Theater reviews: Solo performances with the power to touch many
The three solo performance pieces being presented on separate bills at the Kirk Douglas Theatre — Luis Alfaro’s “St. Jude,” Roger Guenveur Smith’s “Rodney King,” and Trieu Tran’s “Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam” — haven’t much in common stylistically. And why should they? They’re the product of different sensibilities in a theatrical form dedicated to celebrating radical individuality.
But taken together these DouglasPlus offerings, which are part of the Radar L.A. festival, present a portrait of an America made up of insiders and outsiders. The insiders hold the power, leaving the outsiders little choice but to lunge after the truth.
The truths these artists tell have a highly personal quality even when the story isn’t autobiographical. But it’s personal in a way that is also resonantly political. First-person singular virtuosos, they give voice to multitudes, reversing the e pluribus unum motto to offer their own version of democracy in action: out of one, many.
Alfaro’s piece has a casual candor, as though he were speaking intimately to a group of friends. A big man with a wide smile and a glint of friendly mischief in his eyes, he invites the audience to join him in church songs before relating tales of his family that have been sparked by his beloved father’s long and arduous hospitalization. Highlighting the informality of the theatrical experience, he glances routinely at his script to keep himself on track.
An overhead projector displays a hand-drawn map of the California towns that will play a crucial role in his autobiographical saga. Before beginning a section, Alfaro pricks a finger and wipes blood on the spot of the map in which his story will center. Moving along Highway 99 in the Central Valley during the earliest chapters of his tale, he subsequently jumps down to Southern California to fill in the story of the adult Alfaro, the accomplished theater artist and USC professor.
Directed by Robert Egan, “St. Jude” has a narrative flow that is more subjective than logical. Alfaro is puzzling out the mystery of his own history, connecting the dots of his life journey as a gay Latino who ran away from home at 16, fell into addiction and found redemption not in the religion of his family but in the secular spiritualism of the arts.
Still in search of wholeness, he realizes there are secrets from the past that need to be shared before his father makes his final exit. If “St. Jude,” named after the hospital treating his father but also after the patron saint of lost causes, can at times seem loosely constructed, it’s perhaps because the material’s rawness would be misrepresented by too much poetic polish.
The love and anguish are unmistakably genuine even when the language has a slightly clichéd ring. And there’s more than enough originality in Alfaro’s meditation on the contradictions of being a Latino American, reconciling cultures within himself while courageously defending his own irrepressible singularity.
“Rodney King” provides us with another occasion to extol the magnificence of Roger Guenveur Smith’s solo wizardry. Smith, whose works include the Obie-winning “A Huey P. Newton Story” and “The Watts Towers Project,” is the jazz master of the form, riffing as freely and confidently as Sonny Rollins on sax.
Working again with his ace collaborator, sound designer Marc Anthony Thompson, Smith has created what is as much an aural experience as a theatrical one. Before he utters a word, a chorus of voices — cursing, quarreling, viciously caricaturing — fills the sound space of the Douglas.
When Smith, dressed in sporty black and moving with stylized slowness, picks up his microphone, he mimics the hip-hop mix of abuse and recrimination that was directed toward King from all sides after he became a national figure as a victim of police brutality and racial injustice.
But Smith also portrays with sly empathy the heavy-drinking man at the center of the whirlwind, the humble, bumbling ex-con who was having enough difficulty getting by without having to bear the weight of all the platforms and positions thrust upon him.
Smith doesn’t so much set out to define King as demonstrate the way in which he was overwhelmed by other people’s definitions — verbally assaulted in as relentless a manner as he was physically attacked by the police on that fateful night of March 3, 1991.
Infusing the sensationalism with subtle compassion, Smith restores to King what King himself was always trying to wrestle back from the media before his sad death at the bottom of his backyard swimming pool last year — his simple humanity.
“Rodney King” is the least autobiographical of the solo shows at the Douglas, but Smith communicates his own character as an artist in this emotionally potent character study. The work doesn’t duck the uglier aspects of the story, all those reasons we can’t just get along, as King famously wished we could. But it does register the plea for peace from a man who knew little of it before or after the riots that erupted in his name.
Trieu Tran’s “Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam” contains so many harrowing events that were this a fictional drama I would fault the work for overdoing the melodrama. But as this is a theatrical memoir, the complaint should be lodged with life for dealing Tran such a merciless hand.
The good news is that he has survived to tell his tale of a Vietnamese refugee who never wavered in his love for America even when the country wasn’t willing to love him back. But his journey to the Douglas stage almost defies belief. There’s a perilous boat voyage that includes pirates, the violent death of his abusive father, gang mayhem in Boston, the murder of his friend and even sexual assault.
Tran’s story, unfolding on an alluring shrine-like set designed by Takeshi Kata, darkly illustrates Claudius’ line from “Hamlet,” “When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.” Still, the piece, directed by Egan (who also collaborated on the writing) and performed by Tran with sweaty verve, might have artistically benefited from a tighter focus.
But “Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam” is as much a theatrical offering as a modern-day exorcism. Tran (whom you may recognize from his recurring role on the HBO series “The Newsroom”) confides his history to the audience so that it can become part of this nation’s larger mosaic of stories. Like so much solo work, his piece is a valuable corrective to the silence and invisibility that make private pain a public matter.
Luis Alfaro’s ‘St. Jude’ / Roger Guenveur Smith’s ‘Rodney King’ / Trieu Tran’s ‘Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam’
Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City
When: Thru Oct. 6. Contact theatre for schedule.
Price: $20-$25 for each production.
Contact: (213) 628-2772 or https://www.centertheatregroup.org
Inside the business of entertainment
The Wide Shot brings you news, analysis and insights on everything from streaming wars to production — and what it all means for the future.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.