Let me tell a quick story about two riots. In 1992, a few days after the internationally televised Rodney King beating, I was in Westwood, Los Angeles, right across the street from the theater where New Jack City opened. From this vantage point of the video store where I was working, I witnessed a swelling crowd of more than 1,500, mostly youth, gathering outside the movie house. Many had come from South Central Los Angeles through a series of several-hour-long bus rides required to reach Westwood, only to be turned away at a box office that was sold out. They milled about in the streets until police arrived in riot gear, and then a call of "Rodney King" went up and a riot began.
It consisted primarily of smashed windows and looted stores, and toward midnight, when the riot seemed all but over, I boldly unlocked the protective metal grate we had pulled in front of the video-store entrance and made my way toward my own bus home. A few blocks later I came across the last remnant of the riot, a group of about 30 teenagers at a gas station, spraying gasoline from a nozzle onto the car of a terrified woman. A moment later, this crowd of youths noticed me and set on me.
In hindsight, I can offer some advice about what to do at such a moment: When a dozen teens charge at you calling out, "You better run!" buddy, you had better run. Stunned, I neglected to follow their helpful advice and wound up on the receiving end of a beating that left me in the hospital with a sprained arm and a hard-won respect for how many blows a human face can take without collapsing inward like soft bread. A few months later, immediately following the reading of the Rodney King verdict, I stood on the roof of my apartment in Hollywood, peering southward over the rooftops, where I witnessed a fast spread of fires across the horizon as a thousand buildings burst into flame. We kept a small black-and-white television on the roof with us and watched image upon image of storeowners from Southeast Asia standing on the roofs of their respective business, many armed. One, a shotgun in hand, spoke directly to the camera. "I know they're angry," he said in a shrill voice, "but if they come to my store, I am going to shoot them."
There is a riot in the middle of Con Flama by Sharon Bridgforth, a Lambda award-winning playwright who cites Ntozake Shange as her main influence in penning this play. The riot in question is the Watts Riots of August 13, 1965, and the play is set under a meticulous re-creation of the base of the curvilinear, heavily decorated Watts Towers, Simon Rodia's 100-foot high steel and ceramic folk-art sculpture. Bridgforth has a story about the Watts Riots, but I suspect she made it up. There's an honorable tradition of that in playwriting, of course, but her account seems less messy and awful than those I witnessed.
Voiced by Aimee K. Bryant, it tells of a woman and her small child who took advantage of the Watts Riots to wander from building to building, setting fire to the financial records of businesses that preyed on the poor. In the course of her night of arson, she carefully bypasses a store owned by a man named Rosenbaum. I was not at the Watts Riots, so I cannot say with authority that riots in the Sixties were this canny and boasted of such cautious respect between blacks and Jews. I do know, however, that 34 people died in the Watts Riots, and I know that 29 of them were black. So I suspect that Bridgforth is telling a story she wishes had happened, rather than any of the stories that did.
The riot is just one part of a loosely connected plot that sees the stage of the Penumbra turn into a din of noise and motion. Directed by Laurie Carlos, the play's seven performers--including such fine actors as Djola Branner, Sonja Parks, and Ana Perea--sway in rhythm, speaking over one another, bursting into impromptu soul and disco numbers, and sharing the tasks of storytelling. This is the most inspired part of the production. That fact is both unexpected and unfortunate, as the script has an inspired conceit: The playwright imagines herself in one of her childhood bus rides through Los Angeles, peering into the faces of her fellow passengers and sussing out the stories of their lives. Yet Bridgforth does not seem contented simply to tell these tales, and tell them well. She must instead bend those lives to bear the weight of being symbols of history, and here they begin to falter in their invention, as does the story from the Watts Riots.
Con Flama begins with engaging narratives, such as one about a young girl on a bus in the early Sixties who develops a crush on a Japanese boy, played by Zell Miller III, who rides in silence in black sunglasses. But when the girl finally screws up the courage to approach the object of her affection, he instantly launches into a poetic monologue about the internment camps for Japanese Americans during WWII. When this happened--and it happened in each scene in the play--I felt as though an interesting story had suddenly turned into a lecture. It's not enough for a Southeast Asian girl to discuss her multiracial friends; she must detail, increment by increment, the series of oppressive acts that brought them to Los Angeles. It's not enough to hear of an emotionally distant mother who loves to dance, without the playwright then tossing in the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. (The mother's dancing, we learn, seemed a little sadder afterward.)
To what end this moral instruction? I was the choir, already agreeing with the sermon and finding scant edification in it. And I imagine the Penumbra's core audience--the black citizenry of the Twin Cities--have more than a passing familiarity with our society's peculiar racial politics. If there are people sincerely in need of such earnest, introductory overviews of the experiences of communities of color in Los Angeles, I suspect that they're not likely to be found in the seats of the Martin Luther King/Hallie Q. Brown Center of St. Paul.