The library I grew up visiting doesn’t exist anymore. My refuge was Benjamin Franklin Library in Boyle Heights and that’s where I got lost in The Chronicles of Narnia, I indulged my teenage angst with The Chocolate War and was profoundly moved by the epic East of Eden. The library was a place to catch up on homework, do some research or be out of the house without much chance of getting into trouble. The library I grew up visiting had no computers and a monolith called, the card catalogue. Do you remember the card catalogue?
When I approached the branch managers of Benjamin Franklin Library, Malabar Library and Robert Louis Stevenson Library to host several of The Shop project programs, including the Play Readings, each one of them was enthusiastic about the idea. I was grateful but a bit worried, “What about the noise?” Each librarian assured me that most libraries had gone from civil to communal places; quiet was no longer the golden rule. At the library you can still check out a book and sign up for a computer and at the same time listen to a string quartet, pet an exotic animal, hold a neighborhood council meeting or listen to a play. In fact, each branch manager encouraged me to let it be known that libraries were resource/community centers for people to use.
For the Play Readings we partnered with East LA Rep, Off The Tracks Theatre Company, Watts Village Theatre Company, El Teatro Campesino and Artists at Play. Each organization was responsible for choosing a play that fit within their aesthetics and tapped into their network of artists and audiences. The Play Readings are meant to invite people to the library and surprise library patrons. For many, the Play Readings would be their first intersection with theatre.
East LA Rep presented Black Butterfly, Jaguar Girl, Piñata Woman and Other Super Hero Girls, Like Me by Luis Alfaro. Based on the writings of Alma Elena Cervantes, Sandra C. Muñoz and Marisela Norte, five girls from East L.A. are given a writing assignment: to write about their lives. The girls don’t believe that their lives are worth writing about, but like walking, they place one word in front of another and eventually, they find their wings and fly!
Off The Tracks Theatre Company presented the Spanish language play, Memorias de Dos Hijos Caracol by Conchi de Leon and Antonio Zuñiga. Coco and Toto are school friends. Toto dreams of becoming a butterfly to escape from his mother. Coco is certain that she was exchanged at birth. This is a story of friendship and imagination that questions how we look at the institution of family and come to understand that home is where your heart is.
Watts Village Theatre Company presented Riot /Rebellion by Donald Jolly. Riot/Rebellion revisits the historic six days in August 1965 when the struggle of race, class and power exploded in the once-ignored section of Los Angeles known as Watts. First person interviews are weaved together in a theatrical piece that seeks to make harmony from the discordant voices of a community that refused to be silenced.
Each play has been very different and the reaction from the library patrons has been very positive. The Spanish language plays have been extremely popular and we have seen people ease into theatre, moving from the rear of the library to the edge of the reading area. Library staff huddles in between book shelves and listen while they work. Teenagers wearing headphones and ignoring the performance suddenly laugh at each punch line.
But there is also a degree of responsibility that has to be addressed when art ascends onto a community. As I listened to one of the plays it suddenly struck me that library patrons have a specific need and expectations. A diverse population visits each library everyday and when a work of art suddenly appears in their space, how does that fit in? A theatre audience has purchased their ticket to a show and has an expectation regarding the story and the quality, but when a library patron walks in and takes a seat, what will he/she think of the play? Will the unsuspecting patron understand, like or be offended by the material? How can I make sure to provide the context for each reading that leaves room for the journey a good story will take the audience on, but acknowledge that this may be a different experience? So many questions need to be asked by arts organizations when they leave their buildings and work in community or when community is invited in. And still, every laugh, smile and applause makes the work worth it.
And the show continues. Coming up in April is, Popol Vuh: Heart of Heaven by El Teatro Campesino. A theatrical adaptation of “Popol Vuh,” the sacred creation book of the Quiche Maya, and the chapter “Heart of Heaven”: The tale of the creation of the world.
In May with Artists at Play presenting 99 Histories by Julia Cho. 99 Histories is a story about the bonds mothers and daughters, generation to generation. Eunice, a Korean American former cello prodigy, comes home pregnant and unmarried, and tries to mend her relationship with her mother. Haunted by violent memories and previous battles with mental illness, Eunice must confront her ghosts before she can move forward.
The library that I grew up visiting doesn’t exist anymore and the same can be said for the theatre I grew up attending.
To learn more about the Play Readings please click here.