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Celebrating Differences and Unity

'Candude,' a play with actors who work in various L.A. service agencies, has a message for the city: 'We are just people.'

June 08, 1997|Daryl H. Miller | Daryl H. Miller is a Los Angeles-based theater writer

High on the walls, a mural depicts people of different ages, races and occupations standing shoulder to shoulder. On the ground below, a similar vision of unity is taking shape as Cornerstone Theater Company stages a play in which employees of the Los Angeles Police Department, the U.S. Postal Service, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Los Angeles Public Library constitute most of the cast.

Their production is a musical adaptation of Voltaire's "Candide," about a young man thrust into the world and forced to make his way. In their version, renamed "Candude," the title character works his way through the participating service agencies, encountering hardships--a police partner killed in the line of duty, the specter of AIDS--that sorely test his childhood instruction that this is the best of all possible worlds. The show opens June 19 at downtown's Central Library, with the mural providing one of several backdrops as viewers follow the players from place to place.

Gathered behind the scenes at an evening rehearsal, participants are flushed with the good humor, camaraderie and sense of shared purpose that they hope to spread to the rest of L.A.

"If you take all the jobs away from us, we are just people who have to get along with each other to survive," says Fred Fluker, 44, a training coordinator with the MTA. "We are all humans with the same goals in life. We want to pay our mortgages. We want to take care of our families."

Cast member Daniel Ochoa, 10, a nephew of another performer, says he's learning "how to be a group and work together" and says he enjoys the fact that "you meet a lot of people" of all kinds.

"You love us," teases Regina Men~ez, a Police Department secretary, 44, sitting next to him. He grins.

Fluker jumps back in to say: "We all can laugh and have fun and have joy. What we are doing here may only touch a small percentage of the people who come to see this, but that small percentage is one step, and that can multiply. That's how it all starts."

Cornerstone's ability to get everyday people this excited about theater is precisely what sets it apart from other companies, says Kym Eisner, executive director of Audrey Skirball-Kenis Theater Projects, a West Los Angeles-based theater development group that has provided $7,500 for a $15,000 pilot play-commissioning partnership with Cornerstone.

Since 1992, Cornerstone has been traveling into Los Angeles neighborhoods to create plays by and about those communities. It takes theater to the people instead of expecting them to come to the theater. In so doing, it taps audiences that more traditional companies can't or don't, Eisner says, reaching people who have never been exposed to theater or who have shied away from it because of price or distance.

For "Candude," Cornerstone has broadened its notion of neighborhood to include workplace "communities." Three of the 19 cast members are professional Cornerstone actors; the rest are everyday folks who might sing in a choir or perform with a community group but have never been involved in a high-profile show quite like this.

The performers say they are particularly intrigued by the satiric ways in which the play explodes stereotypes about their jobs. L.A. has seen some tough times lately, and these service agencies have been hit hard in the ensuing storms of publicity.

The MTA has fallen into a sinkhole, and the LAPD has been accused of everything from planting evidence to being prejudiced. Meanwhile, jokesters on the late-night talk shows consign librarians to spinsterdom and make it seem as though letter carriers are forever "going postal."

"People who are in the service business are easy targets," Fluker says. "It's easy to pick out someone who's in the public eye."

Men~ez, a secretary at the LAPD's academy, says: "I come in to work, I do my best. If you still perceive me otherwise, then what can I do? But we will still do what we are supposed to do. If you need our services, dial 911, and we will be there."

Express Mail administrative clerk Lovey Davis, 56, adds: "We're not all going postal. Some of us are going Broadway."

"Candude" adapter Tracy Young says the show isn't meant to be a promotional campaign for these jobs. "There are problems inherent in every situation," she says. "But there is a lot of good work being done; there are a lot of good people involved in creating a way for our city to function. It's mainly about trying to explore that and celebrate it."

As for the play's overarching themes, the 33-year-old writer, best known for the feisty, pointedly comic Actors' Gang hits "Hysteria" and "Euphoria," says: "This idea of rebuilding L.A.--let's all come together toward a common goal--is a good one, but a somewhat simplified one." She wants to step back and take another look, because part of working toward the common good is taking care of yourself. "It's about bridging the individual and the collective," she says.

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