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'The Ballad of Bimini Baths' plunges into L.A. history

'The Ballad of Bimini Baths' plunges into L.A. history
"Mexican Day": Jully Lee as Hisaye Yamamoto and Donathan Walters as Bayard Rustin. (John Perrin Flynn)

Water is a vivid metaphor in Los Angeles. We live in a desert beside an ocean, an existence of simultaneous want and plenitude.

Another, lesser-known water source inspires “The Ballad of Bimini Baths,” a trio of plays by local playwright Tom Jacobson. Bimini was a popular swimming and spa complex at the site of hot springs one block east of Vermont Avenue between 1st and 2nd streets, operated from 1903 to 1951.

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Jacobson makes this the nexus of a wide-ranging tale that pulls together events in L.A. history, some of which occurred at the baths, others not. His theme is sins in need of being washed away — racism as well as other moral failings.

The intriguing result is being staged by three small theaters, all running different plays ranging from 55 minutes to 1½ hours.

The final play is an inspiring tale of people working together to try to redeem the past and re-chart the future. The first two, though, take on disturbing topics that can be difficult to watch and aren’t easily resolved in brief, short-story-like formats.

Racism is written into the title of the final play, “Mexican Day,” presented by Rogue Machine in East Hollywood. Bimini, like many places in the early 20th century, was racially exclusive. People of color were admitted just one day a month, the day before the pools were drained and cleaned.

Showing up to challenge the policy are two historical figures. Hisaye Yamamoto, an Angeleno, was a reporter and short-story writer who championed minority issues. In 1948 she organized a series of pickets against Bimini’s exclusion. Jacobson speculates that Bayard Rustin — the civil rights organizer who in 1963 would be a chief orchestrator of the March on Washington — also was on hand.

A Japanese American woman and African American gay man teaming to challenge the system — what a wonderful image. Jully Lee’s Yamamoto is strong and assured, a bit too prone to overthinking yet ready for anything. Donathan Walters’ Rustin is enterprising and persuasive, playful yet fiercely determined.

Their crackling chemistry is wound into a lively, propulsive staging by Jeff Liu.

Amplifying the moral knottiness, Jacobson assigns a Latino to enforce the exclusionary policy: a longtime, valued employee — and war veteran, no less. He mans the entry desk in the baths’ pristine, white-tiled entry, a terrific design by John Iacovelli that picks up details from period photographs.

The employee is Zenobio Remedios, a fictional character who’s in all three plays. Jonathan Medina imbues him with compelling soulfulness. Drawn into the action is another historical figure: Everett C. Maxwell, the first art curator at what was initially known as the Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science and Art. “Accused of having mistreated boys,” as one 1916 newspaper delicately put it, he was tried and imprisoned. Darrell Larson portrays him, these many years later, as a penitent figure who might just have some heroism inside.

Jacobson began work on the Bimini project in 2012; lining up the simultaneous stagings took about a year.

Each tale is self-contained, so you needn’t see all three nor see them in order. The first two tales don’t flow smoothly from one to the next, however, nor do the themes.

Jacobson’s fascination with mercurial/chameleonic human nature — seen in such plays as “Tainted Blood,” “Ouroboros” and “The Twentieth-Century Way” — takes daring forms in these first two Bimini plays.

The introductory piece, “Plunge,” introduces Maxwell on a night of triumph in his curatorial career in 1916. As played by Gary Patent he is brainy, inquisitive and flirtatious as he encounters a priest in a quiet corner at a garden party. Sensing a shared attraction, Maxwell suggests they retire to a private spa room at Bimini, but after he’s eagerly swapped his tuxedo for bathing togs, a chill sets in as the priest hints at a dark event.

Here is another historical figure, Father E.V. Reynolds, who disappeared after the 1908 drowning of a 15-year-old boy at the baths. Reynolds was suspected of having propositioned the youth. In Dan Via’s portrayal, his calm, ministerial demeanor turns cold and slippery. Director Matthew McCray sustains a taut sense of mystery in a 75-minute presentation by Son of Semele in Westlake.

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Reynolds’ identity eventually comes into doubt, and reality keeps shifting. As dark memories replay, the actors slip into character as the young victims. After witnessing what’s perpetrated on the boys, the audience feels in need of cleansing — but that relief is withheld.

"Plunge": Dan Via, left, as Father E.V. Reynolds and Gary Patent as Everett C. Maxwell.
"Plunge": Dan Via, left, as Father E.V. Reynolds and Gary Patent as Everett C. Maxwell. (Son of Semele)

The theme of racism begins to well up in the middle play, “Tar,” presented by Playwrights’ Arena in Atwater Village. In 1939 a 36-year-old Remedios is beginning to work his way up the employment ladder at Bimini — again well evoked, this time by designer Justin Huen. When a body is delivered one night for an unusual cleanup job, Remedios supervises a new employee, an African American who goes by the name Amen, in the task.

Remedios — here played by Adrian Gonzalez — is conscientiously trying to keep them on task, but Amen, portrayed by Noel Arthur, is distracted by trying to figure out a way to slip into that evening’s performance by Count Basie at the neighboring, racially exclusive Palomar Ballroom.

The Caucasian body, found in the La Brea Tar Pits (Jacobson was inspired by a 1935 incident) is now, effectively, black-skinned. Eerily, it begins to demand attention. Dread builds as events progress through a number of sharp turns in this 55-minute play directed by Edgar Landa. What resides under the skin of each person in the room: A pure heart? Or pure evil?

Collectively the Bimini tales force us to consider whether some sins are forgivable. Water — metaphorically more than literally — provides the answer: To be reborn into new life we must be baptized.

"Tar": Adrian Gonzalez, left, as Zenobio Remedios and Noel Arthur as Amen.
"Tar": Adrian Gonzalez, left, as Zenobio Remedios and Noel Arthur as Amen. (Playwrights' Arena)

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

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‘The Ballad of Bimini Baths’

A pass to all three shows is $45 at www.biminitrilogy.com.

“Plunge” presented by Son of Semele, 3301 Beverly Blvd., Westlake. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 1 p.m. Sundays; ends June 24. $20 and $25. www.sonofsemele.org. 1 hour, 15 minutes (no intermission)

“Tar” presented by Playwrights’ Arena at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., L.A. 8 p.m. Saturdays and Mondays, 4 p.m. Sundays; ends July 2. $15-$30. playwrightsarena.org/theater/tar. 55 minutes (no intermission)

“Mexican Day” presented by Rogue Machine at the Met Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., East Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Sundays; 4 p.m. Saturdays; ends July 1. $20-$40. (855) 585-5185, www.roguemachinetheatre.com. 1 hour, 35 minutes (one intermission)

June 17 and 24 are marathon days when the plays can be seen in chronological order.

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