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COVER STORY : The Ballad of Luis Alfaro

In Which Our Hero Finds a Life and a Profession (Not to Mention a 'Genius Grant') As He Tries to Make Sense of His old Pico-Union Neighborhood

November 15, 1998|DAVID L. ULIN | David L. Ulin is a frequent contributor to The Times' feature sections

Luis Alfaro is a sneaky guy. While a volunteer reads his monologue "A Muu Muu Approaches," the 37-year-old poet, playwright and performance artist reaches into a black shoulder bag for a package of Twinkies. He rips the plastic wrap and begins to shove the sweets into his mouth. The audience crows as Alfaro chews and swallows, his cheeks puffing, his bulky body bent at the waist. Out comes a second package, but this time, consumption is met with a few nervous cackles. By the third package, people are gasping, groaning. A woman shouts, "No, no, no," as her neighbors cover their eyes. Alfaro continues, grunting as he swallows, fighting his gag reflex through another package, and another--10 Twinkies in all. His eyes are bulging; his face and hands are smeared with creme filling. The air at the Theatre of Note on Cahuenga Boulevard is thick with the sickly sweet smell of processed sugar and universal disquiet, as if it is the audience, not the performer, who has been stuffed.

Alfaro's performances function like guerrilla warfare: One minute you're laughing; the next, you're reeling, as if from an assault. On this night, he's set the crowd up perfectly, taking center stage from a seat in the back row--"I always enter from the audience because it slightly disarms them"--the running through a succession of monologues about his Pico-Union childhood and his experiences growing up as a working-class Chicano in Los Angeles. Always, there's an element of the fantastic: "Bozo the clown was throwing out gifts to the kids at the May Company on Broadway. We're all screaming and waving, hoping to catch one. He throws this board game at this little boy, [who] topples over. He comes up screaming and crying with a bleeding lip, and I watch in horror, afraid that Bozo will throw something at me."

But there's just enough probability in his tales to lull an unsuspecting audience into complacency. Then the Twinkies come out.

Alfaro is a smart guy. At the age of 17, he started performing at the old Inner City Cultural Center, not far from where he grew up. Drifting, unrepresented by the culture at large, Alfaro found a life, and a profession, as he tried to make sense of what he saw in his neighborhood: gang fights, glue sniffers, illegal immigrants, ancient abuelitas and always, always his family, seeking a place for themselves in the shadow of downtown.

"I wanted to be an artist," he once wrote, "because something inside of me longed to remember. I wanted to be like the sobadora in the projects, a vessel of memory who could pass along all the important things."

Alfaro is a busy guy. In 1995, he signed on as co-director of the Mark Taper Forum's Latino Theatre Initiative and has helped focus the program by commissioning 15 plays by Latino writers--although he's frustrated that none have yet made it to the Taper main stage. From 1992 to 1994, he ran VIVA!, the gay and lesbian Latino arts organization that he helped found in 1987, and around the same time produced a series of performance-art variety shows at Highways, the Santa Monica art space where much of his own work has been performed. For the last five years, he's also taught playwriting at UCLA Extension, and he continues to be a tireless booster for local artists, attending readings, plays, performances and meetings. Community is one of his driving inspirations, something he talks about constantly. For Alfaro, art means nothing without the context of community, without the fabric of shared experience.

If Alfaro remains relatively unknown, it may be because he has always operated from the margins, whether as a performer, an activist or a self-described "out gay Latino." But if the name sounds somehow familiar, it is probably because Alfaro is a genius--certified no less. Last year, he was awarded a five-year, $230,000 MacArthur Foundation "genius grant," at least in part for the communitarian themes of his work. Of course, the notion that gorging on Twinkies is the stuff of genius raises the question of whether this whole MacArthur business is a case of the emperor's new clothes. Alfaro wonders about it constantly, even at a MacArthur dinner in Chicago, where he sat with filmmaker Alison Anders and writer Sandra Cisneros and kept asking them: "Why am I here?"

He's here because his art is three-dimensional, because he tears down the barriers between his experience and ours. This, of course, is the goal of most performance art: to circumvent the rigidity of traditional theater and allow the audience to directly enter into a performer's experience. Originally an outgrowth of the avant-garde "happenings" of the 1960s, performance art has been derided as self-indulgent, narcissistic, even immoral. At heart, though, most performance art is about storytelling, about sharing the innermost details of one's life.

Which brings us back to the those Twinkies.

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