the Rising Son. (Click here for our recent cover story on the Chinese massacre.)
If you're not familiar with Jacobson's work, you'll be hard-pressed to believe these two works were created by the same writer. The Chinese Massacre is a prodigiously researched, self-consciously Brechtian parable about what may be L.A.'s first officially recorded race riot in 1871. A number of “annotators” playfully interrupt the action to identify historical inaccuracies that have been interjected for the flow of the story — and, citing Brecht's style of epic theater, to prevent the play's larger ideas from being overpowered by our emotional reaction to various lynchings and other brutalities depicted on the stage. Those ideas swirl around the essences of ethnic bigotry that just seem to keep recycling themselves, like our race riots, as the decades roll by.
House of the Rising Son is a comedy, of sorts, about the initiation of a young L.A. man into a secret gay dynasty now situated in New Orleans, but dating back to ancient Rome.
For all these plays' seeming idiosyncrasies and divergent styles, they contain a trinity of pivotal and interconnected concerns that define Jacobson as being among the region's most important theatrical voices. The first of these is history, and the making of it — from Ouroboros to Making Paradise to Orange Grove to Twentieth Century to Massacre to Rising Son; the distinctions between what gets recorded in legends (and plays) and what actually happened. Massacre and Twentieth Century are infused with both a metaphysical playfulness and an earnest compulsion for social justice, which is where Jacobson holds hands with Kushner.
The second related idea circles around Jacobson's deeply abiding love for the theater — playwrights in whose style Jacobson riffs include Anton Chekhov in Orange Grove, Tennessee Williams in Rising Son, Bertolt Brecht in Massacre. He toys with and chides the art form, sometimes through dialogue, sometimes through emulation, and sometimes through plays (or rehearsals) within plays (as in Twentieth Century) depicting through theater the process of arriving at a completed drama. This process parallels the metamorphosis of dubiously known facts into the even more dubious fictions we call history. These passions for history and for the theater come tethered to a third and, in American theater, rare concern that completes Jacobson's three unities — and that's theology.
Aside from land grabs and massacres, history is the clash of tribes and of notions held sacred. Jacobson engages these notions in styles sometimes approaching flippancy, as in the local Lutheran choir on the ropes in Orange Grove; and sometimes gravely, as in a litany of Christian hypocrisies expressed by a condemned Chinese man in Massacre.
In that play, it's an opportunistic reverend (Silas Weir Mitchell) who fuses the trinity of Jacobson's passions in a single line: “History is past.”
Or, to paraphrase a line from Brecht's adaptation of Marlowe's Edward II, trying to scoop up history is like trying to “catch the wind in a sieve.”
Meanwhile, in the venue across the courtyard, at almost the same time, in Rising Son, the following dialogue unfolds between the young man, a collector of folklore named Felix (Steve Coombs), and Trent (Paul Witten), the older biologist who brought Felix to New Orleans: “But you believe in history, don't you?” “I guess so.” “Of course.” “And history's what holds us together.” “That, and secrets.”
In an earlier scene, Felix, newly arrived in Gothic old New Orleans, speaks with a man who appears to be Trent's father (Patrick John Hurley) about the urban “design” spew of Los Angeles, a city that, as one character points out, in the brief time since it was annexed into the United States, has destroyed more of its historical buildings and neighborhoods than any city in America: “It has no history to speak of.” “It's not trapped by its history.” “Nothing to build on.” “L.A. hasn't found itself yet.”
This dialogue may be a digression in the play's exploration of what gays actually contribute to a society, yet it articulates the primary theme of The Chinese Massacre in the theater next door: the struggle to understand a city by sorting out its history.
And so, in their wildly divergent styles, both plays wrestle with crises of civic identity and of origins, of ascendency through exploitation and exclusion, of living in shame and secrecy, and trying to find some peace in all that, perhaps even something sacred in the endless striving to reconcile scriptures and laws with the brutality of street warfare and bloody purges.
The Chinese Massacre is set in 1891 Los Angeles, 20 years after 18 Chinese men and one boy were shot or lynched in a race riot instigated by vigilantes in the name of protecting local employment opportunities from “foreigners.” Even in 1871, with the Gold Rush waning, Chinese immigrant labor had all but completed the major east-west railroad arteries that would provide whatever oxygen of commerce could be breathed. And after the 20-year interlude, an educated Chinese physician named Lee (West Liang) wanders into the mercantile store of the aforementioned Reverend Crenshaw (Mitchell) in order to purchase a novelty item: the severed finger of a Chinese man who was among the victims of the massacre 20 years earlier.
