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STAGE REVIEW : Re-Creating a Tragedy : Theater: Teatro Urbano commemorates the death of Ruben Salazar with performances of ‘The Silver Dollar’ at the East L.A. bar where the newsman was killed.

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TIMES THEATER WRITER

Teatro Urbano has redefined theatre verite .

Not content merely to commemorate the 20th anniversary of newsman Ruben Salazar’s death, it has restaged it at the scene--the Silver Dollar Bar on Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles. That’s taking realism one step beyond.

“The Silver Dollar,” written and directed by Teatro Urbano’s Rene Rodriguez, is a one-act in four scenes that offers a fictitious account of events inside the bar just before Salazar was killed. What had brought the 42-year-old journalist to the place 20 years ago was the breakout of rioting. Twenty thousand Chicanos were walking from Belvedere Park to Laguna Park (renamed Salazar Park since then) to protest the Vietnam War. This National Chicano Moratorium March followed a route up Whittier when tensions reached a peak triggering violence.

By all accounts, Salazar, a columnist and former foreign correspondent for The Times, and fellow newsman Guillermo Restrepo came into the bar to use the restroom and order a beer. Minutes later, sheriff’s deputies fired a tear gas canister into the room. The 10-inch projectile hit Salazar and killed him. Accident or design?

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Even the courts had a hard time deciding in the charged atmosphere of the period. Rodriguez’s play, which was written and first performed in 1980 for the 10th anniversary of Salazar’s death, makes no attempt to deal with this issue or reconstruct the events that led to the riots. He’s content to provide context--a slice of life.

We see action primarily between a barmaid with a big heart (Rosemary Soto), barroom regulars (Mario Arthur Juarez, German Serra, Al Martinez, Maria Diaz, Ron Rodarte, Norma de la Pena) and a troubled Vietnam vet who is drinking too many beers and stirring up too much fuss.

This Roberto (Ricardo Lopez, who also produced) is trying desperately to make sense of his life in a world that refuses to let him. He loves America, but can’t quell his emotional turmoil--a condition affecting all vets at a time when the war against the war was raging at home and veterans were mostly held in contempt.

He picks fights, his resentment growing with every beer and every admonishment from the regulars to calm down. By this time, Salazar (Greg Lopez) has slipped into the bar and quietly ordered his beer. The canister is fired through the door and, after everyone falls to the floor, only the reporter fails to rise up again. End of play.

This is naturalism in the extreme, a kind of rough, unvarnished theater performed in extremely limited and awkward space that benefits strongly from the ambience surrounding it.

The Silver Dollar Bar has changed owners since that fateful incident of Aug. 29, 1970, but it looks today much as it must have then: a narrow, deep, undistinguished room with shallow ceilings, chipping paint, a jukebox and two pool tables for whose players trophies line the shelf above the elongated bar. A television set over the bar is tuned to KMEX--the same Spanish language channel where Salazar was news director when he died.

It wasn’t easy at the performance attended to tell audience members from the regular clientele, and Rodriguez encouraged the blending. He had his actors mix with the customers--playing pool, bellying up to the bar.

It is hard to imagine a more potent context for this play, never before performed at the Silver Dollar. Whatever it lacks in political sophistication is made up by commitment to an idea (from all involved) and by sheer atmosphere. It’s an imaginative way to memorialize the tragic randomness of the event--and the randomness of tragedy as a whole. On Aug. 30, the Los Angeles Theatre Center opens its own Salazar show called simply “August 29.”

At 4945 E. Whittier Blvd., East Los Angeles, Thursday through Saturday, 8 p.m., Sunday 3:30 and 8 p.m. with a special memorial performance Aug. 29 at 5 p.m. Ends Aug. 29. $7 (213) 660-5712.


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