Topics / THEATER : Working Hard to Make a Statement

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Ask Martha Velez what she thinks about Proposition 187 and she doesn't mince words.

"It's anti-immigration, anti-child, anti-education and anti-health," the singer-actress said of the ballot measure that would bar illegal immigrants from public schools, non-emergency health care and social services.

Velez, a Beverly Hills resident, is putting those opinions on stage as the writer and director of "Power of the Powerless." The play, Velez's first to be produced, is scheduled to premiere Oct. 6 at the Coast Playhouse in West Hollywood.

"There's been a lot of press (criticizing) immigration, but not much from the other side," said the New York native, who is also acting in the play. "Immigrants have been an enormous resource in our work force. They're cheap labor; they do the jobs (others) don't want to do."

Velez says the impetus for her play came from a Los Angeles Times' article, written a couple of years ago, about blue-collar American workers who, because of the recession, had to stand on street corners soliciting work alongside the Mexican day laborers.

Another story that caught her eye was a news item, reported from San Diego, about a group of local men who entered a laborers' camp and beat up some of the workers.

Velez's seven-character story--played by three actors--revolves around a white construction worker, Jarvis Standish, whose life has bottomed out. He has ended up on a street corner with the day laborers he used to hire. The other main character, illegal immigrant Marco Santiago, has been going back and forth across the border, working day jobs in San Diego. Del Zamora and Nathan LeGrand play the male characters, while Velez assumes three roles--including a Mexican wife and an American trailer park divorcee.

"I didn't want to wear all the hats," she admitted of her writing-directing-acting duties. "But in the end, I'm happy."

The production marks a big leap from Velez's last theatrical venture, the Rexford Recession Theatre, conveniently housed in her Beverly Hills garage-turned-30-seat-studio. "We began doing two-character plays for our own enjoyment," she explained, referring to cohorts John Sparano and his wife Jeanne Benedict. "We did 'A Coupla White Chicks Sitting Around Talking,' 'Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune'--what you'd call salon performances, for our friends--with wine, munchies. It was a social thing."

Velez has had an eclectic career. Raised in New York, she attended the prestigious High School of Performing Arts as a drama major and Long Island University as a speech and theater major. On Broadway, she appeared in "Mata Hari," "I'm Solomon" and the landmark '60s musical "Hair."

Velez has also had a successful parallel career as a singer. She has recorded nine albums--six for Warner-Sire--including "Escape from Babylon," produced by Bob Marley, and "Fiends and Angels," which included contributions by Eric Clapton and Christine McVie. On the home front, Velez is mother to 23-year-old actor Taj Johnson, who is now attending Loyola Marymount Film School, and wife to sociologist Hyman Frankel, who runs a consulting firm out of Washington.

Longtime Velez friend and collaborator Benedict is producing "Powerless" for her company, Ice Productions.

"I loved the piece, and I loved that it had a political bent," says Benedict. "But it really doesn't take a political stand. It shows how you can look at the situation in a number of ways, and it humanizes the issues. It's also very timely. I'm glad we have a forum where people can listen. Things like this send a message to society: 'Wake up. These are issues that are facing you--especially in Los Angeles.' "

"Power of the Powerless" opens Oct. 6 and plays Thursdays through Sundays at 8 p.m. at the Coast Playhouse, 8325 Santa Monica Blvd. in West Hollywood, through Oct. 30. The first six performances will benefit Americans for Democratic Action. Tickets and information: (213) 660-8587.

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