Ella Turenne stepped onto a small Hollywood stage singing the early-2000s hit by neo-soul singer India Arie, “I Am Not My Hair.” The song was a fitting introduction to her one-woman show, “Love, Locs & Liberation,” a glimpse into Turenne’s search for identity and self-acceptance through the way she wore her hair.
With only a small table filled with hair-related props at her side, Turenne commanded the stage, taking the audience through her journey, interwoven with the history and culture surrounding black people’s hair in the U.S.
There was constant laughter as she transitioned seamlessly between 21 characters in the show, including her strict but loving mother, herself as a pre-teen and historical figures like Madam C.J. Walker, a hair tycoon and the first black female millionaire.
Turenne’s show— the last show is Thursday at Studio/Stage — is one of nearly 400 at the Hollywood Fringe Festival, an annual un-curated and un-censored celebration of L.A. theater happening through Sunday. Now in its ninth year, the festival features ensemble and immersive theater, solo performances, comedy, cabaret and dance shows dispersed throughout the Hollywood neighborhood over 18 days in June.
“We stand back and let the artists who are actually creating the work we’re seeing today determine the options the patrons can see onstage,” says festival director Ben Hill.
The result is a wide range of performances, from shows that take on social issues to the experimental.
The #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and assault was an emerging theme among this year’s performances. And last year, a rash of shows were based on the presidential election.
“You tend to get a heartbeat of where the performing arts are at any given time,” Hill says. “They strike chords not only in the hearts of the artists themselves, but in the audiences too.”
On the more experimental side, one show claims to take its audience “on an epic journey through the bowels of one man searching for meaning in a hot, steaming pile of chronic problems.”
“These artists are expressing what’s important to them,” Hill says.
In recent years, the festival has prioritized the importance of diverse voices.
Turenne was one of the festival’s 11 scholarship winners who received a stipend to help cover the cost of finding a venue. For the actor and writer, it was important for “Love, Locs & Liberation” to resonate with audiences, regardless of their background.
“One of the reasons I created the show was for it to be a conversation starter about who we are, and being able to have control over who we are without other people dictating what that looks like,” she says.
The origins of the Hollywood Fringe Festival trace back to Scotland’s first Edinburgh International Festival in 1947. Along the fringes of that festival’s curated theater, ballet and music performances, several uninvited theater companies showed up and staged their own shows.
The popularity of those unjuried shows grew massively, and now the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is considered the biggest arts festival in the world; in addition, there are fringe festivals throughout the U.S., Europe, Asia and Australia.
Actor and writer Lyralen Kaye performed her show, “Many Trump Refugees in One Body,” at the Brighton Fringe Festival in the U.K. before bringing it to the Hollywood Fringe Festival.
Kaye’s work, a comedy, takes the audience through her real-life experience of deciding to immigrate to Canada after the 2016 presidential election, while also navigating a severe form of PTSD.
“By the time I got to Hollywood, the show is just freedom, it’s so much fun,” Kaye says. “That has been so amazing and empowering.”
She also found a sense of community among the other artists who’ve been staging works.
“Each fringe has its own kind of culture,” Kaye says. “I feel like I made a million friends, I went to their shows and they came to mine.”
For both Hill and Turenne, the sheer volume and range of shows at the Hollywood Fringe Festival also help combat the perception that there’s no great theater in L.A.
When she first moved to L.A. from New York, Turenne often inquired about getting involved in the city’s theater scene.
“A lot of people said theater in L.A. was dead,” she says. I’ve since discovered that’s really not true.”
Hollywood Fringe Festival
When: Through Sunday
Where: Venues all over Los Angeles
“Love, Locs & Liberation”
When: 9:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: Studio/Stage, 520 N. Western Ave., Los Angeles