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‘Lost King’ Seeks to Expose Harm of Stereotypes

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In these days of urban warfare, where turf is marked with spray paint and gangs wear special colors, judging by appearances can be deadly. Even when only words or attitudes are weapons, prejudgment can hurt. That’s the theme of a Christmas play written with input from local children who have seen the results of wrong assumptions.

“A lot of these kids have brothers and sisters who are not gang members but dress that way, and the kids see a lot of negative attitudes toward their brothers and sisters,” said Jaime Gomez, co-founder of Teatro Cometa, a small, Fullerton-based bilingual theater troupe presenting “The Lost King” Sunday at the Fiesta Marketplace in Santa Ana.

Through theater games and exercises, Gomez and eight Fullerton elementary school children devised the story of the play, to be staged for free at 4 p.m. by the children and four adults. It is part of “The Fiesta Marketplace Christmas Celebration,” a series of weekend arts events ending Sunday.

“The Lost King” is a contemporary version of the tale of the three wise men, in which King Melchior, who is chronically distracted, gets lost and separated from Kings Gaspar and Balthazar as they search for the newborn son of God, Gomez said recently. Bewildered and alone, Melchior finds himself in a barrio of sorts, where he doesn’t look like he fits in, and is threatened by a gang member.

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“But the gang member takes a liking to him,” Gomez said, and leads him to the home of a kindly woman who phones Santa Claus at the North Pole to ask him to help the sorry king find his fellow travelers. Santa has a wicked flu, however, so Mrs. Claus comes to the rescue, helping Melchior and delivering Christmas toys to all.

The 35-minute play will be acted mostly in English, which Gomez will translate into Spanish for the largely Latino Fiesta Marketplace audience he expects will attend. It is the first Christmas production by Teatro Cometa, the only county group to continually perform its own bilingual works, which offer humor while addressing problems in the Latino community.

The message of “The Lost King” is “to help each other out and not be afraid of each other,” Gomez said. Drawing on the painful experiences of the participating children’s siblings, “we try to deal with the fact that there is” discrimination based on looks or dress, and attempt to convey the value of “giving each other a chance and helping each other out, especially at Christmas.”

Many of the children involved in the play, in kindergarten through sixth grades, are related to Teatro Cometa members. None had ever acted in or crafted a play before, Gomez said. He helped that process along as assistant director by asking the children to reveal everything they always wanted to know about Christmas but had never asked.

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“One of the things (the children wondered about) was Mrs. Claus and why she never (leaves the North Pole),” he said. It wasn’t a feminist manifesto, but “they thought it would be nice if they could incorporate her.”

As in past Teatro Cometa shows, costuming for this production will be minimal. That has sometimes been due to lack of money, but it also reflects a creative philosophy that can turn a tire into a car or a shopping cart into a sleigh.

“We try to use elements of imagination as much as we can and try to get creative with what we’ve got,” Gomez said. “As a teaching institution, we try to instill this.”

Gomez, 36, also operates the New Vista Homeless Shelter in Fullerton full time. He founded Teatro Cometa about a decade ago with “Lost King” director and actor Fernando Arce and others. The low-budget troupe was inactive for about five years in the mid-'80s but has since been busy touring the county, performing mostly for community centers and schools, addressing such topics as child abuse, smoking and migrant farming.

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“We started off as social activists here in the community and outspoken as to some of the injustices we saw and also experienced,” he said. “Taking an interest in theater was kind of a natural connection. I really never intended to do theater this way, but it takes so much time that I thought you might as well so do something that really means something to you.”

Gratification comes, Gomez said, when audience members tell him they’ve had similar, often painful, experiences to those they see played out on stage, but laughed and felt a kind of catharsis while watching.

“That means more than, ‘Oh, we really had a good time. Thanks a lot.’ ”

“The Lost King,” a Christmas play, will be performed in English (and translated into Spanish by an onstage translator) by Teatro Cometa on Sunday at 4 p.m. at El Paseo Guadalupe, corner of Sturgeon and 4th streets, in the Fiesta Marketplace, Santa Ana. Admission is free. Information: (714) 558-6869.

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