Most any week the theater provides a college seminar's worth of social-justice studies, but the conversations are particularly prevalent now in L.A.'s smaller theaters. This week they look at circumstances that spiral into incarceration in "Key Change," the inequities of growing up black in "Native Son," the American dream as experienced by a new arrival in "The Immigrant," and the elite who flout all the rules in the Spanish-language "Enrique VIII y Catalina de Aragón."
‘Key Change’ by the Collective Studio
The essentials: "Key Change" emerged from a 2014 workshop with female prisoners in northeast England and was first performed for incarcerated men to show them how their behavior affects women. The women's clipped, overlapping remarks — combined with glimpses of their pre-prison lives — reveal childhood sexual abuse, youthful mistakes, poor choices in men, domestic violence, economic hardship, drug addiction and the difficulty of change. The project, led by the Open Clasp women's theater group and crafted by Catrina McHugh into a play, appeared at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and off-Broadway.
Why this? "None of us are immune to a tragedy of circumstance, and oftentimes this is exactly what leads women to prison," says Samantha Lavin, who directs a production by the Collective Studio: Los Angeles. "It's clear in the play that prison isn't designed as a place of transformation." But, she adds: "Female empowerment can and does take place" as inmates provide one another "their greatest sources of hope and support." Lavin keeps the L.A. presentation close to the spirit of the original with no set and few props, but with the addition of a soundscape and music.
Details: Secret Rose Theatre, 11246 W. Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays; ends April 29. $20-$30. bit.ly/latkeychange
‘Native Son’ by Antaeus Theatre
The essentials: Clamp down hope long enough and something's bound to explode. Richard Wright showed how it can happen in his searing 1940 novel "Native Son," in which a toxic mix of poverty, fatherlessness, lack of opportunity and rage propel Bigger Thomas, a young black man, toward violence. Among the book's many telling lines: "There was just the old feeling, the feeling that he had had all his life: he was black and had done wrong; white men were looking at something with which they would soon accuse him."
Why this? Wright meticulously spells out what's going on in Bigger's mind, and what's there reflects what W.E.B. Du Bois called the "double consciousness" — seeing himself as the dominant culture sees him: as less worthy, less valuable, always less. Nambi E. Kelley's adaptation, which was praised in its 2014 premiere at Chicago's Court Theatre, manifests the double consciousness as a character. Andi Chapman, who is directing for the Antaeus Theatre Company, says she wants the audience "to experience this play from the inside out," to live inside Bigger's head.
Details: Antaeus, 110 E. Broadway, Glendale. 8 p.m. Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays; ends June 3. $30 and $34. (818) 506-1983, www.antaeus.org
‘The Immigrant’ at Sierra Madre
The essentials: Poor, alone and unable to speak the local language, a Russian Jew arrives in a town in central Texas in 1909. Fleeing pogroms at home, his first order of business is merely to survive. With the help of a local banker, he thrives. "The Immigrant" is the partially imagined history of author Mark Harelik's grandfather. Developed in 1985 in Denver, it was warmly embraced in a 1986 production at the Mark Taper Forum.
Why this? Simon Levy, who directs this Sierra Madre Playhouse production, hopes the play reminds us where we come from and helps realign the word "immigrant" from "border walls and detention centers" to "the idealism of what this country stands for." Levy, who is producing director at the Fountain Theatre in East Hollywood, has had immigration and cultural adaptation on his mind a lot in the last year with the Fountain's productions of "Building the Wall" and "The Chosen," the latter of which he directed.
Details: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, through May 25; also 2:30 p.m. May 26. $25-$40. (626) 355-4318, www.sierramadreplayhouse.org
‘Enrique VIII y Catalina de Aragón’
The essentials: As the 16th century English King Henry VIII struggled to extricate himself from his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn, he rampaged through matters of church, state and matrimony. Among those drawn to the topic was Pedro Calderón de la Barca, one of the great writers of Spain's classical theater, whose drama from about 1627 put an intriguing spin on events by subtly imbuing Henry and his advisor Cardinal Wolsey with qualities of the Spanish king of Calderón's day, Philip IV, and his advisor the Duke of Olivares.
Why this? Not least among the play's concerns are abuse of power and emotions so unchecked that they warp not only people but the institutions they run. That's the stuff of great drama, and it's as easily ripped from today's headlines as from the 16th or 17th centuries'. Calderón's "La cisma de Inglaterra" (The English Schism) isn't much encountered, but displaying a broad range of Spanish literature has been the intent of the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts since its founding in 1973. The play has been freely adapted by Margarita Galban, Bilingual Foundation's artistic director, and Lina Montalvo, its managing director, as "Enrique VIII y Catalina de Aragón." It's performed in Spanish with English supertitles in Plaza de la Raza's 198-seat Margo Albert Theatre.
Details: Plaza de la Raza, 3540 N. Mission Road, Lincoln Heights. 8 p.m. Friday, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday; ends Sunday. $30. (213) 437-0500, www.bfatheatre.org
The 99-Seat Beat appears every Friday. Our reviewers shortlist offerings with an emphasis on 99-seat theaters and other smaller venues. Some (but not all) recommendations are shows we've seen; others have caught our attention because of the track record of the company, playwright, director or cast. Comprehensive theater listings are posted every Sunday at latimes.com/arts.