‘Pang!’ Offers Food for Thought on Social Ills

November 29, 2017
“Pang” in rehearsal. Photo by John Pemble

After Conching Matthews was displaced from her Riverside County home in Murrieta, she returned to the West Adams house in Los Angeles where she grew up, which had been in her family for 65 years. She and her nine children settled briefly into a new life, sharing the house with more than 10 others.

Then a man claiming to be a refinancing specialist swindled Matthews’ 75-year-old uncle, Orinio Opinaldo, out of large sums of money, forcing the house into foreclosure.

“We had to leave and gather an entire generation of family belongings and just move it all out,” Matthews said.

The story of Matthews’ uprooting is one of three short plays that make up “Pang!”, an evening of drama in which three actors, a musician and a sound engineer bring to life a trio of stories around topics of immigrant displacement, neighborhood violence and victimization of the elderly. The first segment dramatizes the experience of Matthews and Opinaldo. The second play tracks the life of a man who settled in a Cedar Rapids, Iowa, community after he was nearly shot to death fleeing war-torn Burundi as a child. In the third piece, a 7-year-old boy dreams of escaping his gritty and violent Miami neighborhood.

Working with arts and community partners in Los Angeles, Cedar Rapids and Miami, writer-director Dan Froot developed “Pang!” out of oral history interviews with three families. Although all of them have faced hunger and nutrition issues at some point in their lives, the production unites its subjects under the theme of the families being hungry for social change.

Dan Froot developed ‘Pang!” out of oral history interviews with three families.

Froot, who grew up attending a Reform synagogue in a largely agnostic family in the Bronx, was drawn to the subject in some respects because he has embraced “the social justice values” of Judaism.

“Pang!”, which will be staged at the 24th Street Theatre, is a new look at a topic the playwright has long found interesting: the bond between food and theater.

“The first pieces I made as a New York theater artist were ‘performance meals’ in which I would cook and tell stories for the audience, serve them the meal and then leave the theater,” said Froot, a professor in the Department of World Arts and Cultures at UCLA. “You bring disparate ingredients together … into this third thing that you then serve to somebody, and hopefully it nourishes them.”

“Pang!” is not meant to be conventional theater. Its segments are performed as radio plays, with performers standing at microphones and using everyday items to produce sounds such as doors opening, answering machines beeping and footsteps trudging through a muddy cornfield.

Researchers conducted 12 hours of interviews with the subject families, compiling the transcripts into book-length oral histories they gave to the families to review. The families were allowed to stop the performance from going forward if seeing their lives re-created on stage made them feel uncomfortable.

That didn’t happen, but during the research phase of the L.A. segment, the story changed. After the West Adams foreclosure, Matthews and her children relocated back to Riverside County, this time in Hemet, to where Froot followed her to complete the interviews.

“I would basically just plan to be there for an entire day and we would squeeze in interview moments when we could,” Froot said. “Otherwise, I was cooking bacon and sweeping up in the backyard and changing diapers, whatever needed to be done.”

Matthews said Froot “came out and would basically talk to us and ask us what we remembered. He made it a pleasurable experience, and when I first heard them recite the play back, I was amazed at what they were able to put together from the interviews.”

Froot hopes the play catches on and that he will be able to tour further and bring in additional families in new cities. Wherever it goes, the production will travel with a key prop: a kitchen table that appears onstage for company members and audiences to gather around and continue the discussion.

“The rules of the table are there are no empty chairs,” Froot said. “When someone leaves, somebody from the audience has to come and take their place.”

“Pang!” will be performed at 8 p.m. Dec. 2 and at 3 p.m. Dec. 3 at the 24th Street Theatre in Los Angeles. For more information, visit 24thstreet.org.

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