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David L. Ulin is a frequent contributor to The Times' feature sections

Luis Alfaro is a sneaky guy. While a volunteer reads his monologue “A Muu Muu Approaches,” the 37-year-old poet, playwright and performance artist reaches into a black shoulder bag for a package of Twinkies. He rips the plastic wrap and begins to shove the sweets into his mouth. The audience crows as Alfaro chews and swallows, his cheeks puffing, his bulky body bent at the waist. Out comes a second package, but this time, consumption is met with a few nervous cackles. By the third package, people are gasping, groaning. A woman shouts, “No, no, no,” as her neighbors cover their eyes. Alfaro continues, grunting as he swallows, fighting his gag reflex through another package, and another--10 Twinkies in all. His eyes are bulging; his face and hands are smeared with creme filling. The air at the Theatre of Note on Cahuenga Boulevard is thick with the sickly sweet smell of processed sugar and universal disquiet, as if it is the audience, not the performer, who has been stuffed.

Alfaro’s performances function like guerrilla warfare: One minute you’re laughing; the next, you’re reeling, as if from an assault. On this night, he’s set the crowd up perfectly, taking center stage from a seat in the back row--"I always enter from the audience because it slightly disarms them"--the running through a succession of monologues about his Pico-Union childhood and his experiences growing up as a working-class Chicano in Los Angeles. Always, there’s an element of the fantastic: “Bozo the clown was throwing out gifts to the kids at the May Company on Broadway. We’re all screaming and waving, hoping to catch one. He throws this board game at this little boy, [who] topples over. He comes up screaming and crying with a bleeding lip, and I watch in horror, afraid that Bozo will throw something at me.”

But there’s just enough probability in his tales to lull an unsuspecting audience into complacency. Then the Twinkies come out.

Alfaro is a smart guy. At the age of 17, he started performing at the old Inner City Cultural Center, not far from where he grew up. Drifting, unrepresented by the culture at large, Alfaro found a life, and a profession, as he tried to make sense of what he saw in his neighborhood: gang fights, glue sniffers, illegal immigrants, ancient abuelitas and always, always his family, seeking a place for themselves in the shadow of downtown.

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“I wanted to be an artist,” he once wrote, “because something inside of me longed to remember. I wanted to be like the sobadora in the projects, a vessel of memory who could pass along all the important things.”

Alfaro is a busy guy. In 1995, he signed on as co-director of the Mark Taper Forum’s Latino Theatre Initiative and has helped focus the program by commissioning 15 plays by Latino writers--although he’s frustrated that none have yet made it to the Taper main stage. From 1992 to 1994, he ran VIVA!, the gay and lesbian Latino arts organization that he helped found in 1987, and around the same time produced a series of performance-art variety shows at Highways, the Santa Monica art space where much of his own work has been performed. For the last five years, he’s also taught playwriting at UCLA Extension, and he continues to be a tireless booster for local artists, attending readings, plays, performances and meetings. Community is one of his driving inspirations, something he talks about constantly. For Alfaro, art means nothing without the context of community, without the fabric of shared experience.

If Alfaro remains relatively unknown, it may be because he has always operated from the margins, whether as a performer, an activist or a self-described “out gay Latino.” But if the name sounds somehow familiar, it is probably because Alfaro is a genius--certified no less. Last year, he was awarded a five-year, $230,000 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” at least in part for the communitarian themes of his work. Of course, the notion that gorging on Twinkies is the stuff of genius raises the question of whether this whole MacArthur business is a case of the emperor’s new clothes. Alfaro wonders about it constantly, even at a MacArthur dinner in Chicago, where he sat with filmmaker Alison Anders and writer Sandra Cisneros and kept asking them: “Why am I here?”

