Long before Luis Alfaro was officially proclaimed a genius, he was a 17-year-old kid from the Pico-Union district who wandered into the offices of the Inner City Cultural Center in search of a job.
At the small community theater west of downtown, he earned his first “paycheck” as an artist: $5 from the cash box for his solo play, “True Stories From the Corner of Pico and Union.”
Since then, Alfaro has worked to give voice to life in the immigrant and working-class Latino communities of Central Los Angeles, an often selfless endeavor that never earned him a six-figure paycheck--until now.
On Monday, Alfaro, 35, was among 23 recipients of no-strings-attached “genius grants” announced by the Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation. He will receive $230,000.
“It lets me know that I’m on the right track,” he said from his office at the Mark Taper Forum, where he is co-director of the forum’s Latino Theatre Initiative. “I just have to keep doing what I’m doing, community organizing and art work.”
The fellowships, granted to scientists, writers and business people who show exceptional talent or promise, are chosen by an anonymous panel that does not accept applications.
Alfaro was cited by the MacArthur Foundation for his work as a playwright, poet, performance artist, instructor and community organizer.
His funny and vibrant autobiographical portrayals have captured personalities often ignored in mainstream theater: maids and “homeboys,” heroin addicts and garment workers.
In 1991, a Times critic called him “a true poet of the city.”
He has also produced poetry festivals and taught playwriting to students at UCLA Extension and elsewhere.
“He is everybody’s favorite person in the arts,” said Mead Hunter of A.S.K. Theater Projects. “He’s probably the most ubiquitous person in the L.A. arts scene. He is everywhere.”
For Alfaro, a lifelong resident of Los Angeles, the award was confirmation of his faith in the city’s arts scene, often disdained as “regional” by East Coast critics.
“It’s a validation from an outside source,” he said.
Alfaro grew up just two houses from the intersection of Pico Boulevard and Union Avenue, behind Lucy’s Taco Stand. In 1991, he described himself to The Times as having been a “major druggie and total neighborhood kid.”
His first “theater” experiences were in the old downtown movie houses on Broadway, where he watched “blaxploitation” films.
Then came the job at the Inner City Cultural Center, where he was paid by a federally funded job-training program $100 every week to attend dance and theater classes.
He felt the call of the theater. By 1987, he considered himself a professional artist, although the pay was low and intermittent.
“I was making nothing as an artist,” he said Monday. “We started a collective at the [now defunct] Wallenboyd Theater called Dark Horses. We used to put in our own money to produce our pieces. We used to have yard sales. I was a boy trying to learn how to be an artist.”
In 1991, his short play “Pico Union” was produced at the downtown Los Angeles Theatre Center. A Times critic wrote of Alfaro’s performance: “You love this pudgy, pasty-faced boy whose relentlessly detailed recollections of childhood mayhem in a troubled but loving family in downtown City of the Angels is flooded with deep affection and splattered with wry humor.”
Besides his talent as an artist, Alfaro became known for activism. He co-founded VIVA!, a collective of gay and lesbian Latino artists. At UCLA Extension, writing director Linda Venis said Alfaro is known as a “generous” instructor with “a great passion and a great urgency for the arts and a lot of intelligence and humor.”
By 1995, Alfaro’s reputation was such that the Mark Taper Forum asked him--and co-director Diane Rodriguez--to take over its program for Latino playwrights.
Hunter said Alfaro “took a fledgling Latino writers program at the Taper and turned it into one of the most important cultural forces in the city.”
On Friday morning, Alfaro received “the call” from a woman at the MacArthur Foundation. She began by asking the rather ominous question, “Are you sitting down?”
After the shock had passed, Alfaro took time to reflect on his journey and the many actors he’d met along the way.
“Running through my head was everybody I ever worked with,” he said. “The people at LACE [Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions], the years in Highways [a Santa Monica theater], the gamut of collectives I’ve been in and all the artists in Los Angeles who are just as deserving of this honor.”
Also named as a recipient Monday was another playwright with Los Angeles roots, 29-year-old Han Ong.
Ong moved to Los Angeles from the Philippines in 1984 and attended Grant High School in Van Nuys. Although Ong moved to New York in 1994, much of his work is set in Los Angeles.
He has performed his own solo work at Highways, yet the only full production in Los Angeles of his work was an Actors’ Gang staging of his adaptation of “Woyzeck” in 1992.
In a 1992 interview in The Times, Ong said: “I’ve known from the outset that unfortunately I do have to be validated by institutions outside here to have a career locally.”
On Monday, Ong told The Times that he was down to his last $10 a month ago and had taken a job transcribing scripts of talk shows. He will receive $200,000.
The winners are free to spend the money however they wish and do not need to report back to the foundation.
Other California winners include:
* Eva Harris, a 31-year-old San Francisco biologist, who will receive $210,000. Her work in technology transfer has facilitated disease treatment in Central and South America.
* Berkeley resident Pamela Samuelson, 48, who will receive $295,000 for her work on intellectual property law.
* Loic Wacquant, a 36-year-old Berkeley sociologist who has written extensively on urban poverty and will receive $235,000.
Times staff writer Don Shirley contributed to this story.