Having its world premiere at the Latino Theater Company and produced in association with East West Players, Tacos LA Brooklyn is a vibrant love letter to downtown Los Angeles and its people that can be felt from the beginning to the end of this terrific play. Its strength lies in the fantastic world and the characters written by Joel Ulloa and directed with gusto and care by Fidel Gomez and is a piece of modern theatre that cannot be missed.
Chino, a young and ambitious Korean American who grew up in a foster family on Los Angeles’ Eastside, hopes to grow his successful taco stand, “Chino’s Underground Tacos,” into a brick and mortar restaurant. When Yesenia Tapia, a Mexican American social media influencer, accuses Chino of cultural appropriation and pandering to a gentrifying neighborhood, he must convince the community of his cultural authenticity in a multi-faceted and complicated city.
Right when the play starts, I had a bit of a startled reaction seeing the first few characters introduced on-stage as they seemed like gross caricatures of Latino culture done by Asian people. It is quickly revealed that this is no caricature at all but a depiction of an all-real underground Chicano culture in Japan that is portrayed with conviction by Sayaka Miyatani, Ariel Kayoko Labasan, and Paul Dateh. These three characters make recurring appearances throughout the show and though they are not connected whatsoever with the main story at hand, they serve as reminders of the play’s central cultural appropriation vs. appreciation conflict and simply that these people very much exist.
I must preface this review that I have very strong opinions about cultural appropriation, especially when Asians do it with Black & Latino culture so seeing this show took me on quite a ride. It is here that we get to our main character of Chino (played by Gavin Lee) who is a Korean American taco vendor who was fostered by an elderly Mexican couple from a young age and grew up with Mexican culture for most of his life.
Tacos LA Brooklyn provides an interesting case with Chino that if someone has been genuinely raised in a culture not typically attributed to his heritage, would one consider that appropriation or just something that is a part of life for that person? From the surface, it can seem extremely problematic and that’s where the conflict begins with the Mexican American influencer Yesenia Tapia (played by Esperanza America) and her crusade on getting Chino to admit he is culturally appropriating Mexican culture.
When the characters go at it in this issue, they go at it hard. The play presents terrific viewpoints from both perspectives that it is not easy to side instantly with either Yesenia or Chino. Both present strong cases but also exhibit all-too real fallacies especially when it comes to social media warfare and the absolute mess it creates for all involved. This then brings about the only issue I had with this conflict in that everything resolved itself way too easily by the end. I had a hard time believing that Yesenia would be sorry to see the harm she caused to Chino and even if she was sorry, that she would go out of her way to make amends. But then again, folks go to theatre not necessarily to be immensely depressed all the time (well, sometimes) but that a happy ending involving different communities coming together may be just what we need in these times.
The ensemble cast packs quite a punch but the heart of the play belongs to Alejandra Flores and Sal Lopez, who play Lencha and Chino’s “abuelito” respectively. They ground the play with such love and provide the beating heartbeat that pulsates throughout as we see the kind souls who took in Chino and raised him as if he was their own. Gavin Lee as Chino is a wonderful lead whose good-natured charm and sincerity absolutely makes us believe in his authenticity but also make us shake our heads when his ego gets in the way. Esperanza America provides a tremendous foil as the antagonist Yesenia whose social media antics make you want to hate her but her points are undeniable in the accusations of gentrification and appropriation that is happening as a result of what Chino is doing.
Zilah Mendoza and Xavi Moreno are fellow LA River Night Market vendors Monse and Mike respectively and are incredible in how they contrast with each other as Monse provides the wisdom while Mike provides the wisecracks that are some of the play’s funniest moments. Finally, Jesus “Chuy” Perez is El Musico and his songs give the play life in the soul and passion he puts into his words and chords.
By the end, the play presents a question to the audience of what is truly cultural appropriation and that maybe, just maybe, things are a lot more complicated than it seems. As an audience member, you will draw conclusions and opinions that will differ that of your neighbor’s and that was certainly what happened after I left the theatre. But any good piece of theatre should do just that; to question and to provoke with the most important part being that there was a story and characters you could care for. This play did just that.
If you want to see true representation in theatre that gives a damn about what’s going on with our world today, then you must go watch Tacos LA Brooklyn.
Appropriation… or appreciation? Latino Theater Company presents the world premiere of an exciting, multilingual comic drama developed in Latino Theater Company’s Circle of Imaginistas playwriting group and produced in association with East West Players. Chino, a young and ambitious Korean American who grew up in a foster family on Los Angeles’ Eastside, hopes to grow his successful taco stand, “Chino’s Underground Tacos,” into a brick and mortar restaurant. When Yesenia Tapia, a Mexican American social media influencer, accuses Chino of cultural appropriation and pandering to a gentrifying neighborhood, he must convince the community of his cultural authenticity in a multi-faceted and complicated city.
• Written by Joel Ulloa
• Directed by Fidel Gomez
• Starring Esperanza America, Paul Dateh, Alejandra Flores, Ariel Kayoko Labasan, Gavin K. Lee, Sal Lopez, Sayaka Miyatani, Xavi Moreno, Zilah Mendoza, Jesus “Chuy” Perez
• Produced by Latino Theater Company in association with East West Players
Previews: Sept. 21– Sept. 29
Performances: Sept. 30 – Oct. 29
• Thursdays at 8 p.m.: Sept. 21, Sept. 28 (previews); Oct. 5, Oct. 12, Oct. 19, Oct. 26
• Fridays at 8 p.m.: Sept. 22, Sept. 29 (previews); Oct. 6, Oct. 13, Oct. 20, Oct. 27
• Saturdays at 8 p.m.: Sept. 23 (preview), Sept. 30; Oct. 7; Oct. 14, Oct. 21, Oct. 28
• Sundays at 4 p.m.: Sept. 24 (preview); Oct. 1, Oct. 8, Oct. 15, Oct. 22, Oct. 29
The Los Angeles Theatre Center
514 S. Spring Street
Los Angeles CA 90013
• $8 with box office validation, Joe’s Parking structure, 530 S. Spring St. (immediately south of the theater)
• Metered parking available on streets surrounding the theater.
• Take the Metro: nearest stop is Pershing Square (two blocks west of The LATC).
$22-$48 (except previews and opening night)
• General Admission (except opening night, Sept. 30): $48
• Students, seniors, veterans and LAUSD teachers: $22 with valid ID.
• Previews: Pay-What-You-Will starting at $10
• Opening night (Sept. 30): $58 (includes pre- and post-performance receptions)