A woman who might be a panhandler shakes coins in an outstretched
can with a sound evocative of an American Indian spirit rattle.
A Japanese man sprinkles ashes from an urn and mixes them into the
soil. A choral chant begins like an African American work song,
its smooth harmonies enhanced by more and more voices as three,
then seven, 14, 20 and more actors move onto the stage.
The sight of 30 actors -- of both sexes and all ages and ethnicities
-- filling the Shotgun Players' small Ashby Stage is one measure
of the ambitions involved in "Love Is a Dream House in Lorin."
The scope of the project is another. Two years in the making, developed
by playwright Marcus Gardley and director Aaron Davidman from interviews
and community meetings, the play that opened Saturday attempts to
tell the story of South Berkeley's Lorin district -- not just as
it is today, or even throughout the 20th century, but all the way
back to the Ohlone creation myth.
How well it succeeds as history is problematic. How well it's received
as a gift and open invitation to the community, where Shotgun has
been in residence for three years, won't be known for some time.
What's impressive is how well so much of it works as drama.
Despite its sometimes unwieldy scope, unnecessary tangents and
uneven performances -- and a title that sounds like a sappy greeting-card-slogan
reject -- the combination of Gardley's easy poetic flow, Davidman's
directorial ingenuity, Molly Holm's beguiling choral settings and
the generous spirit of the cast is generally, genuinely captivating.
If "Lorin" slips into easy dramatics at times, and worships
too much at the altar of inclusiveness at others, it's more often
engrossing and, at times, emotionally compelling.
This is community-based theater, in the style practiced by Los
Angeles' Cornerstone Theatre and others. The idea is to create a
portrait of a community from the stories of its residents. The inclusion
of neighborhood residents in the large cast seems a natural extension
of the process.
Gardley and the company interweave local family stories into a
composite portrait of Lorin today and in the recent past. They've
supplemented that effort with research into the Japanese community
that was uprooted by the World War II internment, the early 1900s
when the pre-annexation town of Lorin went through a building boom
and generic material on Ohlone prehistory.
Gardley tells the story through a few key families and one symbolic
house, a striking image of a typical Berkeley Victorian (complete
with bay window seat), half built and tilted as if emerging from
the primordial ooze (set by Lisa Clark). Adeline and Russell Wheeler
-- all the names are those of local streets -- are a progressive
interracial couple who arrive in 1988, brightly, attractively and
lovingly portrayed by Emily Rosenthal and David Stewart.
Lorin (Yoonie Cho) and Sun McGee (Sterling Hiroshi Greene) are
Japanese residents displaced during the war (how he came by that
surname is a story too odd and funny not to be true). King (D. Anthony
Harper, a dynamic presence in several roles) and Milvia (an engaging
Allison L. Payne) are an African American couple who arrive with
the World War II influx from the South. The Harmons (Jeff Trescott
as a forceful businessman and Susan Wansewicz as his comically addled,
neglected wife) represent the early developers.
The historical aspects are somewhat skimpy, stronger on the Japanese
internment and a few shards of the '60s (Vietnam, Black Panthers)
than other periods. Oddly, given the emphasis on Lorin's historical
racial diversity and interracial marriage, "Lorin" contains
little about the state's shameful 20th century race laws. The Ohlone
and mission-era material -- including a strange deity showdown between
Jesus and Coyote -- though sometimes interesting, seems mostly gratuitous.
Gardley and Davidman, artistic director of Traveling Jewish Theatre,
more than compensate for that by skillfully weaving the story lines
in a creatively suspenseful, nonchronological collage (Vincent Avery's
costumes indicate the periods). The history blends into and deepens
the portrait of the present, as seen through the lives of the Wheelers,
a cleverly drawn assortment of neighbors, a wise old matriarch (Jeannette
DesBoine) and Milvia's sons.
It isn't a rose-colored picture. Random gunshots punctuate the
action. Gardley doesn't shy from depicting the district's problems
with drive-bys, drugs and racial tensions. But the image that dominates
is one of underlying humanity and love. The pristine beauty of Holm's
a cappella songs combines with Gardley's muscular, plainspoken poetry
(often in rhymed couplets) to make "Lorin" a celebration
not just of a district but of also human hope.