He’s here because his art is three-dimensional, because he tears down the barriers between his experience and ours. This, of course, is the goal of most performance art: to circumvent the rigidity of traditional theater and allow the audience to directly enter into a performer’s experience. Originally an outgrowth of the avant-garde “happenings” of the 1960s, performance art has been derided as self-indulgent, narcissistic, even immoral. At heart, though, most performance art is about storytelling, about sharing the innermost details of one’s life.

Which brings us back to the those Twinkies.

In “A Muu Muu Approaches,” Alfaro takes on his mother’s food fixations and his own problems with weight. He is a heavy man--think mid-period John Belushi--and although he moves with a dancer’s precision, watching him stuff his face evokes the pain of overeating more vividly than language ever could. “The key,” Alfaro says, “is to get an audience to come with you, then to take them somewhere else.”

For all that, when Alfaro’s performance is over, the most telling image of the evening occurs as he leaves--alone. He jokingly calls himself “the poster boy for bad queer people of color performance,” but he remains a bit of an outsider, even within those communities, separated by birth, personality and his own need to stand apart. As the audience applauds, he slips quietly out a side door, grabbing a clutch of paper towels to wipe his face and hands. Beneath the halogen glare of a street light, he looks small, haggard, very much on his own.

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Toberman Street sits a block east of Union Avenue, running north-south between Pico and Venice boulevards, so small and untraveled that it hardly seems to exist at all. It’s the kind of street you drive by without noticing, where even the most significant moments tend to pass unobserved.

A row of ramshackle houses stands along one sidewalk; across the street, the Pico-Union Projects stretch back from the pavement. On a weekday afternoon, a few young men, immigrants from Central America, cluster around an exposed car engine, but other than that, not much is happening on Toberman Street--and from the look of things, not much ever has.

Yet for Luis Alfaro, Toberman Street remains the center of the universe, a vast psychic terrain on which history and imagination intertwine. It is where he was born and raised, in a weather-beaten old Victorian with a concrete yard and a row of small garages in the back. The neighborhood’s rhythms permeate his work.

The second of four children, Alfaro was one year younger than his brother Jaime, who was a football star, “ladies’ man,” and onetime member of the 18th Street Gang. On Saturdays, the brothers Alfaro would scavenge soda bottles for movie fare; when they were teenagers Luis used to tag along on Jaime’s dates. It was hardly a relationship of equals, but Jaime’s shadow was a safe haven, one where Luis could explore his own identity without anyone paying him too much mind. “I was odd when I was a kid,” Alfaro recalls. “I was very shy and also very much wanting to create things. I was always trying to do things no one else did.”

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It started with neighborhood spectacles, the very first performances pieces of his career. At age 10, Alfaro collected dozens of metal trash cans and created a roller derby rink in his backyard. Later, he staged shows in his family’s empty garages, pieces inspired by the parties his father organized after soccer games. “My father always had live animals,” Alfaro remembers. “Downtown. Every time a soccer team won, you killed a pig.” In one particularly gruesome reenactment, Alfaro orchestrated a spectacle around a dead goat. To this day, he remains captivated by the image. “Every kid’s mother was probably terrified.”

His parents are born-again Christians who lived by the principle “in the world and not of it.” Yet they also passed on a sense of engagement. Alfaro remembers his mother, who’d been born and raised in Delano, going to a nearby supermarket to feed relatives who were protesting during a farm workers strike. And he relishes his recall of the ultimate act of engagement, the afternoon an intruder broke into the house and, in front of the entire family, stole the TV. “He was this big African American,” Alfaro says. “And my mother is this huge woman, too. So she gets my brother’s baseball bat, and she goes down walking on Pico and she turns the corner, and we’re sobbing. It was horrific. We were kids. And minutes later, my mother comes back around the corner, and she’s got the TV and the bat, and the bat has all this blood on it, and my mother’s laughing.”

Alfaro’s early life was infused with contradictions, not the least of which was a tension between heritage and birthplace. The American-born boy must have been influenced by the family history he absorbed visiting his abuelita in Tijuana, but during those absences, Luis and Jaime told friends they were going to Florida so they wouldn’t be teased.

