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SOCIAL CLIMES

Divided, then united, by a ravine

June 08, 2003|Ann Conway | Times Staff Writer

As Richard Montoya moved among them with dancing eyes and a giddy smile, party guests celebrating the opening night of "Chavez Ravine" couldn't have guessed that only minutes before, the actor had been weeping.

But Frank Wilkinson, the blacklisted urban planner Montoya plays in the true '50s tale about the razing of a poor Mexican American neighborhood for what eventually became a major-league ballpark, had received a standing ovation upon being introduced in the Mark Taper Forum. And for Montoya -- who wrote the urban saga with fellow Culture Clash members Ric Salinas and Herbert Siguenza -- the moment had a historical resonance that moved him to tears. "For me, that was as powerful as the play itself," Montoya said as he stood under a canopy of trees trimmed with twinkle lights on the Los Angeles Music Center plaza. "Frank has been waiting for years for this little bit of justice. He was never a bad guy. So I lost it, went up to my dressing room and sobbed."

The 88-year-old Wilkinson, a proponent of integrated public housing for Chavez Ravine who was caught up in the paranoia of the McCarthy era, said he thought Culture Clash "deserved enormous credit" for shedding light on a controversial piece of history. It all may have turned out for the best, he added. After being fired from his job with the L.A. Housing Authority for refusing to answer questions about his political affiliations, Wilkinson turned to civil liberties work, "and I ended up helping abolish the committee that tripped me up" -- the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Mingling with cast members at the May 30 party, playgoers were serenaded with the Latin rhythms of a four-piece band as they sipped cocktails and dived into an alfresco buffet of empanadas and chicken salad with chipotle lime dressing. Among guests enjoying the scene was actor Emilio Estevez. "This was my first exposure to Culture Clash," he said. "Their energy is unbelievable. And what's most important is I've walked away with a better understanding of yesterday. For me, the lesson of the play is that people are not disposable. We're becoming a nation of disposable everything."

The Taper's artistic director, Gordon Davidson, said the play's biggest challenge was getting the story right. "There are people who think the Dodgers kicked all of those people out of Chavez Ravine," he said. "They didn't. A very controversial housing project was at the center of it, which, had it been built, might have transformed L.A. in another way. But, as it turned out, another benefit happened. A major league team came in, and 40% of its spectators are Chicano."

Said Siguenza: "I didn't know about the housing project or Frank Wilkinson when we started out. And now, he's one of my heroes."

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