Back in February of 2011, word spread that there was a play at the Alisal Center for the Fine Arts by members of Salinas political theater group Baktun 12. It was called reAlisal: Your Neighbor’s Story. It was gleaned from interviews with about 40 residents of the Alisal, or East Salinas. Three of the Baktun 12 – co-founder Luis “Xago” Juarez, his brother Jesus Juarez, and Javier Tamayo – played all the parts, a flurry of quick changes of costumes, wigs, voices and physicality, packed with comedy and pathos.
The inspiration for Your Neighbor’s Story, and, more broadly, for Baktun 12, came from two places, says Xago.
“Anna Deavere Smith [did] a solo piece, something on PBS, that really grabbed my attention,” he says. Smith won a MacArthur Fellowship for her decades of political theater work. “I think when things fall apart,” she told PBS, “[as an artist] you can see more and you can even be part of indicating new ways that things can be put together.”
The other source of inspiration came from a pioneering trio of Chicano theater performers known as Culture Clash; they operate by doing interviews with people in a community and spinning them into theater they call “urban excavation.”
“They created this piece [I saw in 1996] called Radio Mambo: Culture Clash Invades Miami,” he says. “Blew my mind. Since then, I always had that dream to do one on East Salinas. A people’s history.”
Xago (pronounced “Chago”) helped form Baktun 12 in 1997, melding “Chicano-flavored street theatre, poetry and hip-hop” with “urban politics… and guerrilla theatre.” In 2009, Cal Humanities awarded Baktun 12 a grant to collect stories from East Salinas for a theater project. In 2011, Building Healthy Communities of the California Endowment approached and awarded funding to continue the work. That became reAlisal: Your Neighbor’s Story.
“It was really successful,” he says. “There are people who still recognize us for that work, asking when the next one’s going to be.”
(Cornerstone Theater Company, from L.A., did their own version at the Bread Box last summer called Plumas Negras.)
The second installment in the series begins this Thursday. It’s called reAlisal: Stories de Acosta Plaza. It’s focused on one section of the Alisal neighborhood that’s home to a 400-unit complex opened in 1969 called the Laurel Townhouses, but otherwise known by the street that winds through it, Acosta Plaza.
It’s written by Xago and produced and directed by him and David Alvarez and Carlos “Quiensave” Cortez. It’s acted, this time, by community members – 12 of them, ages 8-41 – but it was created in the same way as the first work. First, research, in this case kids from Artists Ink, a media collective, and El Teatro Alisal, led by Baktun 12 member and former journalist Marcos Cabrera.
“We found out that between 1999-2012, 250 articles and reports, TV and print, were produced about Acosta Plaza and they had to do with crime, violence, some kind of negative experience,” Xago says. “Out of those, only 10 had to do with something positive. Too many times we let the media outlets [tell our stories].”
The Teatro Alisal team conducted and recorded interviews – oral histories.
“That community was very guarded, very leery of outsiders,” Cabrera says. “The people were very upfront about the perceptions of that community. A lot of them are working-class parents trying to provide for their families.”
Those stories Xago weaved together into a narrative, sometimes taking artistic license to “help frame the story,” sometimes using pieces from the recorded interviews wholesale, and keeping the names intact in all but two of the characters. One story is of Rachel Torres, a single mother of four who advocated for kids from Acosta Plaza to attend Everett Alvarez High School. In one scene in the play, she and her Neighborhood Watch crew confront Isaac (in his flashback) and his friends who are partying too loudly.
Isaac: They were always trying to roll up all hard on us, telling us to –
Neighborhood Watch: Take it inside!
That theater action, coming to the Bread Box stage of the Alisal Center for the Fine Arts, actually happened a short walk from that stage – Acosta Plaza is right behind the Bread Box. Part of the purpose of the play is to support community activism and self-determination in the neighborhood; Xago says a “profound disconnect” of the owners of the buildings has lead to neglect, and that public perception is coloring reality.
“It does have a psychological impact on a community,” Xago says, “if you’re told so many times you’re violent, dangerous, illegal, sick. You start to believe that.”
The groundwork in place, the series is now growing ambitiously. Xago plans to roll out more plays. In the spring of this year comes a collaboration on a play written by Salinas’ Mike Roddy called Bracero; another, slated for the summer, is reAlisal: Your Neighbor’s Story, Part 2. Telling the story of the life of a person is a big task. Telling the story of the life of a neighborhood must feel formidable.
“Even in this project I barely scratched the surface,” Xago says.
reAlisal: Stories de Acosta Plaza runs 8pm Jan. 16-17 and 23-24, 2pm and 8pm Jan. 18, and 2pm Jan. 25 at Alisal Center for the Fine Arts, 745 N. Sanborn Road, Salinas. Free; donations accepted. 510-967-8579, firstname.lastname@example.org.