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Back to a Family--and a City--in Turmoil

Ten years after the L.A. riots, Taylor Negron finds new depths in his play 'Gangster Planet.'

April 07, 2002|DON SHIRLEY

"There was something freakazoid about the spirit in the city that day," Taylor Negron said.

"That day" was April 29, 1992, when an acquittal in a Simi Valley trial of four police officers was followed by chaos in the streets of L.A.

Negron's experiences that day were so freakazoid, so theatrical, that he and a colleague with him during those traumatic events turned them into a play, "Gangster Planet," which premiered a year later at what was then the World Theatre, now the Hudson Guild Theatre, on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood.

Now, commemorating the upcoming 10th anniversary of the riots, "Gangster Planet" is returning in a new production directed by Justin Tanner, the playwright whose comedies were among the most acclaimed creations of L.A. theater in the '90s. Negron is again playing the leading role, with David Groh of "Rhoda" fame as his father and Jeanette O'Connor as his mother.

Opening Saturday, "Gangster Planet" is being produced by Michael Caldwell and Rachel Winfree; Caldwell also produced the first staging. But this time it's under the banner of the relatively new Chautauqua Theatre Alliance, at the Egyptian Arena Theatre, just off Hollywood Boulevard and only a few blocks from where Negron was holed up during the riots.

Negron, Tanner and Caldwell called up their memories of that perilous day while sitting in the wood-beamed serenity of the classic Hollywood restaurant Musso & Frank, before any other customers had arrived for the lunch rush. Musso & Frank is mentioned in the script of "Gangster Planet," so it was an appropriate site for a conversation about the day when it appeared that Hollywood might turn into toast.

Negron--best known as a stand-up comic and a supporting player in many movie and TV comedies--lived on Orchid Avenue, a few blocks northwest of Musso & Frank. On the day of the acquittals and the riots, his parents, Conrad (who is now the mayor of Indian Wells, near Palm Springs) and Lucy Negron, arrived at his house in a Rolls-Royce and, according to the younger Negron, planned to explain some temporary financial setbacks to their son. "I behaved like a child and got mad at them," Negron recalled.

In the midst of the family squabbling, the Negrons realized that a bigger dispute was happening just outside their door. Rioters with Molotov cocktails were driving by. A rumor spread that the nearby restaurant and sightseeing center, Yamashiro, was a major target of the rioters.

Negron's neighbors yanked guns out of closets and formed an impromptu defense force. "It was scary to see an arsenal appear out of nowhere," Negron said. He remembers that the police told the neighbors they could keep their guns out as long as they pointed them down.

Negron, who is on the board of a pro-gun-control group, had no gun. "I realized I was better off making pumpkin bread for the troops," he said--and he did so. However, in retrospect he now believes that if not for his neighbors' guns, the rioters might have destroyed the neighborhood.

Besides his parents, another Negron house guest that day was Lawrence Justice, a writer with whom Negron was working on a film script. After the riots, the two of them wrote "Gangster Planet," about a man in Hollywood who's visited by his parents in a Rolls-Royce on April 29, 1992.

There is a fourth character in the play--a neighbor whose ethnic background is all over the map. He's played in the current production by Italian comedian Simon N. Butera. Negron said this character does not correspond to Justice, who now lives in New Zealand and isn't working on the play's revival.

Co-producer Caldwell said he was a few blocks east of Negron on the day of the riots, trapped in Beachwood Canyon. He remembers everyone running to the local market and stocking up on water and liquor--but not food.

He and his comedy partner and wife, Winfree, had met Negron in 1989 and felt they shared a comic sensibility. Caldwell had already produced some plays in small theaters and volunteered to do those duties for the first "Gangster Planet."

That production drew mixed reviews. Richard Stayton embraced it in The Times, writing that the authors, "by lampooning liberal pieties and anxieties, contribute more to 'rebuild L.A.' than all the high and mighty rhetoric of the past year." But LA Weekly's Judith Lewis wrote that the writers "ignore how events unfolded and simply paper gags over an event that in their hands seems like a myth." Richard Scaffidi of Drama-Logue felt the production "elevates essentially trite and slapdash material to a level of passable amusement" but "never makes any headway on whatever the ironic riot tie-in is supposed to accomplish."

Negron, Caldwell and Winfree started talking about a 10th anniversary revival of the play early last year. The producers were looking for projects for their new Chautauqua Theatre Alliance, in which they are partners with Daniel Doran and Ray Proscia.

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