by Cris Franco
When the Mark Taper Forum commissioned playwright Evangeline Ordáz to write about L.A.’s changing demographics she began an artistic journey that would have her chronicle 150 years of diverse families setting roots on the same plot of Southern California land. She also explored the meaning behind L.A.’s nasty “G-word” — gentrification.
CRIS FRANCO: Your play is called This Land and it covers a vast social canvas. What kind of research did you do for This Land ?
EVANGELINE ORDAZ: The Taper’s commission included a research stipend, so I interviewed African-Americans who had been a part of the Great Migration out of the South. I also spoke to some of L.A.’s native Tongva descendants, visited their sites like Kuruvunga Springs in West Los Angeles and read volumes on the impact that Spanish colonization had on their population. I spoke with both Latinos and African-American about the cultural shift (from Black to Latino) in South L.A. Some characters are based on those I interviewed. Richard Azurdia, who plays Tomas and Fidel, recounted his being in a racially-motivated food fight at Crenshaw High School. I incorporated that incident into the play.
CF: As art is the great lie that tells the great truth, what is the greatest challenge of combining historical fact with artistic fiction?
EO: Following the research, I was left with mountains of notes and one’s tendency is to want to include everything — which can become boring and unwieldy. So, I put all my notes aside and let my inner-storyteller take over, trusting my subconscious to recall the facts relevant to a good story, rather than trying to force story out of the facts.
CF: What was your greatest surprise while researching and creating the narrative?
EO: Lots of surprises about Southern California’s remaining indigenous Tongva sites: a sacred site in Long Beach, Kuruvunga Springs in West L.A. and a reconstructed village in Santa Fe Springs. Also, learning that half of L.A.’s original pobladores (founders) were of African descent inspired the play’s character of Pepe. Discovering that Watts’s boundaries were originally those of the Rancho La Tajauta (named after the Tongva village, Tajaawta) gave me such a powerful sense of how, despite centuries of oppression, our native cultures live on.
CF: I grew up in Watts and I never learned that. Did growing up a Mexican-American in L.A. impact your POV on the subject matter?
EO: OMG! Absolutely. Growing Mexican-American in Los Angeles, I sensed that I was somehow a second-class citizen. It wasn’t until I learned Los Angeles’s history in elementary school, when they have you make a clay model of the missions, and in college, when I learned about the Treaty of Guadalupe, that I realized I had just as much, if not more, of a historical claim to this land as the white population that intimidated my parents. So, it helped me to understand the importance of we Chicanos asserting at least a cultural claim to Los Angeles, through art, language, music and other intangible resources, in order to preserve the history of the City.
CF: How did writing this play effect your understanding and/or opinion of gentrification?
EO: Gentrification threatens to destroy history, culture, and the social networks that low income people set up so they can survive. I have actually been working on this issue of gentrification for many years. I helped establish an organization that builds affordable housing and teaches community members urban planning so they can advocate against the type of gentrification that would displace them from their homes. Writing this play helped me to see that this issue of displacement is something we have seen before in history. Some demographic shifts are voluntary, like white flight out of South L.A. or the Jewish migration to West L.A. from Boyle Heights. But the Spanish enslavement and displacement of the Tongva was certainly not voluntary, and neither is the current forced displacement of low income downtown residents, though the force is economic and not physical. And gentrification threatens to erase intangible resources like the mariachis from Mariachi Plaza. I recently encountered a musician whose rent was raised $800 a month, causing him to move away from the Plaza.
CF: How do different racial/ethnic group’s histories impact their attitudes towards gentrification?
EO: Here’s an example – some anti-gentrification activists in Boyle Heights spray painted “Fuck White Art” on an art gallery they felt was attracting middle income folks to the neighborhood. The gallery called the police who reported the incident as a hate crime. One anti-gentrification activist commented that the “hate” in the crime was in not caring about the impact gentrification was having on the low income families who were being displaced from their neighborhoods.
CF: Do you think gentrification is more than just a sign of the times?
EO: Yes. That’s why time is one of my characters in the play. In my limited understanding of string theory in physics, time doesn’t just go forward, it can fold back on itself or repeat and repeat into infinity. Events of a hundred years ago are still happening even as new events transpire. New events mirror events of the past, and we sense this all in our everyday lives. History is always repeating itself.
CF: What do you predict the racial and/or economic make up of Los Angeles will be in 20 years? 40 years?
EO: We are already a majority minority city and I think we will only become more so. Like throughout Los Angeles’s history, and like with characters in my play there will also continue to be cross-racial romance and off-spring of those romances will be able to claim two or even three cultures. Maybe there is in fact already a whole new ethnicity of racially and culturally mixed people – Angeleños!
CF: How does the story you have today differ from the story you thought you’d have at the start of this process?
EO: I thought my story was going to be about the descendants of the people buried in the 18th century cemetery that was discovered next to La Placita church across from Olvera Street, and a modern day Tongva archeologist. But, that part of the play fell completely by the wayside. Now we just have a very small sense that the people we meet in the play remain buried somewhere in our city and are still having an impact on us in the present day.
CF: What do you want for your audiences to take away from your story?
EO: To have a stronger claim to this city. To have a sense of who else is entitled to claim the resources of land, culture, art and commerce. And that those claims should not just be based on economics.
CF: What advice do you have for aspiring playwrights?
EO: Write and write and write until you get to at least the third or fourth layer down and then shape that into your play. The script of This Land that finally made it to the stage is probably the 12th draft of the play.
Also, get affiliated with a theater company and join a playwrights’ group. Company of Angels has a great group run by one of the producers of This Land, Tamadhur al Aqeel and another Company member, Jon Dubiel. They meet monthly to share work and get feedback. Being accountable to a group of colleagues to produce pages will motivate you to write. Contact Tamadhur at firstname.lastname@example.org to apply for admittance.
This Land runs at Company of Angels until November 12, 2018 — FOR ALL SHOW INFO: www.companyofangels.org