Stories of Place and Space Told through Dance and Theater in Boyle Heights and Watts

A dancer stands at the end of the basement hallway in the Linda Vista Hospital as she prepares to begin dancing her story. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Starting this weekend, you have the unique opportunity to explore two important neighborhood spaces through theatrical performances.

Tonight, the Watts Village Theater Company kicks off “Riot/Rebellion,” a play based on the stories of those that lived through the Watts Riots of 1965.

The Riots, which lasted for a nearly week in August, were touched off when 21-year old Marquette Frye was pulled over by the  California Highway Patrol on suspicion of drunk driving. When his mother came to the scene at Avalon and 116th that night, a scuffle occurred and a number of people were placed under arrest. Rumors of what was happening — including that a pregnant woman might have been kicked by police — spread quickly, stoking residents’ long-simmering resentments toward the rampant police brutality of the day. Crowds began to gather around the scene. As more police were sent in to quell the angry residents, they were met with anger, shout-downs, and rocks. The ensuing unrest lasted six days, saw the arrival of thousands of National Guardsmen, and resulted in 34 deaths, over 1000 injuries, nearly 3500 arrests, and millions in property damage.

But the stories of those that participated in and/or survived the Riots had never really been collected en masse or presented in dramatic form. So, two years ago, the Watts Village Theater Company began interviewing witnesses in order to compile a dramatic history of events and both get a grasp of the true mark they left on individuals, the wider community, and the socio-economic history of Los Angeles and make that history accessible to the people that lived it or live in the shadow of it.

When I first spoke with the then-artistic director of the WVTC about the project a year and a half ago, he spoke of wanting to stage the play at the intersection where it all began. The company has since decided to perform the play at Mafundi, a theater that opened soon after the Riots and was seen as a refuge and place of healing for the community. If you’d like to check out the play, it runs through November in Watts. Details can be found here. A conversation with playwright Donald Jolly conducted by Intersections South L.A. can be found here.

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If you’re in the mood for the intersection of dance and L.A. landmarks, look no further than Heidi Duckler’s site-specific The Groundskeepers, which is being staged at the Linda Vista Hospital in Boyle Heights. The building holds a century of history and apparently, according to Wikipedia, opened “to great fanfare” and “even had its own Jersey cows, chickens, and a garden to provide patients with the freshest milk, butter, eggs, poultry and vegetables.” (Cows!)

Closed in 1991, it has since served as a beloved backdrop for Hollywood (see a list here), including To Live and Die in L.A., Pearl Harbor, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Anyone who passes through there on a regular basis is likely familiar with seeing some sort of strange action taking place on the hospital’s grounds. My personal favorite was a faux police chase that ended up with the bad guy on the roof, tossing off handfuls of money which fluttered slowly down like dying birds and unfortunately were not real.

The performance will give you what will probably be one of the last opportunities to explore a space which has been off limits to the public for two decades before it is converted into affordable housing.

It begins on the grounds, where an older gentleman — acting as a former patient — speaks of being bedridden and longing for what lies beyond his window. From there, performers begin creeping out of the building and onto the fire escapes, launching themselves up and down the stairs and over the railings, grasping for air and each other to the rhythm of a haunting score created by Lu Kunene.

After the first piece, the audience is split into groups and guided through different parts of the hospital where performers play within the confines of a boiler room, a creepy basement hallway, a back lot, and, finally, a chapel where they and the audience are bathed in sound and light projections.

Sitting in the chapel, waiting for the final performance piece to begin, I found myself next to a mother and daughter who said they had enjoyed the performance immensely. The daughter attended Mendez High School, and was there with a number of other students (and some extended family) that had been invited by the dance company to attend the dress rehearsal. The mother said she’d never seen anything like it and wanted to know more about the origins of the piece and the style of dance she was seeing. She imagined the dancers to be portraying mental patients, she said, and so she felt the performances to be manifestations of their inner struggles.

I said I felt more like some of the pieces were expressing a desperation to escape or the struggle (and sometimes failure) to connect with others, but I wasn’t sure.

“Ooh,” she said. “I wish I had been thinking about it that way. That might have been more fun.”

Dancers open the performance by interacting with the fire escapes on the front of the Linda Vista Hospital. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Either way, the performance is worth your while.

The structure of the building is remarkably intact and, at least the areas where we were, unblemished by tagging or other human intrusions. The scattered remains of old medical and electronic equipment, all coated in thick layers of dust, give you a sense that you’ve stepped back in time and help prepare you to get lost in the stories of those that might have gone before you. And the final piece, reuniting all the dancers and the audience in an immersive and achingly intimate experience, will leave you slightly haunted but also wanting more.

For more information about the performances and tickets, please click here. The shows run this weekend and next.