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WILSHIRE CENTER : He Hopes His Story Can Save a Life

Playwright Jonathan Orozco, who lives with the painful memories of the destructive power of the sword, hopes to harness the instructive power of the pen to steer his young peers away from gangs.

Two years ago, rival gang members shot Orozco and two friends; one friend died and Orozco, shot in the back, is now in a wheelchair.

After leaving gang life behind, Orozco, 19, joined the Heart of Los Angeles Youth Theatre (HOLA), which is part of a program operating out of Immanuel Presbyterian Church, 3300 Wilshire Blvd.

On May 23, Orozco’s experiences will be brought to the stage in his play, “Mi Vida Loca,” at USC’s Bing Theatre, along with the works of two other HOLA playwrights, Mercedes Mijares (“Taqwa--The Price for Freedom”) and Jose Rodriguez (“Just Another Day in Show Biz”).

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The message of Orozco’s play--don’t get into gangs, get an education--is surprisingly powerful given the familiarity of that warning.

“I saw a lot of people crying during the rehearsals,” Orozco said. “Maybe I could save someone’s life with this play.”

Several of the actors in the play, including Deborah Dougall, Haymen Gebru and Maria Lopez, talked about how it mirrored their own experiences and how the early performances at HOLA stunned their parents.

“My mom was crying,” Dougall said. “She said she didn’t understand about the peer pressure (to join a gang), and she told us she never knew that our reality was like this.”

About 40 actors and playwrights ages 7 to 19 participate in the theater group with guidance from professionals in the entertainment industry who volunteer their time. Classes and workshops meet Sunday evenings.

“This is a safe place for them to come and explore their emotions,” said Wendy Clifford, one of the adult mentors and the director of Orozco’s play. “Acting is a way to speak out and teach.”

“We’re not going to learn by people lecturing us,” said actress Mercedes Gaitan, 17, of herself and her peers. “When you have your peers up there acting out what could happen to you . . . I’ve seen a lot of my friends go down . . . it really hits you,” she said as tears formed in her eyes.

“We know this won’t stop gangs, but if we can get through to just one or two people, maybe there will be one less trigger-puller, one less victim,” Gaitan said.

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The three plays, collectively titled “Everything Goes,” will be performed May 23 at 7 p.m. in USC’s Bing Theatre as a benefit for HOLA and USC’s School of Theatre. Tickets are $20.

Information: HOLA, (213) 389-1148; USC ticket office, (213) 740-7111.


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