November 18, 2018

Cornerstone of Diversity

In the play “For Here or To Go?” set during the holiday bustle of Chanukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa and Ramadan, a Jewish businessmen teaches a lonely Chinese American girl how to light a chanukiyah. An interfaith romance blossoms between a Palestinian Muslim and an African American woman. A Black family risks losing its soul food restaurant to a soulless fast food chain. An Indian, a Latino and even some Anglo cops opine about such L.A. concerns as racial profiling, earthquakes, three strikes, bus strikes, urban flight and Krispy Kreme.

Welcome to the multicultural Los Angeles landscape of “For Here or To Go?,” a 42-character play in rhymed verse about the challenges of life in L.A., courtesy of the Cornerstone Theater Company. It’s the first time the Taper’s main stage is hosting the work of another local theater group, but then again, the Cornerstone is no ordinary troupe.

What makes it unique in this showbiz capitol is that it casts residents from the megalopolis’ diverse ‘hoods alongside professional thespians. The actors have included cops, bus drivers, librarians, postal workers and even a 55-year-old Westside Jewish attorney who is on the board of Jews for Judaism. “The Cornerstone has allowed me to meet the ‘other Angelenos,'” reports the attorney, Bruce Friedman, who plays the Jewish businessman in “For Here or To Go?”

“The play aims to touch on the things that bring us together in L.A. and the things that keep us apart,” adds author Alison Carey, a Cornerstone co-founder.

Bridge-building has been the company’s agenda since 11 Harvard graduates — including Amy Brenneman, star of the TV hit “Judging Amy” — piled into a big blue van and headed off to bring theater to the American heartland in 1986. Carey, a 40-year-old Irish American from Storrs, Conn., explains the goal was to test some stuffy dramatic theory they had learned at Harvard. “Some were saying that the theater was dead and that it could make no impact on society,” she recalls. “But we wanted to see if we could make theater that mattered, even to people not used to going to the theater.”

Before long, the thesps were living in an abandoned railroad bunkhouse in the lunar-looking badlands of Marmarth, N.D. (population 190), selected because it was the place the Ivy Leaguers knew least about in the States. In a tiny, unheated old vaudeville house, they staged a Wild West-version of “Hamlet” that starred a third of the town and brought the Cornerstone national attention.

Other endeavors included a racially integrated “Romeo and Juliet,” starring Brenneman, in Port Gibson, Miss.; a version of Brecht’s “Good Woman of Setzuan” in a cattle-sale barn in Long Creek, Ore.; and an adaptation of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” that explored Appalachian out-migration in the Rust Belt.

For five years, the actors lived out of suitcases, traveling from town to town in decrepit vehicles (Carey’s favorite: an old milk van) and setting up shop in such places as a closed fast-food restaurant in Dinwiddie County, Va. (“I lived in the storage room,” Carey recalls). But after a 1991 “bridge show” that joined Cornerstone alumni from 10 states, the troupe wearied of the road. It was time to settle down, and members chose as their new headquarters a city sorely in need of bridge-building, Los Angeles, the most ethnically diverse city in the nation. They arrived here in 1992, in time for a riot and an earthquake, and quickly established a reputation as one of the city’s most multicultural arts institutions.

On the rooftop of Angelus Plaza, a low-income senior housing complex, they performed a piece in English, Spanish, Korean and Mandarin Chinese, with downtown L.A. as a backdrop. In the aftermath of the Gulf War, they collected oral histories from Arab Americans for a show called “Ghurba,” which means estrangement, or the feeling of being away from home. That show led to a play inspired by Jewish and Arabic folk tales, created by members of both communities. The latest Cornerstone endeavor is a three-year project that will explore questions of faith in L.A.

Friedman, a member of Temple Emanuel, came to the Cornerstone after reading a flyer about its residency in the city of Beverly Hills in 1998. “I decided to audition on a lark,” says the litigator, who had no previous acting experience but promptly landed roles alongside performers from Chinatown to Boyle Heights to Baldwin Hills.

Along the way, he’s made a point of conversing with his diverse colleagues during rehearsal breaks at the Cornerstone’s downtown warehouse space at 708 Traction Ave. He’s gotten to know an African American who was blinded in a shooting in South Central L.A. and a young Arab American who’s performed her one-woman show on the road in the Midwest. In Cornerstone tradition, they’re building bridges on a personal level. “We don’t dwell on Middle East politics,” Friedman says. “We try to find the common ground.”

“For Here Or To Go?” runs Dec. 15-24. For tickets, call (213) 628-2772.