Whether a long-time Dodger fan or Los Angeles neophyte, the play Chavez Ravine offers an entertaining, if uneven, glimpse into the history and politics before the stadium was built. Chavez Ravine, which opened Wednesday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in the Los Angeles area, tells the story of the neighborhoods that were paved in the name of progress.
This is a revamped version of the play that debuted in Los Angeles in 2003. It was written and performed by Culture Clash, a Latino comedy group that wrote and performed it. They also seem to enjoy playfully recounting this part area history, although they get serious about the people who were forcibly uprooted (eminent domain at its most brutal).
Culture Clash manages to tell the story even handedly and to be highly entertaining. The cast members regularly changed outfits, wigs and accessories to play the many characters from the Latino communities affected, politicians, sports personalities and red-baiting State Committee on Un-American Activities people. They are all farcically portrayed as flawed in their intentions or actions, from the corrupt mayor Norris Poulson to the development visionary to the architect to Walter O’Malley (the Dodgers’ then-owner). Even the residents of the barrios that used to be there are shown as either wanting the money, resisting the bulldozer to the bitter end, and sentimental about an area with poor shantytown housing and failing schools.
Chavez Ravine starts in Dodger Stadium on opening day in 1981, with Rookie Fernando Valenzuela pitching. Mexico-born Valenzuela became a hero and draw for the Mexican-American community that blamed the Dodgers for destruction of the communities there (which the play shows really predated any talk of the baseball team coming to California). Valenzuela steps off the mound when ghosts of past residents appear and tell them about the lives they led when he now stands.
The play then goes back in time to 1949, when Los Angeles received $110 million dollars in federal funds to build affordable public housing. A corrupt politician and others set sights on the hills above downtown for the new development. The next year, 300 families living in the Chavez Ravine –area were notified that they would have to sell their homes to the city and relocate temporarily. They were promised that, once completed, they would have first dibs on the new apartments. But the city broke that promise when the planners were accused of being Communist sympathizers (this is the 1950s!).
Eventually, the project was abandoned, with some residents have sold their homes and others left living among the abandoned remains. After much controversy, the city made a land deal that turned the Chavez Ravine area over to the Dodgers, led to a ballot initiative and, ultimately, the forcible eviction of the remaining residents.
The history is interesting, but Culture Club lightens up the lesson and disrupts the pace with over-the-top horseplay, ethnic and religious stereotyping, and some music of the period/neighborhood from The Rodarte Brothers. There are also jokes about the minorities in L.A. and the idea that someday a Black man may own the Dodgers, to which someone replies, “That would be magic!” (Magic Johnson, who is Black, is now part-owner.) There is a multilingual rendition of Who’s On First? the classic routine from Abbott and Costello (“No sé.” “He’s on Third.”). There is also a seventh inning stretch built into the show, complete with the audience singing Take Me Out to the Ball Game.
Chavez Ravine offers something for everyone, but the play is at its best as a glimpse into life in L.A. before Dodger Stadium. The play is at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City through March 1.
By Dyanne Weiss
Performance Feb. 4, 2015
Center Theatre Group
Photos by Craig Schwartz/courtesy Center Theatre Group