This Play Tells The Story Of The Violent Clearing Of Chavez Ravine Before Dodger Stadium

From rehearsals for Chavez Ravine. (Courtesy L.A. Mission College)

Chavez Ravine's largely Mexican-American residents were cleared out violently by authorities so that the area could be developed — after people were cleared out, it became the home of Dodger Stadium. Now L.A. Mission College is putting on a play to tell that story.

Chavez Ravine, originally created by the satirical Latino performance troupe Culture Clash, opens Thursday and will run for two weeks at L.A. Mission College.

Theater professor Robert Cucuzza directs the show.

"It's really a pretty incredible story of urban planning in L.A., and the way that Mexican-Americans in particular have been treated by the city," Cucuzza said. "I wanted to pick a play that really spoke to the demographic of our student body, but also our community."

The college has a new arts building, which Cucuzza said is one of the only cultural centers in the northeast San Fernando Valley. Having predominantly Latino students in a predominantly Latino area, Cucuzza thought this play would speak to both the students and the community.

There are 33 characters — played by six student actors and three mariachi musicians, including two guitarists and a percussionist. The production also has an onstage sound artist providing effects throughout the show, rounding out the 10-student cast.

A Chavez Ravine cast photo. (Courtesy L.A. Mission College)

REAL-LIFE HISTORY

The fight over Chavez Ravine lasted a decade, with some local residents standing up for the place they called home.

"The city of Los Angeles targeted Chavez Ravine and the community there, and viewed their humble little abodes as slums," Cucuzza said.

The show has no villain, according to Cucuzza — except the city of L.A.

"Several Chavez Ravine residents fought eviction, including Aurora Vargas, who vowed that, 'they'll have to carry me [out].' L.A. County Sheriffs forcibly remove Vargas from her home. Bulldozers then knocked over the few remaining dwellings. Four months later, ground-breaking for Dodger Stadium began." (Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Herald-Examiner Collection)

As the story goes, the city tried to buy people out, but many refused to leave — the city ultimately claiming the land by eminent domain. Those who did take the buyouts never got the affordable housing options they were promised, because the city's administration changed parties.

"There is a story of carrying out a grandma in a rocking chair out of her house, and then they bulldoze the houses right before the former residents, clearing the space," Cucuzza said.

Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley ended up flying over the area in a helicopter, seeing the cleared-out area and deciding it'd be the perfect spot for him to move the then-Brooklyn team.

"And the Mexican-American community that was originally there was never to return, and so Chavez Ravine tells this whole story," Cucuzza said.

He's also excited to bring it to those who don't know the history — he said that he's talked about the show with colleagues, who are often Dodgers fans, and they have no idea what happened with Chavez Ravine.

The show weaves in real-life characters, from legendary Dodgers announcer Vin Scully to comedy duo Abbott and Costello doing "Who's On First" — in both English and Spanish.

COMBINING COMEDY AND DRAMA

From rehearsals for Chavez Ravine. (Courtesy L.A. Mission College)

It's a dramatic story, but the show depicts it all in Culture Clash's fast screwball comedic style.

"They create their plays through improvisation," Cucuzza said. "They do a lot of interviews with people, and then they portray the people who they interviewed."

The show's main character, Maria, is based on an actual resident of Chavez Ravine and it follows her story.

"Her journey [starts] from watching her brother wanting to move out of Chavez Ravine because there's nothing there," Cucuzza said, "and then she tries very hard to fight — she fights tooth and nail and organizes the residents to fight the city, and is unsuccessful, but ultimately sees how it helped her become an organizer and an activist."

The team working on Mission College's production also did their own research.

"We're creating this world that's all about transformation and change, and how chance can be both bad and good — and sometimes change happens fast and furious, and without giving the people who are being changed the time to process," Cucuzza said.

It's all comedy — until the end, Cucuzza said.

"And it gets very serious, and the main characters who you've been following throughout speak directly about the impact of these events on the community — both in positive and negative ways," Cucuzza said.

BRINGING TO LIFE A LEGACY

While the people of Chavez Ravine lost a lot, Cucuzza said that the show also follows the story to the Dodgers' signing of Mexican player 'Fernando' Valenzuela. He became a Dodgers superstar, and helped grow the team's Latino fanbase — the show is bookended by opening day of the 1981 season, in which Valenzuela pitched, with broadcaster Vin Scully calling the game.

"There are still people who refuse to follow the Dodgers or go to Dodger Stadim because of the events that happened there," Cucuzza said.

But that's not the goal of this production. He promises a show with a visually stunning style and professionals are working with the students to bring it all to life.

"Our theater program is very young," Cucuzza said. It started around four years ago when he tarted teaching there. "Because we are young, I bring in professional guest artists — like a scenic designer, a costume designer, a lighting designer — to work with our students."

As part of that fast-paced style, they're using paper costumes with pieces that can be taken on and off with magnets. It helps keep the fast changes going throughout the show, with actors playing six to 10 characters each.

Chavez Ravine runs Thursdays through Saturdays from May 9-18 at L.A. Mission College's new Arts, Media and Performance Theater. You can purchase tickets here.