It’s a quintessentially American dilemma, and it informs not only the issues he addresses in his work but also his connection to Chicanismo as a whole. “In the celebration of Latino culture,” says Coco Fusco, a writer and performer who is currently a professor at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art, “the main story is the story of the immigrant. But Luis is an urban L.A. Chicano, a hybrid. He didn’t grow up in a cornfield, and he doesn’t put sugar skulls on a tombstone for the Day of the Dead. He’s about being here and being Latino, about being the other within.”

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The other within. The other within. The more you think about it, the more it fits Alfaro like, well, a slip. Which is exactly what he wears on stage most of the time.

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In 1987, after Alfaro premiered his first solo performance piece, an autobiographical collage of neighborhood tales, his brother announced: “I don’t understand why you would want to tell those stories.” To Jaime, stories about the neighborhood couldn’t be art; they were just memories, and not even good ones at that.

Repeating the comment, Alfaro shakes his head. “That amazed me about my brother. He just doesn’t understand why that’s important or what’s necessary about it.”

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What’s necessary, Alfaro says, is telling the truth. And that involved a number of issues, including coming out as a gay man. “When I first started to write and I was starting to perform, I was in this capsule at the Wallenboyd [Theatre] where I was the only Latino, so it was OK within that realm.” Once he decided to speak out as a gay member of the Latino community, however, things became more problematic, even among the avant-garde. Early on, a well-known performance artist condemned him as “a faggot” and “a plague on our [Latino] community,” and for a long time, there were venues at which he was not welcome to appear.

No one is willing to publicly criticize Alfaro, but many are willing to explain what they believe to be the source of the criticism. Listen to Jeanne Cordova, publisher of the Gay and Lesbian Community Yellow Pages: “As an out butch lesbian, I know Catholicism and patriarchy make it hard for Latinos to accept not just homosexuality, but feminine men. He’s a queen, let’s face it, and in the Latino community, that’s just lower than dirt.”

Alfaro took the job at the Taper to make a space for Latino artists within the culture at large. Perhaps the most important thing to emerge from that has been his relationship with director-writer-actress Diane Rodriguez, the Latino Theatre Initiative’s other co-director, with whom he’s embarked on a series of writing collaborations over the past few years. In addition to several “variety shows” of Latino performance, the pair has teamed up on two full-length plays that reveal a directional shift for Alfaro--toward works that address identity and culture in less autobiographical terms. “The Ballad of Ginger Esparza” focuses on a Latina “who hates herself so much she paints herself white,” while “Los Vecinos: A Play for Neighbors” adapts the traditional Mexican form of the pastorela, or shepherd’s play--in which a band of pilgrims undertakes a journey from temptation to redemption--to reflect life in contemporary Los Angeles.

Alfaro continues to experiment with the notion of being an outsider, especially in the plays he writes on his own. His most recent, “Straight as a Line,” is a particularly pronounced example, a black-comedy portrait of a mother and her dying son that features British characters and takes place in Las Vegas, among other locales. Winner of the 1998 National Hispanic Playwrighting Contest, “Straight as a Line” became the first of Alfaro’s solo scripts to receive a full-scale production when it premiered at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre Sept. 22. Inspired by the AIDS death of a friend, writer Gil Cuadros, it deals with grief and mourning.

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Even in the midst of this success, however, Alfaro feels a sense of loss that the play is not being premiered in Los Angeles, where, for all his activism and commitment, he remains considerably less than a household name. “I don’t know what it is,” says Claire Peeps, a former associate director of the L.A. Festival and director of the Durfee Foundation, which supports the arts in Southern California. “It has something to do with the Los Angeles community. Familiarity breeds contempt.” But Peeps also cites the city’s lack of mid-size theaters as one reason artists such as Alfaro have not attracted bigger audiences.

