Theater is a wide and wonderful world; a place of imagination, depth, and hundreds, if not thousands, of years of historical relevancy. It’s given us the gift of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, August Wilson’s Fences, and Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, among so many other classics that have affected not just audience sensibilities but have helped frame and define stage storytelling and become mainstays of conventional cinema a well.
But in the most modern definitions of theater, as film has eclipsed it for the general public, there are certain plays and venues that continue to be tried and true mainstays — AAA productions, so to speak.
And if shows like Streetcar, Moulin Rouge, Lion King, and Wicked (at venues like the Pantages in Los Angeles or the Lyric Theatre on Broadway) are the industry giants, then community theater tales are the indie films of the stage world. And like indie films, they’re free to — and are more often than not, geared toward — tackling taboos, talking points, the bigger picture and the minute details that play a role in daily life on a personal or societal level. Sometimes they do so directly and uncut; often times allegory is used.
Enter: Rise, by theater mainstays Kimba Henderson (writer) and Lui Sanchez (director) and presented by Company of Angels, a local community theater group tucked away in East LA’s Hazard Park which is also the oldest non-profit professional theater in Los Angeles. Rise documents the life and times of an African American woman — and Boyle Heights native — Emmeline, as the neighborhood evolves throughout the decades. Combining commentary on the African American plight in Los Angeles — specifically with the struggle of Japanese, Jewish, and Irish Americans, Rise speaks of the power and importance of legacy, love, and what that looks like through the early 1900s through interment camps, segregation, anti-miscegenation laws, and world wars.
By including the wider lens of these multiple ethnicities, Henderson highlights that perhaps we’re not that different at all; each man wants to protect and provide for his family, each woman wants peace and stability in their unions, and together they all strive for the best versions of their family units, regardless of color and creed. Henderson does a wonderful job of stringing together thoughtful dialogue that emphasizes each character’s personality while not falling into the trap of over-explaining the context and implications right away. That’s important, as the story is essentially told “in medias res” and works backwards from the present day to culminating in the early 1900s. She leaves bits and pieces of passing dialogue as a breadcrumb in one act that becomes the central focus or climax of the following act. Emmeline’s story is a puzzle Henderson masterfully reassembles.
The casting of Rise was inspired, as the cast not only portrays multiple characters, but through different decades, each with their own nuances and mannerisms. Starring Miles Bryant as Kenji/Detective Tom/Scott; Justeen Butler as Young Emmeline/Grace; RaeAnne Carlson as Tizzy/Mina/Kate; Doug Kaback as Saul/Mr. Ralphs/David/ White Cop; Julianna Stephanie Ojeda as Veronica/Ramirez/Maria; Sherrick O’Quinn plays Sam/Bruce; Bernadette Speakes plays Old Emmeline/Harriet/Julia; and Markhum Stansbury, Jr. plays Phil/John/Raymond. The entire team does a great job on leaning into exaggeration where needed but it never veers towards caricature, and they bounce off each other very well to create a very naturalistic dynamic on stage and through the decades they portray.
Silver screen and theater veteran Bernadette Speakes is a powerhouse as the older Emmeline and adjacent roles Harriet and Julia; she commands the stage with a grounded, lived-in sort of experience and her performance infuses dignity and sensitivity into each character in their own unique way. Speakes pulls of an impressive feat in the first quarter of the play, delivering a monologue alongside Doug Kaback’s Saul, outside his deli in the aftermath of an earthquake; she espouses the greatness of Boyle Heights — it’s charming, racially unified history — and its uncertain changes with the conviction of an East LA native. She has the ability to elevate even the simplest lines in the script to something you give a few more moments of attention to.
Justeen Butler follows suit with a youthful sort of ‘joie de vivre’ that permeates even in the darkest moments; it’s a decisive performance that gives Emmeline (the character both her and Speakes share) a certain kind of continuity in that its this hopefulness that carries her from the segregated 1960s into the modern day, despite the almost insurmountable odds she faces along the way.
The play takes a minimalist approach to the backdrops: what we start with is what we end with. It’s a consequence of both the constraints of the production but also the directing of the script. Henderson’s writing picks a few select locations and lives with them; they get dressed up in specific instances with ‘Happy Birthday’ banners, poker night décor, and a few other touches. Permanent scenery includes the Evergreen Cemetery — the heart and souls of the play — with a couple landmarks across the stage that double as additional places like a family kitchen, the Itzhak family deli and more; there’s a resourceful use of the limited props available that is cleverly recycled across the acts.
Like all great stories, Rise centers around the simple concept of legacy; what starts as a family going down their ancestry tree becomes a heartfelt walk through California’s hidden gem of a city and the uncovering of a wealth of family secrets that all circle back to the concept that love conquers all: time, racism, secrecy, and most importantly hate. And while the characters don’t dwell too much on the politics that morphed Boyle Heights into what we know of it now (those elements are saved for the montages that are sprinkled across the different acts), Rise does make it very clear that we all have much more in common than not, regardless of ethnicity and background.
And, if people could get along like that in a far less ‘enlightened’ time than that which we live in now, Rise challenges you to consider what changed and if it was for the better after all — and why? The good news is that the only constant is us, in the here and now, and how we treat others: perhaps, if we sow our seeds right, then perhaps we will influence our extended families, our communities, our cities. Perhaps, to paraphrase the words of Miles Bryant’s Kenji Henry Samuel, “we will not end.”
RISE runs through November 5, with performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; and Sundays at 7 p.m. Tickets to all performances are $25; $15 students and seniors (65+) Group discounts are available for groups of 10 or more at $12 per person (Promo code GROUP).