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Immigrant Experiences as Old as the Bible

Working with local parishes, Cornerstone Theater Company creates plays based on newcomers' lives

June 23, 2002|MIKE BOEHM

Avisionary, wrote the poet William Blake, sees the world in a grain of sand.

The aim of "Crossings," the latest production from Cornerstone Theater Company, is to envision the world atop a mound of dirt--specifically the one heaped in front of St. Vibiana's, the defunct, earthquake-damaged cathedral that was the seat of the Catholic Church in Los Angeles for 120 years.

The play, subtitled "Journeys of Catholic Immigrants," draws its story outlines from the Bible. But many of the incidents and details reflect the experiences of everyday Southern Californians who emigrated from Cambodia, Africa, Mexico and Arab nations. It shows each group leaving troubled homelands and finding refuge here, as well as new challenges and discontents.

The world that comes together atop that dusty pile in the final act is not tidy or comfortable. Before culminating in a vision of hope and peace, "Crossings" jostles against some of the most explosive and headline-dominating issues now facing the church and humankind.

* Rey, an embittered Mexican American who has rejected his faith, goes into a tirade against Catholicism that climaxes with a blanket condemnation of priests as sexual abusers. "We place a sacred trust in the hands of these people. And look what they do with it!"

* John and Jawdette, Arab Catholic cousins from Jordan, nearly come to blows over whether Palestinian suicide bombers deserve to be included under the rubric of Jesus' teaching that "greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."

* Sonunthear, a Cambodian woman, keeps her silence about the genocidal horror she lived through under the Khmer Rouge. She fears that if she opens her mouth, she will blame God.

Bill Rauch, Cornerstone's artistic director and co-founder, chuckled at the suggestion that the company must have some prophetic inspiration of its own, given how its Faith-Based Cycle, a 3 1/2-year project that began last fall, is touching hot buttons from today's front pages.

"I wish I were the kind of artist to say, 'We're on the cutting edge, we anticipated these things.' But I think that would be disingenuous."

The cycle began with the Festival of Faith--21 smaller plays staged at houses of worship, including a Muslim school shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It will continue through the end of 2004 and possibly into 2005. On the way are a play by Luis Alfaro about faith from the perspective of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people, a play inspired by African American clergy's attempts to grapple with the AIDS crisis in the black community, and "Ten Acrobats in an Amazing Leap of Faith," a comedy about Muslim life in L.A. Other projects are planned from the perspective of Jewish, Hindu, Pentecostal and secular humanist viewpoints.

Cornerstone's modus operandi since it was formed in 1986 has been for professional actors, writers and directors to forge links with particular ethnic, racial or social groups, find out what issues and events are on their minds, and turn the stories folks tell into plays--with amateurs from each community acting many of the roles.

"Issues of faith had come up in just about every project we'd ever done, but we'd never made it the primary subject of the work," Rauch said. "It felt like time to take that on."

"Crossings," which opened Saturday, is based on five stories from the Hebrew Bible and one episode from the New Testament. Each section from the Old Testament features a different parish in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles as creative partner. The play begins on the dirt mound in front of St. Vibiana's with "Replenish the Earth," a retelling of the Tower of Babel story. The question: In sowing division and diversity among the peoples of the world, was God punishing the human race or doing it a favor?

Playgoers then take a theatrical tour of the former cathedral. In "Beyond the Jordan," the Arab Catholic experience is seen as a reflection of the Israelites' journey out of Egypt. It takes place in the sanctuary, with its white marble altarpiece and oak confessional booths. "Esther and the Exodus" plays out in a basement classroom, and tells, a la the book of Esther, the story of immigrants in peril--only this time it's Mexican illegals in L.A. instead of Jews in ancient Persia. "Authenticite" radically reworks the story of Ruth and Naomi, set against revolutionary chaos in Zaire. It will be played in a courtyard with a fountain, overlooked by the former residence of Cardinal Roger M. Mahony. "Afloat," staged on a roof five stories above ground, recasts the story of Noah's ark as a Cambodian survival tale. Finally, "The Upper Room" unites characters from the previous stories in a concluding evocation of Pentecost--the New Testament episode that gathers together what was scattered at Babel. It envisions God's word miraculously overcoming language barriers and being universally understood.

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