Juan C. Romero plays the devil during a performance at the Animo Pat Brown… (Michael Robinson Chavez…)
Never did the day laborers vying for work along an oil-stained Home Depot parking lot expect an offer like this.
Two directors -- carrying clipboards and a camera for profile shots -- showed up with a pitch fit for a wannabe L.A. actor: A big foundation gave money to form a traveling theater company, and day laborers would be cast for the roles.
It wasn't exactly the paid job they hoped for, but at least there would be free dinner, a bus pass and a chance to see new cities.
"You have culture, you have a story," director and day laborer Juan Jose Magandi told them. "You should share it with the world."
Palms rough and jeans splattered with paint, the laborers had zero acting experience. Some were phoneless and homeless, sleeping in skid row shelters. How would they get to rehearsal with no car, no bus pass? Few could imagine how such a project could have a future.
"I thought it was a joke," said Erasmo Perez, looking for work in Cypress Park.
But over the course of a year, Day Laborer Theater Without Borders took root and transformed gardeners, painters and housekeepers into actors, singers and dancers. They learned to take center stage at day labor sites, churches, universities and community centers across Southern California, even once in Washington, D.C.
With help from Cornerstone Theater Company, a nonprofit that uses theater to address social issues, their Spanish-language plays spread messages about health, alcoholism, labor laws and immigrant rights. Their scripts mirrored their lives on the margins of Los Angeles.
Now, the $100,000 grant provided by the Ford Foundation to launch the program in late 2008 has dried up. The group's sole English speaker, an art director provided by Cornerstone, is leaving the group. But the laborers are intent on finding a way to keep the company together on their own.
"We're going to struggle," said Lorena Moran, a day laborer who doubles as the group's paid associate art director. "But no matter what, we're determined to keep our theater alive."
All too real
Five minutes before showtime, the 15-member troupe crowded into the sacristy at Central City Lutheran Mission Church in San Bernardino to put on costumes and prepare props: a boombox, beer bottles, construction tools and a book.
In the morning they reenacted "Demolition," a story about a group of laborers who misunderstood an English-speaking contractor and demolished a house only to discover they went to the wrong address. Then they performed "Canteen Stories," about a laborer who fritters away his hard-earned paycheck at a bar instead of improving his life and helping his loved ones. The third, "Dancing With La Migra," advised laborers what to do during an immigration raid.
The audience -- a group of about 50 laborers who gathered in early December from across the Inland Empire -- was captivated, hollering punch lines of their own to stories that were all too familiar. Most rocked back and forth with laughter; others cried as they watched or sat somberly.
When "Dancing With La Migra" began, actors dressed as immigration officials suddenly stormed the auditorium and raced toward the stage. Instantly, a few in the audience bolted from their seats, terror on their faces.
"Ayyy!" one screamed. "I thought it really was la migra!"
Using an imaginary remote control, actor Xicothencatl Paredes, 33, a laborer from Signal Hill, froze the action during the raid and asked the audience what they would do.
"Run!" a few answered.
"Hide," another offered.
Paredes said they should remain still and give agents their names. He also told them about their right to remain silent and said to ask, "Am I free or am I detained?"
The skit concluded with Paredes' version of a perfect world. When he yelled, "Play!" a contagious cumbia erupted and immigration officials and immigrants embraced one another and began to dance.
Becoming actors was not easy. Of the 15 day laborers recruited from sites across Los Angeles County last fall, only three original cast members remain. The troupe constantly bids farewell to laborers who depart because of work obligations and welcomes new faces plucked from other work sites.
"I don't know of any other theater where first-time actors are told 10 minutes before a show to step in for someone else," said Ethan Sawyer, the artistic director provided by Cornerstone. "But they never complain. They say, 'We're day laborers. We show up, never knowing what the job holds, and we do it.' "
The group is made up mostly of men, many of them blue-collar workers from Mexico and Central America. A few boast college degrees, having left behind careers in nursing, marketing, even minor-league baseball, in their home countries. Because the theater program is not a paid job, Cornerstone did not ask the volunteer actors about their legal status.