In Alfaro’s case, the “household name” question grows even more complicated since his identity is so tough to pin down. “He hasn’t sold himself as any one thing,” Peeps notes, “and our culture doesn’t do well with people who have multiple identities.”

Alfaro simply soldiers on. Still, he admits, “In a way, ‘Straight as a Line’ is like a bid. All my Chicano stuff nobody wanted. I have a play equally as emotional and truthful--'Bitter Homes and Gardens'--that says all the things this play says. But for some reason, American regional theaters are much more interested in this play.”

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Luis Alfaro sits in the sparsely decorated living room of his cottage in the hills of Echo Park, sipping a mug of coffee and talking, as always, about family. He’s given the first two installments of MacArthur Grant money to his parents, who sold their Victorian on Toberman Street to the Community Redevelopment Agency for $350,000 and moved to Buena Park in the mid-'80s. His gift is a sign of respect and an acknowledgment of the inspiration his family provided for his art.

The family legacy is mixed. Yes, Alfaro sees his childhood in positive terms--"there was something very happy about where I grew up and who I grew up with.” His father could be funny, generous and impulsive, but when Luis was a child, Jaime Alfaro Sr. was an alcoholic who remained emotionally detached, establishing a pattern that Alfaro unwittingly repeated when, in the early 1980s, he waged his own battles with alcohol and drugs. The situation came to a head one night when his father came home drunk, crying that he was a failure who had let the family down. Although Alfaro was only 12 or 13, he cradled his father, trying to calm him . “I’ve never written about it,” he says, “because I don’t know how to properly contextualize it. But it was the switching point for me with my father. It was me sort of realizing that I’d become a man.”

From then on, Alfaro always stood a step apart from the family that continues to be his obsession. Many years later, when Luis recalled his father drunk and crying, his brother Jaime said it never happened. “My brother,” Luis explains, “thinks I’ve romanticized the past in some way. He thinks that actually, in my trauma or whatever about my history, I’ve imagined things that are not there.” That’s even true of the stories they agree on, like the junior high school gang fight that Jaime views as yet another example of the neighborhood’s desolation. Luis, on the other hand, remembers its high, almost hyper-real drama--bottles arcing over Vermont Avenue in a precise geometry of violence, chains glinting like sunbursts, and the small, silent reassurance of his older brother, who “grabbed my hand and held my hand until we got home, because I was so scared.” In the end, what separates them may boil down to something as simple as Alfaro’s notion of the artist as black sheep of the family, who, in return for “the horribleness of being ostracized and all that,” gets the gift of seeing the world a little differently.

Whatever the reason, despite the importance of family, Alfaro’s work remains largely unacknowledged by his flesh and blood. His big brother has seen him perform only once, and the last show that his parents attended, Alfaro notes with a bittersweet smile, was a 1977 high school production of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.” Even when he gave them a copy of “Chicanismo,” a short film he wrote and performed for KCET (it was nominated for a 1997 Los Angeles Area Emmy Award), it took his mother more than a year to get around to popping it in the VCR.

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Alfaro has come to terms with their lack of interest, but there’s a longing in his voice as he acknowledges the gap between parent and child, brother and brother. “The one thing I did well when I was younger was I started to create family for myself. My friends, my high school friends, I didn’t let go of. The idea was that I found a family, I made a family that sort of filled the slots I was not getting filled.” Still, “I don’t have a lot of friends. I have a lot of acquaintances. Very few people get to come here. I don’t think this space is so sacred or anything like that, but it’s mostly reserved for my friends.”

Ultimately, that remains the essential contradiction for Alfaro: Bound on all sides by community, one can still be very much alone.

Sitting with him, one has a sense of calmness, of safety, as if this is a man who has nothing to hide. At the same time, there’s that edge of distinctness, the impression that closeness only goes so far. In many ways, it’s a lot like performing, where the goal is connection with an audience, but only to the extent that the performer allows. From Toberman Street to the Mark Taper Forum, that idea is at the heart of nearly everything Alfaro has done.


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