'Cafe Vida' Brings Realities of Gang Life and Food Politics to the Stage

A creative collaboration between the Latino Theater Company, Cornerstone Theatre Company, Homeboy Industries, and Homegirl Cafe has culminated in an uplifting run of new work Café Vida at Los Angeles Theatre Center (LATC). Penned by Lisa Loomer as part of Cornerstone's Hunger Cycle series and based on true accounts of gang life, the production follows the struggles encountered by an ex-gang member as she reintegrates back into life outside of prison while subcontextually incorporating food inequality issues. While a few of the cast members of Café Vida are professional actors, most of the cast has been drawn from previously gang-involved youth currently enrolled in the Homeboy Industries program.

Loomer's work is both comedic and dramatic, sometimes beautiful, but very predictable. It is watchable, but feels overwhelmingly like a warm-and-fuzzy after-school special. Part of the predictability comes from the seemingly endless and certainly tragic patterned social cycles that have become part of the well-known national dialogue about what gang-involved youth contend with when growing up in disenfranchised communities. But on the other hand, it appears that Loomer let creativity fall a bit to the wayside in an effort to reach the broadest possible audience in order to share the worthy messages that the play contains. That said, Café Vida does have its charms and deserves props for using theatre as a medium to discuss the far-reaching specter of food inequality in Los Angeles and for highlighting the brilliant and valuable work of the folks at Homeboy Industries.

The gifts of Café Vida lie not in its script or writing style, but in the performers presenting the play. The non-professional cast culled from Homeboy Industries lends not only their own personal stories and experiences to the script, but brings passion to their stage performances that is easy to appreciate and root for. Their line delivery may not be perfect or of professional caliber, but it is indeed heartfelt and comes from a place of knowing, intuition, and love.

Lynette Alfaro leads the cast as Chabela, a recent parolee, parent, and Homeboy Industries employee trying to pull her life back together after years of incarceration, addiction, domestic abuse, and gang involvement. From the moment Alfaro steps on stage, her complexity shines through. She is frightened, yet brave; full of longing, yet also full of cheer; and strong, but quite cautious. Sue Montoya's inherent gentleness shines through with a well-honed rendering of Luz, Chabela's nemesis-turned-salvation. Jesse Gamboa, as Chabela's husband, Eddie, delivers a brutally realistic, yet artful fight scene with Alfaro. Among the profession cast members (of which there are just a few), Page Leong has wonderful comedic timing and a sense of humor that is very home-grown. Finally, Shishir Kurup gives an amazing, powerful, show-making performance as El Maiz, an esoteric, politically-minded incarnation of the intangible and ancient connection between man and Earth.

Under the sweeping, broad direction of Michael John Garcés, Café Vida is animated and enticing. He blends the performances of non-professional and professional actors fluidly and injects depth into the play through vibrant singing muses (played by Leong and Magaly La Voz de Oro) and flatness-breaking choreography (by Ana Maria Alvarez).

For those that are unfamiliar with the term, food inequality refers to the unequal access to healthy, safe, high-quality food sources as a result of economic barriers and subtle, but pandemic geographic discrimination that can be found world-wide. The images of starving third-world children that flash on our television screens during commercial breaks certainly comes to mind, but what most do not know is that food inequality exists right in our own city. Many Angelenos do not have access to the healthy food available at farmers markets or even produce-selling grocery stores. There are lots of blighted Los Angeles neighborhoods that are dominated by fast food chains that offer cheap meals that wreak havoc on the body (and ultimately individual and community economic livelihood) when used as a main food source. Purchasing healthy food can truly be a geographic and economic challenge in lower-income neighborhoods. (For a good visual example of food inequality, check out this Los Angeles Times map of farmers markets that clearly shows the density of markets across Los Angeles — the Westside is wonderfully cluttered with markets, but the less affluent, south and eastern parts of the city, clearly are not.)

With this in mind, Cornerstone's Hunger Cycle series will present a series of nine plays that examine hunger, justice, and food equity issues with a plethora of community partners. Café Vida is the first work in the series and is a collaboration with Homeboy Industries, a unique non-profit that provides a plethora of viable and effective support services to help previously gang-involved individuals free themselves from the social constructs of gang life and post-incarceration paradigms.

Cafe Vida is playing at Los Angeles Theatre Center through May 20. Tickets are $20 with some pay-what-you-can tickets available at the door. Tickets are available online or via phone at 866-811-4111.