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Theater | REVIEW

Living the gangster life in L.A.

Based on a memoir, 'Always Running' has been playing to high school students for years, but it opens to the public this weekend.

November 11, 2005|Daryl H. Miller | Times Staff Writer

On the reading list for life in L.A., few books come as highly recommended as Luis J. Rodriguez's "Always Running -- La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A."

Child of a Mexican-immigrant family, Rodriguez grew up in L.A. neighborhoods where authority figures assumed every Latino was a troublemaker and gangs awaited to provide the sense of belonging that the larger society wasn't about to offer. Rodriguez's harrowing initiation into -- and struggle out of -- that fraternity provides the through line to his 1993 memoir, written in prose that transforms even the most chilling passages into a sort of haunting poetry.

Cornerstone Theater Company, as part of its educational outreach, has been presenting a 50-minute stage adaptation to high school students for a couple of years now. Through Sunday, the show is being presented to the wider public in performances at the Ivar Theatre.

A chain-link fence stretches across the back of the stage, where a banner evokes a typically Southern California backdrop of palm trees and power lines. A beat-up trash can and discarded tires litter the area.

This is the setting for Rodriguez's memories, with Jonathan Del Arco portraying the author, at various ages, and three dozen other people in Jose Cruz Gonzalez's adaptation.

A key event came at age 10, when Rodriguez and a buddy climbed over a fence to shoot hoops in a schoolyard. Police arrived and gave chase, guns drawn. The buddy fell to his death while fleeing. A year later, Rodriguez was part of a "club," pledging to stand up for its members. At 13, after being hassled by veteran gang members, he was advised, "I'm telling you there's no choice. You wanta live, you wanta breathe air, you got to be in the Tribe, man."

And so, as he deals with raging hormones and all the other harbingers of young adulthood, he's also dealing with drive-bys, drugs and the guilt of having drawn blood. Fortunately, there are role models to tell him, "When you win, we win; but when you go down, you go down alone." And he discovers writing.

The gang years are punctuated with the occasional four-letter word and sometimes graphic descriptions of violence, hence Cornerstone's suggestion that viewers be at least 13.

Del Arco, hard yet tender, grippingly depicts the pull between the way of the gun and the way of the pen. By the time this spare but artful presentation, under Mark Valdez's direction, is over, we more fully understand what Rodriguez means when he says: "Twenty years ago, at 18 years old, I felt like a war veteran, with a sort of post-traumatic stress syndrome."

*

'Always Running'

Where: Ivar Theatre, 1605 N. Ivar Ave., Hollywood

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday

Ends: Sunday

Price: $10

Contact: (323) 461-7310

Running time: 50 minutes

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