TheatreFIRST Spotlights Activists in Upcoming Show
Between Us features eight solo plays over two nights running in repertory to enliven the season.
Photo by Melati Citrawireja
When Jon Tracy took over as artistic facilitator last season, Berkeley theater company TheatreFIRST radically redefined its mission to focus entirely on developing new work, with creative teams made up of at least half women and at least two-thirds people of color. The company has continued to tweak and evolve that mission, learning from feedback and missteps along the way.
While the new TheatreFIRST’s first season consisted entirely of commissioned full-length plays, the second season has mixed up the format a bit. Right after Participants last December, an evening of 12 short plays by a diverse group of writers about how to move forward in a time of sociopolitical unrest, comes another flurry of new work with Between Us, eight solo plays about activists split into two nights running in repertory.
Actor Brit Frazier directed one of the pieces in Participants, and now she’s writing Laveau: A Conjuring of Marie Laveau, directed by Margo Hall. “This is my year of ‘yes, personally,’ meaning any project I come across that I feel fearful of right away I’m going to say yes to, just as a challenge to myself,” Frazier said. “I have never written a one-person play, especially a biographical one about someone who had actually lived.” The New Orleans Voodoo Queen had been a longtime object of fascination for Frazier, so she just had to say yes.
Last season Jeffrey Lo co-wrote Beneath the Tall Tree with Adrienne Walters, a play about the legacy of World War II Japanese-American internment camps. In Between Us, he returns to that topic directing Jeanne Sakata’s Turning the Page, about anti-internment activist Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga. Lo is also writing and directing Seven Fingers, about Filipino-American labor activist Larry Itliong.
“We were at opening night of Beneath the Tall Tree, and Jon’s mind was already working on what was next,” Lo said. “He comes up to me at the party and he’s like, ‘Hey, I have this idea to do a series of one-person shows, about 20 minutes long,’ about social activists and — this is my phrase, not his — freedom fighters, basically. And he had this story that he saved a long time ago, an NPR piece about Larry Itliong.”
Itliong was one of the organizers of the Delano grape strike of 1965. The grape growers actively pitted Filipino-American and Mexican-American workers against each other, keeping them on separate shifts and bribing each group to break the other’s strikes.
“It was Larry Itliong who originally approached Cesar Chavez,” Lo said. “Cesar Chavez initially said, ‘I’m not ready to do this.’ And Larry Itliong said, ‘Look, the Filipino-American workers are older than your workers, and they need this money now. If you don’t join us now, we will break your strikes until the end of time.’ Because that was sort of the guy he was. That’s why Cesar Chavez, who was much more eloquent and didn’t speak with very much of an accent and was seen as a kinder figure, was the media head of the movement. Larry Itliong was cursing all the time, he walked around with a cigar in his mouth, he had a heavy accent, and he didn’t care what anyone thought. He was going to do what he needed to do to win.”
Between Us, Feb. 18-March 10, Live Oak Theatre, 1301 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, $15-$35, TheatreFIRST.com