'This Land': A Drama Presents 150 Years of Dispossession in Los Angeles

Actors Cheryl Umana, Johanna McKay, Niketa Calame, Jeff Torres, Ian Alda, Richard Azurdia, LeShay Tomlinson in the play &quot
Actors Cheryl Umana, Johanna McKay, Niketa Calame, Jeff Torres, Ian Alda, Richard Azurdia, LeShay Tomlinson in the play "This Land" by Evangeline Ordaz at Company of Angels.

“This Land,” running at the Company of Angels until November 20, is a play by Mexican/Chicana/Native American playwright Evangeline Ordaz that looks at the gentrification of a plot of land on what’s known today as Watts, in Los Angeles. The story goes back 150 years to show the different waves of people—Tongva Indians, Spaniards, Africans, Mexicans, and Irish—who were pushed out of their homes and replaced by other peoples over generations. The present-day individuals are unknowingly connected, through their ancestors’ interactions and in the passing of land ownership, whether by trickery, force, or agreement, and the sharing of recipes.

The present-day taco truck run by Fidel, a recent Mexican immigrant, sells a prickly pear juice and carnitas tacos. We see on the same plot of land, 150 years before, a Tongva Indian woman, Toya, making this pear juice for her Californio husband. The carnitas for Fidel’s tacos is his adaptation of a pot roast recipe from a cookbook he finds in his new house. We learn that years ago, this recipe created by an African-American woman was written down by a Caucasian neighbor who lived in that very house.

Under the direction of Armando Molina, fifteen roles are performed with complete commitment and passion by seven actors: Richard Azurdia, Niketa Calame, Ian Alda, LeShay Tomlinson Boyce, Jeff Torres, Cheryl Umana, and Johanna McKay. However, with fifteen characters and almost equal time given to each of them, the play becomes difficult to follow. Some actors play up to three characters from different generations, all of the same family lineage. This gets confusing and could perhaps be better conveyed with costumes or affectations that are similar yet differentiating.

A beautiful visual metaphor that’s introduced but could be more fully developed is the passing of food from hand to hand in a chain of people across different generations. What fails to be convincing is the idea that certain cultures have “stolen” or “appropriated” cuisines from others, as suggested by characters Mel and Sharon, African-American sisters who say their Mexican taco stand-owning neighbor stole their family’s pork roast recipe for his carnitas. The issue could be been presented with more complexity if someone were to point out that there’s the difference between influence and outright appropriation.

Sound effects used as transitions to cue us that something horrifying or chilling is about to happen were not needed. Nor is the moment we’re shown bare breasts, an instance of nudity that’s out-of-place for the educational tone and vibe of the rest of this play. A director needs to be judicious with the use of nudity or partial nudity and women’s bodies, and should only include such scenes if it makes sense with the rest of the context of the play.

While storylines are easy to follow in the first act, the second act is a relentless mission to methodically complete the assignment of demonstrating parallels of discrimination, displacement, and cuisine theft, in every generation that crosses the stage before us. The exhaustive overview happens in quick flashes, jumping back and forth among six different time periods from 1843 to 2020 (although nothing in the play except a note in the program indicates we are ever in 2020).

Overall, the drama would benefit by spending more time with fewer characters. We would still get the message of the play without having to work out the mental calculus of who’s who and how they’re all related. Still, despite a lack of polish, “This Land” is an exploration of L.A.’s history worth viewing, and it is effective in enabling the audience to appreciate how many waves of people have passed through a place over a century and half.

“This Land”

Written by Evangeline Ordaz

Directed by Armando Molina

Starring Ian Alda, Richard Azurdia, Niketa Calame, Johanna McKay, Leshay Tomlinson, Jeff Torres, Cheryl Umana

Presented by Company of Angels

Performance Times: Fridays, Saturdays, and Mondays @ 8pm; Sundays @ 7pm; October 20 to November 20

Venue: Company of Angels, 1350 San Pablo Street, Los Angeles, CA 90033

Tickets: $25; senior $15; students $12; Monday performances are Pay-What-You-Can; www.companyofangels.org

This article is cross-published in Alhambra Source

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