March 27, 2012
Café Vida Kicks Off!
Café Vida is a wonderful play and important cultural project for Los Angeles. I am very excited to be a small part of this project since it truly is an example of “socially-engaged art” that links to the community—specifically the men and women who work at Homeboy Industries. Evidence of this is the fact that 75% of the acting roles are “community actors” —an amazing testament to the efforts of Cornerstone Theater in outreach and recruiting actors.
The message of the play offers a humanizing look at the lives of “homeboys and homegirls” trying to change the direction of their lives. The playwright Lisa Loomer spent time observing and talking to people at Homeboy Industries and Homegirl Café before writing the play, and she even shared with them the play and received feedback. This is significant since there are so many negative stereotypes and images in the dominant media and public discourse on gang culture in Los Angeles. Café Vida tells a very sensitive story, but also raises many questions and issues on the complexity of leaving la vida loca/the gang life.
Homeboy Industries is one of the only organizations in Los Angeles that serves gang-involved men and women—people who are usually dehumanized and demonized by many in the broader society—and offers them an alternative to that life. Homeboy Industries has also grown into one of the largest gang intervention programs in the nation, and offers services such as job training, job placement, mental health, and tattoo removal. In 2005, it was recognized by the White House as one of the only successful gang intervention programs in the county. Homeboy Industries under the leadership of Father Gregory Boyle was founded in 1992 and its mission is “to assist at-risk and former gang involved youth to become contributing members of our community through a variety of services in response to their multiple needs…to enable young people to redirect their lives and provide them with hope for their futures.” Father Boyle’s philosophy is simple: “Jobs, not jails.”
March 13th was an exciting day because all of the participants for this project came together. You could feel the anticipation and positive energy in the room between the community actors and ensemble and the staff of Cornerstone. The first part of the meeting covered all the procedures for the production from where to park, where to put your food, and even when to expect to get paid. An interesting aspect of this production is that the actors from Homeboy Industries are getting paid the hourly wage they would at Homeboy, which is subsidizing their pay when they are in rehearsals during daytime hours. Through their participation in this play, the community actors will develop both personal and professional skills that they will carry with them into the future.
It was fun to watch everyone listen to Nephelie Andonyadis go over the set design and Meghan Healey explain the costumes that their characters would be wearing. The highlight of the day though was listening to the actors read the play for the first time, and to hear their responses to Lisa Loomer’s beautiful words. Many of the actors were already getting into character, and I was so impressed with the two leads, Lynette Alfaro and Sue Montoya. It was hard to believe this was their first acting job – they were naturals. During the break, I enjoyed speaking with some of the community actors, both men and women, and learning a little about their lives and how they were feeling about this play. It will also be fascinating to see how their participation in this play affects or transforms their lives.
It reminded me of why I am honored to be involved with this project and that is my previous connection to Homeboy Industries. I was a volunteer teacher for a little under two years at Homeboy Industries where I taught Chicano Studies classes. I am a supporter of their work and for me it was a way to link the work I do at the university level to the community. I am a professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies at California State University, Northridge where I teach classes on Chicana/o History and culture. My scholarly work is as a cultural historian and I am very committed to documenting community histories/stories, especially those of people of color in Los Angeles. My role in Café Vida will be documenting the process of this production and interviewing some of the key participants, as well writing an essay on this project.
The collaboration between Cornerstone Theater Company and Homeboy Industries is an exciting and significant one for the Arts in Los Angeles. I am looking forward to sharing my thoughts and insights on this process of documentation with you on this blog!
Denise Sandoval is professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies at California State University, Northridge. She will be sharing her reflections throughout “Café Vida.”