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A New Play Debuts in Boyle Heights

Luis Alfaro's L.A. Story Comes to Our Library Reading Series as a Work-in-Progress


Luis Alfaro (center) and the company take questions from the audience after the reading.

Photo by cbgraphy/Cristi Burgos.

A Tuesday afternoon in September found playwright and MacArthur Genius Luis Alfaro rewriting his newest work in an at once unlikely and completely appropriate setting: a Los Angeles public library parking lot in Boyle Heights.

The play is Mama of the Row or Who Raised the Rent? (A Los Angeles Vaudeville of Tragic Proportions) A Displacement of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children, and it’s the story of a family living on the streets of Downtown L.A.’s Skid Row.

Mama of the Row is one of about two dozen new works currently under commission by Center Theatre Group. But unlike most of our commissions, it made its first public debut as part of our free Library Play Reading Series—just a few miles away from where the piece is set. And so Alfaro—whose works have appeared on stages around the world, and who was a longtime member of Center Theatre Group’s artistic staff—found himself doing rewrites in a Boyle Heights parking lot, surrounded by director Nancy Keystone, a small company of local actors and collaborators, and the three-woman, mariachi-inspired band La Victoria.

The group had spent the previous week in your more typical regional theatre new play development setting: Center Theatre Group’s rehearsal rooms. It was so much fun, and I have to say part of the journey was that we created together, said Alfaro. It was so amazing that we were able to bring all the collaborators into the room, and that I was able to bring in scenes every day.

But with just moments before the reading was to take place, with Benjamin Franklin Library already packed with patrons of all ages there for the play—mostly local but at least one person had come from as far away as Simi Valley—Alfaro had realized he needed to add a new scene.

After a quick rehearsal in the lot, followed by an introduction from Center Theatre Group Community Partnerships Director Jesus Reyes, the band began to play, and the actors took the floor. The group of elementary school-age girls in the front row stopped giggling, and the entire audience spent the next hour enraptured—laughing, gasping, and occasionally tearing up—by the struggles of Mama and her children. The next two evenings, the scene was similar at Malabar and Robert Louis Stevenson Libraries.

For the past five years, these three libraries have hosted regular bilingual play readings—generally monthly, with a Spanish reading followed by an English reading—for a multigenerational audience of grandparents, parents, and children. Some of our largest audiences turn out for Center Theatre Group’s plays, said Benjamin Franklin Branch Senior Librarian Connie B. Topete. There is so much enthusiasm when a play reading is held here. You can feel the excitement. Live theatre is not something that most people in Boyle Heights have access to, and the community is very appreciative of that fact.

Alfaro was equally appreciative of his audience. I can’t imagine a more diverse audience. It was so cool—even having the little kids. It was fun to track it with the audience, to hear where they were plugging in and out, said Alfaro. You’re writing about a community and you have the community judge you and give you affirmation or criticism—it’s a kind of guide. The opportunity to have that kind of community with you is very rare. It was all very positive and very fun. We got better and better every night. I did about 30 pages of changes through the second reading, and by Thursday, I thought we had gotten a rough draft of what we wanted.

Alfaro will continue to work on and refine Mama of the Row over the coming months with the continued support of Center Theatre Group. And the readings—which generally are presented in partnership with local Los Angeles theatre companies—will continue at the libraries.

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