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Richard Montoya and Roger Guenveur Smith Excavate ‘American Venice’

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(L–R) Richard Montoya and Roger Guenveur Smith at the opening of "Chavez Ravine" at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.

Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging.

On June 5, 1951, a Latino African-American surfer named Nick Gabaldon paddled 12 or 13 miles north from the Santa Monica-Venice border to the Malibu Pier—a journey that cost him his life. Gabaldon had taught himself to surf at the Ink Well, a section of beach at the end of the Santa Monica Pier reserved for African-Americans; he couldn't simply enter the water from wherever he wished. Yet he had still managed to become “a revered and respected surfer, even by Anglo surfers,” explained Richard Montoya. “He's 24 years old, he's tall, he's gorgeous, kissed by the sun, a student at Santa Monica Junior College,” said Montoya. A veteran and a poet, “Gabaldon seems to embody all the hopes of a multiracial Los Angeles in a way.”

What else died with Gabaldon when he crashed into the Malibu Pier? And what other dreams lived and died on Venice Beach? These are two of the questions theatre artists Montoya and Roger Guenveur Smith are exploring in their new play, American Venice (its working title). Montoya and Smith are developing the play thanks to the support of a Center Theatre Group Andrew W. Mellon Foundation commission, which is designed to support collaborative work of this kind. Montoya and Smith will welcome the public to join them in their Venice excavations and peregrinations on June 1, 2016, at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, where they'll be joined by scholars and Venice residents for a public conversation about the neighborhood's history.

Jim Crow laws, California dreaming, contemporary art, leisure and amusement, rock 'n' roll, gangland warfare, wildcat oil greed, urban decay, and religion are all pieces of Venice history that Montoya and Smith are excavating for American Venice. Neither are strangers to L.A's past. Montoya, with Culture Clash and independently, has told the city's stories in works like Chavez Ravine and Water & Power, both of which premiered at the Mark Taper Forum. In solo shows Rodney King, which played the Kirk Douglas Theatre, and The Watts Towers Project, which had its World premiere at the Douglas, Smith brought L.A. icons to life.

But Venice was a bit mysterious to both of them before they embarked on this project. Once they started digging, they discovered “a tremendously rich geography,” said Smith. “It's just a couple of square miles, but encapsulated in those streets and alleys and of course on that beach, is a whole story of the birth of the nation, as it were.”

The story begins with Abbott Kinney, a tobacco magnate from the East Coast who reinvented himself as a real estate developer in Southern California, and poured his money—and his ideals—into Venice of America. “He wanted lectures, he wanted high-brow concerts, he wanted conversations,” said Smith. “And he wanted it in an environment which reflected what he had experienced in Italy.” Kinney hired workers to transform marshland into canals surrounded by ornate Italianate architecture. On July 4, 1905, Venice of America opened to the public, and quickly became one of the West Coast's premier attractions. But it was not what Kinney had envisioned. “Amusement, honky tonk, burlesque became the order of the day in Venice, and when he passed in 1920, his vision of Venice passed along with him,” said Smith.

The story continues with Irving Tabor, Kinney's aide-de-­camp, who inherited Kinney's house. But because Tabor was African-American, he wasn't allowed to live there.

Montoya's previous work has dealt with Los Angeles's restrictive covenant laws, which regulated where people of what background and race could live. But “I'd never stopped to consider that restrictive covenant laws would limit where people could live by the beaches,” said Montoya. “This idea of leisure and recreation as a privilege kind of blew my mind.” That thread eventually leads us to Nick Gabaldon and post-World War II Los Angeles. “Like many cities, we're yearning for a lost paradise, we're yearning for our youth in a sense, before it's gone, and if we can just locate Nick, we can find that moment,” said Montoya.

Centering the project around Gabaldon has also meant coming full circle in a certain sense. When Center Theatre Group Associate Artistic Director Diane Rodriguez first talked with Montoya and Smith about a collaboration, the idea was for them to investigate black and Latino issues. “We had a very basic idea of combining two artists together who were aesthetically different, who were culturally different, to create a piece,” said Rodriguez. “Black-Latino became less important, but now we're coming back to that idea with Nick.”

The story will radiate out from Gabaldon and ensnare famous Venice residents like Jim Morrison and Jean-Michel Basquiat, as well as Aimee Semple McPherson—a famous evangelical preacher who staged her own disappearance at Venice Beach—in its grasp.

In March, Montoya, Smith, and Rodriguez spent a week at Center Theatre Group working out the story on a long sheet of paper that stretched across half of a rehearsal room.

Montoya and Smith have been friends and colleagues for decades; Rodriguez has known them both for at least that long as well. They have been working together on American Venice for over a year and a half now. “They are both strong personalities, larger than life, charismatic, very smart, and very good friends,” said Rodriguez. “They respect each other greatly, they listen to each other, and they've found a way to manage each other's visions and trust that their aesthetics will be melded.”

In conversation, each plays off the other's word choice and mannerisms; Smith jokes that they're both Leos, and Montoya growls. They also share a hopeful vision, one they hope American Venice will embody for Los Angeles. “We've been trying to identify how the narrative that we have created thus far can be mixed and matched, juxtaposed. We're not completely connected to a linear story,” said Smith. “But it will be full of archival imagery and full of archival narrative as well.”

“We're restless about this city,” said Montoya, noting that the period of the play, like the present, was marked by rapid change. “I'm still very hopeful about this city,” he said, before listing off a few of the figures who remade themselves here: Abbott Kinney, Irving Tabor, the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Minnesota Lakers. “That's still why people come here.”

Smith, too, invoked Los Angeles history in his final reflections on American Venice. “Before GPS, there was this thing called the Thomas Guide, which everyone in L.A. used to carry in the back of their car,” he said. “Perhaps a good way of describing this is kind of a psychic Thomas Guide. Where we go and what we index are not simply streets but also themes, songs, people.”

“I think people will be inspired by the story we've uncovered,” said Rodriguez. “It's a very unknown part of our history—it's going to be a 'wow' moment for people.” She added, “This is our history, and it's also the history of the U.S.”

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