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Entertainment & Arts

L.A. theaters spotlight the power of community in Boyle Heights, skid row and beyond

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“The Mother of Henry” title character, portrayed by Cheryl Umaña, center, chats with work colleagues played by Mary-Beth Manning, left, and Ella Saldana North.
(Andrew Vasquez)

Community is at the heart of several plays on the 99-Seat Beat, our weekly look at Los Angeles’ stages. Folks support one another through daily challenges in 1968 Boyle Heights, work shoulder to shoulder to make things better on today’s skid row, meld minds in mid-19th century England or — the opposite — devolve into a backstabbing mob in ancient Rome.

‘The Mother of Henry’ by Latino Theater Company

The essentials: Lifelong Angeleno Evelina Fernández looks back at 1968 to ponder how that wrenching year would have been experienced by a single mom, much like her own, with a son in Vietnam. By day, the protagonist of “The Mother of Henry” works at the Sears distribution center in Boyle Heights, caught up in the camaraderie of colleagues, but when that distraction melts away, she faces nights of worry about her son, with only the Virgin of Guadalupe to console her.

Why this? The 1968 assassination of Robert Kennedy robbed Latinos of a progressive champion, and frustration over the disproportionate number of men of color being sent to fight in Vietnam built toward the Chicano Moratorium march in 1970. “It was an iconic year for the country,” Fernández says. “Everything was changing. The country was really polarized; either you were for the war or against the war. I remember my mother thinking that the country was never going to be the same again. But we got through it.” Patriotism and faith propel the story, as does the difficult process of change, which can tear a community apart or compel people to find common ground. Fernández’s husband, José Luis Valenzuela, directs this production for the Latino Theater Company, of which they are founders.

Details: Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., downtown L.A. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays; ends April 14. $20-$50. (866) 811-4111, thelatc.org

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‘I Fly!’ by Los Angeles Poverty Department

The essentials: Public safety is taken for granted, but not by homeless people, who often have to create it for themselves. “I Fly!” — which grew out of Los Angeles Poverty Department’s performance workshops — aims to make life on L.A.’s skid row visible to the rest of the city, illustrating dangers and celebrating successes.

Why this? Los Angeles Poverty Department was founded in 1985 to create a sense of community on skid row, using theater, music and other arts to fire residents’ imaginations as well as their hopes. A key program that emerged is an annual Festival for All Skid Row Artists. The action in “I Fly!” pops in and out of one such festival. “Everyone’s co-responsible for the safety of the community,” says John Malpede, the group’s founder and the show’s co-director (with Henriëtte Brouwers). He hopes the piece will demonstrate “the sophistication of the community — of people who are skid row-engaged, who live on skid row, who care about the community.” And he predicts fun, especially from the piece’s music: a cappella, soul, funk, rock, rap and more.

Details: REDCAT, 631 W. 2nd St., downtown L.A. 8:30 p.m. Thursday and April 5 and 6 only. $14-$20. (213) 237-2800, redcat.org

Los Angeles Poverty Department
Los Angeles Poverty Department aims to create a sense of community with its annual Festival for All Skid Row Artists. Ricky Jammz performs at 2018’s edition.
(Reva Santo / Los Angeles Poverty Department)

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‘Ada and the Engine’ by Theatre Unleashed

The essentials: The tech wizards of Silicon Beach owe their careers to a couple of thinkers in 19th century England: Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace. He proposed a general-purpose computer, called the Analytical Engine, and she was the first to write an algorithm for it. Skilled in music as well as mathematics, Lovelace had creativity in her genes: Her father was Lord Byron. Her friendship with Babbage and her instinctive fusion of the arts and science are subjects of Lauren Gunderson’s 2016 play “Ada and the Engine.”

Why this? Gunderson is one of the most produced playwrights in America, known for reanimating such historical figures as astronomer Henrietta Leavitt (“Silent Sky”) and the Shakespeare pals who compiled the First Folio (“The Book of Will”). Heidi Powers, who directs this production for Theatre Unleashed, calls the play’s treatment of Babbage and Lovelace’s friendship “one of the best relationships I’ve seen explored on stage.” Although married to others, “they had such a meeting of minds and souls,” Powers, says — shown here as “like a chemical reaction, volatile and vulnerable.” Powers, co-creator of the toothsome “Bronies: The Musical” (about adult male fans of “My Little Pony”), infuses the script with Lovelace’s artistic side by expanding its use of music and incorporating dance.

Details: Studio/Stage, 520 N. Western Ave., L.A. 8 p.m. Friday and April 5, 2 and 8 p.m. this Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday and April 7; ends April 7. $20. theatreunleashed.org

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Jessie Sherman portrays Ada Lovelace and Alex Knox is Charles Babbage in “Ada and the Engine.”
(Matt Kamimura)

‘Julius Caesar’ by Independent Shakespeare Company

The essentials: In the 1st century BC, a group of Romans works itself into a frenzy of indignation over an arrogant military and political leader who is popular with the lesser-privileged. Once the conspirators have killed him off, however, they don’t have a clear plan about what to do next and find themselves in the midst of a civil war.

Why this? Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” is one of drama’s foremost cautionary tales about moral tenuousness and mob behavior. Public addresses, intended to sway a crowd, are key moments in the play. The show’s co-directors, Melissa Chalsma and David Melville, make theatergoers complicit in what happens. Electronic screens prompt everyone to chant along. “It’s about how one manipulates the public,” says Melville, who also portrays arrogant Caesar. “If you want to be a successful dictator, then you have to find a way of bringing the public on your side.” Chalsma adds: “What has been so surprising to me is how quickly the audience is willing to give up what it’s just said and to say the opposite. Shakespeare is asking us: What are your core values, and are you able to live those core values despite public sentiment around you?”

Details: ISC Studio Theatre, 3191 Casitas Ave., Suite 130, Atwater Village. 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; ends May 11. $15-$35. (818) 710-6306, iscla.org

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“Julius Caesar’s” Cassius (Paul Turbiak), foreground left, and Brutus (Faqir Hassan).
(Grettel Cortes)
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The 99-Seat Beat appears every Friday. Our reviewers shortlist offerings with an emphasis on smaller venues. Some recommendations are shows we’ve seen; others are based on the track record of the company, playwright, director or cast.

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See all of our latest arts news and reviews at latimes.com/arts.


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