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AROUND THE FOOTHILLS

'Have you boys thought about where you want to stand in eternity?'

September 15, 1988|Doug Smith

The Penguins and the Night Owls are fictional gangs that fight with psyche-jolting blanks under the arched windows and domed ceiling of the 3,000-seat theater in Angelus Temple.

The rival gangs are the protagonist and antagonist of "Smile Now, Cry Later," a church-sponsored drama that depicts the metamorphosis of a group of kids into one of the gangs that increasingly fight with real bullets on the streets just beyond the temple walls.

The members of the Penguins and Night Owls are actually all members of the Foursquare Gospel Church, the legacy of the charismatic Aimee Semple McPherson, who talked in tongues 50 years ago in her temple beside Echo Park Lake.

Church method has changed with changing times.

Consequently, in the second of two performances Sunday, guns will ring out, youths in gang regalia will strut on stage and, in a telling scene, the church's real pastor will be rebuked by all of the kids but one.

Like the pastor, many of the cast of "Smile Now, Cry Later" handle their parts with an authority that they learned on the outside. That includes the author, Ruben Brucelyn, who left gang life only when he joined the church eight years ago. He and his wife, Lucy, wrote the play not so much as a celebration of his salvation as testimony to the difficulty of sharing it with others.

As drama, "Smile Now, Cry Later" is more shocking than exquisite. Its dialogue moves from the rigidly authentic language of youth to the equally authentic and rigid language of evangelism. It warms up only briefly to explore the suffering of a mother who sees her two sons drifting out of her control.

A dress rehearsal before last Sunday's opening showed the strain of the six-month preparation on people who all do something else for a living.

In the final scene, when he was to be shot down by Night Owls at the moment of his conversion, Brucelyn had to snarl a line not in the play: "Come on, Night Owls, what are you waiting for?" A fierce-looking Night Owl with a bandanna over his head and no shirt over his chest had missed his cue.

Afterward, Brucelyn chastised the cast and crew for trifling with an important message.

On opening night, the production smoothed out. An audience of about 2,000 went wild and shed real tears, Brucelyn said.

They were responding to a fearless honesty that, despite the weaknesses, distinguishes "Smile Now, Cry Later."

It shows the birth of the Penguins as the conclusion of a painfully long scene in which half a dozen neighborhood boys stare lifelessly at a gangster movie on television.

The boys assign themselves street names and adopt a wall. Two of them use a fake gun to rob an old man.

As the boy actors are replaced by men, they waste their days on dope and begin to clash with the Night Owls. One Penguin loses an eye; another is shot and killed.

Somehow, the young men still hearken to their leader Goofy's exhortation, "We all go together," even as he walks away remorselessly from his slain comrade.

Predictably, there is prison for Brucelyn's character, called Steven. There, he violently rejects the ministry of the Angelus Temple Prison Singers, Simple Joy.

Meanwhile, on the outside, Pastor Harold Helms ventures to the Penguins' wall to ask:

"Have you boys thought about where you want to stand in eternity?"

Goofy replies with the existential boast: "Life is what we make it."

But one of the dwindling group, the one who wears a bandanna over his punctured eye, listens. Smiley next appears with a Bible in hand.

In the climax, a deafening release of pistol fire, everyone dies but Smiley. The only surprise is who ends up in Heaven and who ends up in Hell. Salvation comes only to those who reach for it and only with the help of another.

The message is meant to make people reach, whether they are would-be gang members or would-be ministers.

"A lot of people accepted the Lord," Brucelyn said after the first performance, calling it a success.

Brucelyn wants to keep staging his play. His hope is that other churches will sponsor it.

In the meantime, the struggle for salvation goes on much as it was postulated on stage.

After the dress rehearsal, when the Thursday night Spanish-language service was over and the crowd dissipated, the shirtless man who did most of the shooting in the play lingered on a street outside the temple. Joe Argumaniz still wore his costume as leader of the Night Owls. His costume in the play is also his costume in real life.

Argumaniz talked to three young women who had stopped in to watch the play at his invitation. They wore the clothes and the makeup of gang affiliation.

The girls said little. He spoke for them.

"You know where I met them?" he asked. "When I went to go bury Moses." Proselytizing at a slain gang member's funeral, Argumaniz lured them to church. They're still not members, but he's working on that.

"I bring 'em in," he said, "as many as I can."

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