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Down the Rabbit Hole with "Through the Looking Glass"

Center Theatre Group's In The Community Program imagines and reveals the lives of Montebello and Leimert Park Residents

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"Through the Looking Glass" at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.

Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging.

Just days after Christmas, if you happened to stroll past a nondescript, dark-curtained storefront—the one just beyond the costume shop and the tax preparer along West Whittier Boulevard—most likely, you wouldn’t have looked twice. You wouldn’t have known that something magical was at work; that while a play was being made, a bridge was being built, line-by-line, inside.

Behind those curtained windows, a dozen men and women, of varying ages, backgrounds, and native tongues, sat looped in a tight circle, balancing spiral notebooks and electronic tablets, sharing snippets of stories many had never revealed aloud. Not quite strangers and yet not quite friends, the ensemble had been gathering for weeks at the Circle Squared Collective performance space in Montebello to write their autobiographies, and to imagine the “autobiographies” of another group of Angelenos across town. On this particular evening they were teasing out their narratives’ make-or-break details—all the while, their eyes locked on their director, reg e gaines (who wrote Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk), as playwright Jerry Quickley (Live From the Front) looked on.“Whatever you do,” Gaines intoned, “You have to make us—the audience—believe it. You have to bring it.”

The next evening, 15 miles—and a universe—away, a similar scenario unfolded along Degnan Avenue, inside Leimert Park’s The World Stage. The “Stage” has long played host marquee names in free jazz and spoken word, but on this winter evening many of those assembled Leimert Park locals—predominately African-American—didn’t think of themselves as writers or actors in a formal sense. They may have understood the power of stories—personal reflection or passed-down histories—but kept them sealed away.

Over the course of seven months of weekly workshops in Montebello and Leimert Park, Through the Looking Glass strived to unseal those stories. Participants dug into their own lives and communities while at the same time exploring how they see the people of another place. How we see others is often a reflection of how we see ourselves—which is why shattering our assumptions about “the other” is essential to truly uncovering who and what we are and can be. “In the end,” said Quickley, “All these communities really have is their stories.” Through the Looking Glass is intended “to speak to the emotional state of these places.”

This notion of bridging perceptions about race and culture captured Center Theatre Group Associate Artistic Director Diane Rodriguez’s imagination. When she learned about Quickley’s first iteration of the project, which paired students at Stanford University with incarcerated youth, it felt like a natural dovetail with CTG’s efforts to build substantive dialogues across the city.

Rodriguez also wanted to be strategic. “When we looked at the numbers, just 1% of our audience came from those communities,” she said of choosing Montebello and Leimert Park. “Both neighborhoods were similar but not identical: they are majority middle-class but also have lots of working-class people. Leimert Park has a lot more art happening, but Montebello has a small scene as well. We wanted to tap into that—that kind of secret desire that people have to express themselves,” said Rodriguez. “And often, the magic word is ‘access.’ We basically wanted to create a whetting of the palate and an interest, or curiosity, that might not have been there.”

Quickley kept that in mind while choosing the writers and performers. “We were really interested in people who had not been commissioned artists,” he explained. The stories were important, but so was imagination. “I was looking for not just people who wanted to shout their story, but also the grandmother who must be coaxed.”

For Jameleah Reign, finding herself part of the Leimert Park crew was an out-of-the-blue gift. Being tapped was surprising, she said, because apart from daily journaling, she didn’t imagine herself a writer. An immigrant from Belize, a student, and a mother of four, she’d been trying to navigate life as an undocumented woman—an identity that set her apart from the largely African-American residents in her community. The process helped her to come to a new understanding of herself. “I couldn’t read my writing out loud the first few months. It was very intimidating for me,” she said. But once she got called on, she explained, “As I read—about the death of a brother, living undocumented, getting married, divorced—I realized I did feel comfortable sharing because it was my truth.”

That “ownership,” Quickley observed, evolved as the group began hearing the echoes of their own experiences—their struggles, joys, and frustrations—in the words of people in the other community.

“We learned that we really weren’t that different,” said Manuel Marron, a member of the Montebello group who had shown promise as a writer in high school but in the 10 years since graduation had left little space for it. The opportunity to contribute to and eventually perform in Through the Looking Glass—which was staged in both Montebello and Leimert Park as well as the Kirk Douglas Theatre in February—was revelatory. “When I first showed up, I had no idea where this whole thing was leading,” he said. But by the end, standing in the stage wings at the Douglas, “I hadn’t felt that much natural excitement in so long.”

As a collective, Marron said, they created a new community—one on the stage and one that now lives beyond it. But the larger lesson Marron takes with him is to push outside the familiar—to explore and go deeper. In everything.

“What really causes conflicts is that we think we’re the only ones going through what we’re experiencing,” he said. Ultimately, however, ”We’re all going through it. But to finally be able to speak the words—and have them heard—that’s the power of what art can do.”

Through the Looking Glass is supported by a grant from The James Irvine Foundation. Since 1937, The James Irvine Foundation has provided more than $1.5 billion in grants to over 3,600 nonprofit organizations across the state. The Foundation’s mission is to expand opportunity for the people of California to participate in a vibrant, successful, and inclusive society.

Through the Looking Glass Highlights

  • Each participant spent 56 hours in weekly writing workshops in their community.
  • Writing prompts included, “Write about a smell that makes you think of your neighborhood” and “Create a list of the 30 most important events in your life.”
  • Playwrights Branden Jacob-Jenkins (Appropriate) and Lucas Hnath (The Christians) spoke at workshops; participants also read their scripts and attended their plays at the Mark Taper Forum.
  • Creative project leads Jerry Quickley and reg e gaines have been friends for decades, and also collaborated on Quickley’s solo show Live From the Front, which gaines directed at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in 2006.
  • The three final performances were attended by over 500 audience members.
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