Southern California is mythologized as a land of reinvented identity, but in Cornerstone Theater Company's "Urban Rez," it instead becomes ground zero in a quest to reclaim identities long lost.
The identities in question are the heritage and birthright of indigenous peoples trapped in bureaucratic limbo over what constitutes official government "recognition." This topical new play continues Cornerstone's mission to develop original works in partnership with communities underserved by the performing arts. For "Urban Rez," company members join with nonprofessional actors representing 15 tribal nations to explore and humanize the cross-cultural challenges that go with being a truly native Southern Californian.
Conceived as an immersive street fair experience by playwright Larissa FastHorse and director Michael John Garcés, the outdoor production — staged in two L.A. locations, including a viaduct at the Los Angeles State Historic Park — is engaging and informative. The roving audience is free to explore multiple stories unfolding in parallel among the fair's booths and displays. Drawn from real-life experiences, the stories illustrate different aspects of Native American hardships, historical and present day.
Amid these separate scenes, an overarching narrative emerges involving Max (Kenneth Ramos), an artist who runs afoul of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act restricting use of the label "Native American Art" to members of tribes officially recognized by the federal government — of which, it turns out, there are none in Los Angeles or Orange counties, sizable Native American populations in both areas notwithstanding.
To stay out of jail, Max launches a satirical scheme to fast-track the tribal recognition process — a tactic that pits him against a seemingly benevolent government official (Peter Howard wittily dressed as Uncle Sam). The effort brings conflicted loyalties and boundaries to the surface, along with a heartfelt plea for respect and human dignity.
It's not difficult to spot the professionally trained performers among the cast, but it's also beside the point: A signature of Cornerstone productions is the affecting honesty and inclusiveness that transcends the artifice of stagecraft, and this one is no exception.