Folks who work in theatre are used to a show bringing them together into a sudden new family. Sometimes, audience members also feel the magic of a living community called into being by a play.
Rarely, though, is creating a family the main purpose. Except at Cornerstone Theater Company, whose mission is not simply to learn and tell the stories of marginalized people, but to bring them together and help them find their power.
Cornerstone’s most recent project, Urban Rez, accomplishes this heartwrenchingly well. This time, the community includes any person who identifies as Native American and has been excluded, erased or alienated from the family of First Nations — whether by government policies, or by their tribe or family, or simply by the social mobility that so easily distances us from our homes.
As standard-bearers for these varied stories, author Larissa FastHorse found the native peoples of what are now Los Angeles and Orange counties. Not one tribal family from this vast region is recognized by the federal government; they are all listed as “extinct.” No matter how many they are, or how they try to hold their heritage.
Urban Rez stages a pow-wow for these “nonexistent” tribes, and welcomes any neighbors who want to come. Under the venerable trees at Kuruvungna Springs* (an ancestral Gabrieliño/Tongva site reserved on the grounds of University High School), the booths are up and the dancing ground is ready.
*[Urban Rez also took place the preceding weekends, under the viaduct at Los Angeles State Historical Park.]
But before the party gets going, a federal agent (garbed and bearded like Uncle Sam) interrupts to arrest a young artist for selling “Native art” without a license, and pulls down his booth. From the ensuing conflict it emerges that his (fictional) “Nicoleño” tribe has a brief window to become registered.
The members and friends of the Nicoleño family scatter. One lands at one booth, others at other booths, in syncopated rhythms that make it impossible to follow all the story’s parts. Yet somehow, like news moving through a village, we hear it all.
Eventually, the fair comes to a standstill as everyone gathers on the dancing ground to witness the drama’s outcome. There never were any Nicoleños, of course, and it’s only a made-up story. Yet when we find ourselves chanting, “Nicoleño! Nicoleño!” to assert the tribe’s right to exist, many of us are laughing, many are in tears.
It runs deep, this desire to belong to a family, to be sprung from a people and a place on the land. When such ties are broken — or never had — mending is difficult. Urban Rez employs incisive satire, gentle storytelling, frantic argument, and releasing humor to give us a taste of exile, and a hint of healing.
This play is so thoroughly ensemble, so spread across its micro-locales, and so mobile, that assessing individual performances isn’t possible. The actors, representing more than a dozen tribes, convincingly create the Nicoleño family; and in the booths, they offer an array of delightful, challenging and informative experiences. (I wanted to come again, to see the booths — and story parts — I missed.)
A nod is due to, too, to the set designers and builders, who erected an elegantly simple environment, open to the natural setting. (And did twice, in two very different locations.)
Urban Rez has had its initial run. But the Cornerstone artists — and the many groups and individuals who joined them for this project — have created a moment of insight, joy and healing that LA dwellers, most of us so far from home, need access to again and again.
Urban Rez, by Larissa FastHorse, directed by Michael John Garcés.
Presented by Cornerstone Theater Company, at Los Angeles State Historical Park and at Kuruvungna Springs.