Luis J. Rodriguez created a sensation with “Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A.” His 1993 memoir told the story of an impoverished, violence- and drug-plagued adolescence that nearly claimed his life — until a youth counselor helped him to find another path.
A Los Angeles Times reviewer hailed “Always Running” as “a pilgrim’s progress, a classic tale of the new immigrant in the land of the melting pot,” and it became recognized as part of the canon of literary works about Los Angeles.
Since then, Rodriguez has published award-winning works ranging from poetry to fiction; worked as editor of Tia Chucha Press, a small literary publishing house; and founded Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural and Bookstore in Sylmar. He’s traveled the U.S., speaking and holding writing workshops in prisons, jails and juvenile lockups.
Now, more than quarter-century after the publication of “Always Running,” Rodriguez has helped adapt his seminal work into a play, which will premiere Aug. 31 at the Casa 0101 Theater in Boyle Heights.
In an interview, the 65-year-old former L.A. poet laureate talked about the continuing relevance of his memoir and the challenge of turning his story into live drama.
There was an earlier Cornerstone Theater adaptation of “Always Running” in the early 2000s, aimed at high school students. What led you to do a new adaptation and bring it to the stage?
“Always Running” is probably the most important book I’ve ever written. I can’t say it’s my favorite book, because I have so many. But people read it in schools. They read it in prisons. Librarians tell me it’s one of the most checked-out books, and one of the most stolen. [He laughs.] There’s a lot of interest in that book, so I thought, well, there’s got to be another way to present at least part of the message.
I was not involved in the first production. I had no creative say in anything, including the writing. That said, it was not bad. It was different in that the Cornerstone Theater production was a one-man show, with Jonathan Del Arco as the actor.
Unlike the previous adaptation, this version focuses upon the relationship between you and “Chente,” the pseudonym for the mentor who helped you to turn your life around.
A lot of the scenes come from the book directly, but I can’t put the whole book on stage. I wanted to focus on the mentor’s dilemma and the patience and persistence required. He was a youth counselor working with a very hardcore, defiant, drug-addicted, homicidal, suicidal kid, somebody that most people wouldn’t want anything to do with. But yet he decided, I’m going to do what I can — not so much to save that kid, but to give him the tools, knowledge and awareness he needs to save himself. And one of the things I wanted to present was the process of owning one’s life, especially after someone has turned it over to gangs and drugs, and to his own rage. And the frustration of the mentor who’s trying to help a kid like that, because it’s usually two steps forward, one step back.
In the end, I decided to go his way. It finally made sense to me, that the world he showed me was bigger than the world I had decided to die and kill for.
Your book is filled with vivid scenes, with lots of sensory description and poetic use of language. How much of a challenge has it been to translate that into a live performance? Was it difficult to keep the story true to life?
In the book, I did tell the reader ahead of time I’m changing names and circumstances to protect people, but I’m not making anything up. Now on the stage, we’re going to take a little more license to make it work. I want everyone to know that, because they may think, this isn’t exactly the way it was in the book. And I’ve got some homies who‘ll show up and say, this is not exactly how it happened. The story has become more important, but you’ve still got to be careful — it can’t be so far removed from the reality. You still want to keep that trust.
Working with Casa 0101 has been amazing. They know what they’re doing, but they’re also willing to look at what I want to bring to it, the authenticity. And Hector Rodriguez, who co-adapted the play and is directing it, has been a great guy to work with. But I’m careful not to overstep my bounds too. A director has to have his own interpretation. I’m the expert coach for the play, but I’m not running things.
It must have been an odd experience to see an actor portraying the youthful version of you and the people you knew. Did you help him to prepare for the role?
It took a while, but I think we have a really strong cast. I’m amazed at the people we got. They don’t look like the real people they’re portraying, but they‘re trying to carry the story. Rufino Romero, the actor who plays me, is not the skinny, big-chin guy I used to be, but he’s carrying the story so well, so that people can suspend disbelief. At rehearsals, he’s asked me so many great questions. He’s trying to understand my motivations. He’s read the book I don’t know how many times. But he also knows he’s got bring his own interpretation.
How do you explain why “Always Running” still has the ability to move readers — and now, theater audiences — after all these years?
Gangs have changed a lot since the ’80s and ’90s, which was the most violent period. But it’s still out there. To me, what still resonates is how do we help kids, not just criminalize them or demean them. How do we provide them with the mentoring, the teaching, the truths, the resources they need so they can pull themselves up. And I think that’s where we’re at now and I’d like to continue with that message, that we need to do more. There’s obviously personal responsibility, but there’s also a social responsibility that has to align with that.
What can you tell us about your next book, “From Our Land to Our Land,” which will be released next year?
It’s a book of essays exploring not just what’s happening in the country, but who we are as Mexicans and Central Americans, and our roots. I have an essay about L.A. — the other L.A., the one that people don’t see in movies and TV. And there’s an essay about what it’s like to be a migrant, especially from an indigenous native group. My roots in Mexico go back 10,000 years, to my mother’s tribe. And yet we’re treated as strangers, foreigners and aliens in our own land. I really hope it’s a book that will, at least, open up the whole dialogue, in a healthier, more artistic and poetic way.
When: Aug. 31-Oct. 20
Info: (323) 263-7684 or casa0101.org
Kiger has written for GQ, Sierra magazine, Fast Company and History.com. He’s also co-written two nonfiction books, “Poplorica” and “Oops.”