Watsonville: Some Place Not Here

‘Watsonville’: What’s old is new

Milagro's revival of Cherríe Moraga's 1990s play about a volatile strike in a California cannery feels like it's lifted from today's headlines

Let’s do the time warp again. Cherríe Moraga’s Watsonville: Some Place Not Here, which opened Friday night at Milagro Theatre, premiered in 1996 and is based loosely on events that took place in the mid-to-late 1980s. But you’ll be excused if you think it’s ripped from today’s headlines or incendiary tweets. This is no warm-and-fuzzy trip down Nostalgia Lane. It’s more Good Lord, here we go again.

Moraga’s play, a stand-alone drama that is also the final chapter in a trilogy including Heroes and Saints and Circle in the Dark, is a messy, sprawling thing that overcomes its structural problems with an overriding passion and declaration of ugly truths (and a few redeeming ones). Its greatest achievement is to create believable and sympathetic characters who are swept up in situations that are usually viewed in political terms – as “problems,” not as people. For the characters in Watsonville the great social drama of a sharp cultural clash is both political and the everyday stuff they have to deal with as they lead their lives.

Bunnie Rivera as Dolores, reluctant radical. Photo: Russell J Young

Set amid a two-year-long strike by cannery workers in the Pajaro Valley farm town of Watsonville in California’s Santa Cruz County, the play ripples with issues that have gained more and more urgency since the right-wing ascendancy that culminated in the national elections of 2016 and has been flexing its muscles ever since. Among them:

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DramaWatch: Fences & Frogs

The week on stage features an August Wilson classic, a revival of a children's hit, Salt, Swans, Clowns, labor struggles, Todd Van Voris solo

Portland Playhouse has emerged over the past decade as one of the city’s top theaters for a variety of reasons: energetic young leadership, an invitingly casual atmosphere, and early sponsorship that resulted in free beer.

But you might think of it as The House That August Wilson Built. After all, it was a 2010 production of Wilson’s Radio Golf that first amplified the buzz about the young company beyond theater cognoscenti. Since then the Playhouse has had repeated success with Wilson’s majestic depictions of hardscrabble lives in the predominantly African American Hill District of Pittsburgh.

Lester Purry stars as former baseball hero Troy Maxson in August Wilson’s “Fences.” Portland Playhouse photo

The production of Fences opening this weekend is the seventh of Wilson’s epic century cycle of plays to be staged by Portland Playhouse. The story of an ex-baseball star toiling as a garbage man, it deals with the challenges of identity and self-respect for black people in the 1950s. It’s Wilson’s greatest hit, a Pulitzer and Tony winner (and a Denzel vehicle), so Wilson fans won’t want to miss it, and neither should those who don’t yet know the joy. Much more conventionally structured than his other, more discursively poetic works, this is an ideal introduction to Wilson’s enduring themes and settings.

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