Mission gangs and tattoos are the stuff of a dynamic experiment in theater activism, as Paul S. Flores' Placas moves from page to stage
But his research proved remarkably fruitful, despite initial suspicion from people who thought he was probably a cop pretending to be a playwright. "They didn't tell me about their crimes," he explains, describing heart-to-heart conversations with young men eager to dispel characterizations of themselves as monsters or thugs. "They were going to tell me about what makes them hurt and what makes them feel love. And that's what I was looking for."
ENTER RIC SALINAS, NATIVE SON
Placas opens this week at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre — a venue chosen partly for its location in neutral territory outside the Mission, where the rivalry between Sureños and Norteños (Southern and Northern gangs) makes staging the play impossible.
In a crucial coup for the production, its main character, Fausto, is played by Ric Salinas, the Salvadoran-born co-founder of Culture Clash, the now LA-based but Mission-bred Latino theater trio and political-satirical juggernaut. Fausto is a middle-aged former gang member back after deportation and years in prison who hopes to reunite with wife Claudia (Cristina Frias) and teenage son Edgar (Ricky Saenz), who is himself just becoming involved with gang life and resists his father's belated call to familia. As a condition of his parole, Fausto is also getting his old gang tattoos removed (a literal and serious issue that the play subtly expands into a metaphor for identity and renewal).
Salinas says he signed onto the project enthusiastically after reading Flores's heavily researched script.
"I remember telling him, 'Wow, I don't think anyone has ever done this.'"
In a play that draws sometimes verbatim on the real lives of the gang members and former gang members, and the concerns and dynamics of the larger Salvadoran community, Fausto comes particularly indebted to the experiences of Alex Sanchez and another unnamed source the playwright has by necessity kept secret.
Salinas himself, however, shares a particularly violent but formative identification with Fausto, whose opening monologue describes surviving a near fatal shooting — and seeing it as a call to devote himself to his son. In 1989, at the height of the crack epidemic, Salinas was nearly killed in a gang-related shooting, as he attempted to prevent a fight at Harrison and 25th Streets. It had an impact not only on him personally, but on his then-budding career as an artist.
"A 17-year-old kid shot me with a sawed-off shotgun. I survived it; it was a miracle. It gave me a second outlook on life, and it also gave Culture Clash a new outlook: whenever we did something onstage [from then on], it was about something. We weren't going to just be doing comedy for comedy's sake."
Salinas, whose gentle influence on the project has been another important source of the script's vitality and verisimilitude, is confident the play will not only be involving but will begin conversations long overdue.
"If it starts with the gang, then it will continue with, 'Ok, who are these people? Who are Salvadorans? What's a pupusa?'" The actor then recalls with a laugh the song his mother thought should also be represented, a staple of every Salvadoran home.
"It's 'La Bala' by Los Hermanos Flores. So it's going to be in the play now. This is me educating Paul, and my mom reminding me. It's really going to be rich in some authentic stuff that's never seen, you know? But the thing is, it's going to open up dialogue."
Through Sept. 16
Opens Thu/6, 8pm; runs Thu-Sat, 8pm and Sun, 3pm, $13-$35
Lorraine Hansberry Theatre
450 Post, SF