This is the kind of artifact that archaeologists and paleontologists use to fathom the mysteries of the past. Lee's purpose is not only historical but religious. The finger is the last remaining fossil of somebody he knew — withered flesh and bone deserving of sacred burial, rather than being locked away in some shopkeeper's jewelry box. Lee is like Antigone, arguing with her uncle Creon over an honorable funeral for her brother, whom Creon regards as a traitor.
And from the minutiae of their barter, the events leading up to the massacre unfold in flashback, told, enacted, corrected and annotated, because a truthful history rarely makes for the best yarn. And it's the myths we recall, the hyperenergized, oversimplified rendition that gets made into the movie or published in schoolbooks — presuming that history is even in the curriculum.
The history that unfolds in the play includes Chinese human traffickers and slave traders, and Caucasians who risked their lives to protect the persecuted. It's the Holocaust in miniature, set in the Wild West. L.A. in 1871 had only six policemen, according to the play. One local sheriff, calling on marauding Angelenos to go home and let the law handle this Chinese crisis, is swiftly disarmed and overrun. There's stoic black Biddy Mason (Lisa Tharpes) who embodies the play's moral center, spitting into the Santa Ana wind, a kind of Donna Quixote.
For all its abundant virtues, and a fluid, beautifully performed production directed by Jeff Liu, the play suffers from its flow of historical scenes, which don't quite reach the kind of national or even local mythology to which it aspires. Among its challenges is that, like The Twentieth Century Way, it's trying to unearth a little-known local story, and so the play itself is a creation myth about the creation of a myth. It's hard not to compare it to John Guare's A Free Man of Color, which played last year at Lincoln Center. Set in New Orleans around the time of the Louisiana Purchase, Free Man focuses on seducer Jacques Cornet and his sexual exploits, until he slams into slave owner Thomas Jefferson, who says one thing about freedom and does nothing to support his words. Among the final images of this similarly playful historical wash is Meriwether Lewis (of the Lewis and Clark expedition), employed to strike out into the territories for the purpose of creating a map of the United States. If one is asking the question of who we are, where we are and where we're going, this poetically ambiguous yet thematically lucid image cuts to the heart of searching for the civic soul.
Jacobson closes with tableaus from L.A.'s subsequent race riots, which is telling — sort of — that we keep learning nothing because we keep erasing history. But that's not entirely true, even in L.A., and Jacobson is certainly smart enough to know that.
Why does our city keep exploding into riot every several decades? Jacobson's very good play alludes to that question, then dances around it. The play is a pageant, like the Rose Parade, intoxicating to watch, studiously observed, but then the parade goes by, leaving us with colorful images and provocative questions, but not quite enough to tie them together into a larger idea — which is what great movies and plays do. Yet if any playwrights in Los Angeles have the capacity to write a great work, Jacobson stands tall among them.
House of the Rising Son is more successful and less ambitious — which is why I actually prefer the history play. Young folklore collector Felix (Steve Coombs) droolingly observes handsome, older biologist Dr. Trent Varro (Paul Witten) giving a lecture in Los Angeles about parasites. Within 15 minutes of stage time, they're graveyard-hopping from Hollywood Forever to Forest Lawn, after which Felix finds himself with an invite to visit Trent's “family” in New Orleans for the weekend. Family would be dad (Patrick John Hurley) and granddad (Rod Menzies). The comedy is a gay version of Meet the Parents, but with an actual idea attached — that as parasites serve an ecosystem, gays similarly serve a social system.
The play concerns issues of secrecy versus candor, of ghost stories versus empirical research, and the legacy of persecuted subcultures driven underground, who form their own rules to play by. This is a legacy that dates back to the Roman Empire.
Under Michael Michetti's direction, Menzies is particularly fine as the wry and cantankerous dying patriarch. As his son, Hurley contains a genteel and gentle Southern swagger that's as endearing as it is wise. Witten and Coombs also have a rapport that sparks.
The visual delights include Richard Hoover's Gothic carpeted set with furniture set at angles askew, like a House of Usher that's tilting from a sinking foundation. Sound designer Bruno Louchouarn floats in chords and brief anthems to accentuate moments of Gothic melodrama. Nothing is what it seems. This whole blasted crew may just be a swirl of ghosts. The characters talk and act as though from a play by Tennessee Williams, but if they looked in the mirror, they might see Noël Coward's reflection.
Spirits haven't been so blithe in a long time.
THE CHINESE MASSACRE (ANNOTATED) | By Tom Jacobson | Presented by Circle X Theatre Company at the Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village | Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 & 8 p.m. | Through May 28 | (213) 368-9552, circlextheatre.org
HOUSE OF THE RISING SON | By Tom Jacobson | Presented by Ensemble Studio Theatre L.A. at the Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village | Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m. | Through May 29 | (323) 644-1929, ensemblestudiotheatrela.org