Boyle Heights is a predominantly-Latino neighborhood just east of downtown Los Angeles. It also has a fascinating history as a multi-ethnic community since the 1920s. For decades it was home to Jewish, Russian, Japanese American, African American and Latino American working-class families; a unique and generally harmonious co-existence of races, cultures, ethnicities and nationalities all within a few square miles.
In fall 2002/spring
2003, it was the subject of an excellent historical exhibit entitled Boyle
Heights, The Power of Place, at the Japanese American National Museum
(JANM) in Little Tokyo, not far from Boyle Heights itself.
Last fall I was
contracted by Nobuko Miyamotos multicultural performing arts organization
Great Leap to co-facilitate a storytelling workshop for past and
present residents of Boyle Heights. The workshop was co-sponsored by JANM
in conjunction with their exhibit and would culminate in a series of performances
in the actual museum exhibit in late January 2003. Nobuko and I would co-lead
the workshops and co-direct the performances.
to December, we had a total of about two dozen folks attend our weekly workshops,
held at JANM. The majority were not artists, performers or writers, just people
with a strong connection to this special neighborhood. Consequently many of
them came simply to share their stories and hear others stories, and
had little-to-no interest in being part of a performative event. This was
a constant struggle for Nobuko and I. Each night I would present various writing
and memory-jogging exercises while Nobuko would lead physical/dance-related
activities. Many people attended 2-3 times, then would leave. For some the
activities were just too strange and uncomfortable, but for others they served
well to spark memories of the richness of their lives in Boyle Heights. There
was a core group of about six who attended regularly. They were predominantly
female, middle-aged with a couple young adults; Latino, Asian and one Jewish
We invented some fun new activities just for the occasion. Heres one of my favorites: I laid out a giant (15 x 25) map of Boyle Heights on the floor using colored crepe paper to mark the many freeways which cut through the neighborhood (a hot topic in itself), and some of the major streets. Then I painted large cardboard signs for various well-known neighborhood landmarks (Hollenbeck Park, Roosevelt High, Evergreen Cemetary, Brooklyn Avenue, etc.). These were placed in appropriate spots on the giant map. Then I made another set of smaller placards with various extreme emotional qualities triumph, grief, joy, outrage, embarrassment, terror, peace, etc. These were propped against a nearby wall. People were asked to wander around on the giant map, pondering the various locations and the various types of emotional qualities until they remembered a particular kind of experience that happened at a particular location. Then they picked up the corresponding emotional placard and stood on the spot on the map where it happened, and spontaneously told the story. This was both fun for people and effective at bringing up specific stories.
limits of representation in our group, towards the middle of December we recruited
a few additional folks to join us for the performances. All former or current
Boyle Heights residents, these included Maceo Hernandez, the worlds
first professional Chicano taiko drummer; Ruben Guevara, musician/poet/performer
who once toured with Frank Zappa; Tomas Delgado, third generation owner of
the landmark Candelas Guitar Shop; and Stella Matsuda, modern dancer formerly
of Gloria Newman Dance Company. These people joined us very late in the project
yet were able to blend in well with the established group and were easily
accepted. I had been concerned about this but found that the common link to
Boyle Heights could make strangers feel quickly connected to each other. Both
Nobuko and I were repeatedly struck by the amazing amount of love all these
people had for Boyle Heights. It had a place in their hearts that was forever
set in gratitude, care and appreciation.
off with an intense three week process during which Nobuko and I met with
each participant three times to help them select, shape, and refine their
6-7 minute stories. People were making changes right up until two days before
the show, so we elected to give them the option to read instead of perform
their stories. This was a good decision, based on the idea that a strong reading
is better than a confused performance. Both Nobuko and I also created pieces
for the show. Hers was about Boyle Heights being the birthplace of her dance
training, mine was about it being the setting for my first baseball team experience.
The final performances
were initially expected to have a maximum audience of 60 people, crammed into
the exhibit space itself. We fashioned a make-shift stage area
with wings and a backstage.
We did four shows
for middle and high schools during the week, plus eight shows over two weekends,
plus one weeknight show. At times we had so many wanting to see the show we
had to turn people away. For the final weekend performances we added an extra
show and still had over 100 audience members squeezed into the exhibit space!
In the end it was a tremendously successful project all the way around. The Museum was delighted. They had never had such a powerful response to an exhibit before, with such diverse groups of people coming to see it. People from Boyle Heights saw their community honored in a very artistic, public and human way. The workshop participants who stuck it out to the end felt satisfied, empowered and validated for their courage and honesty. And I heard so many wonderful stories about Boyle Heights, now I feel like its my home too.
Santa Monica, CA