Elia Arce was leading a rehearsal with five artists at San Francisco’s Galeria de la Raza on a recent Thursday evening when a trio of street musicians walked by, playing Mexican Norteño music.
Arce invited them in. A few hours later they had become part of the performance, and by Friday night they were onstage.
“I believe so much in process,” said Arce, a forty-two year-old native of Costa Rica, who is directing an experimental theater piece on immigrant identity. Known as the Fruitvale Project, it opens tonight [Friday, Nov. 7] at La Peña in Berkeley, thanks to a grant from the Association of Performing Arts Presenters.
Under Arce’s guidance, five Latino spoken word artists have spent the last eight months in East Oakland’s Fruitvale. They spent the time interviewing residents to find characters who portray the immigrant experience in California, where one in four residents is foreign born.
Fruitvale itself began with an influx of Germans, Portuguese and Italians in the 19th Century. More recently, Latinos and Asians have moved into this neighborhood that runs east of Interstate 880 in the flatlands of Oakland.
The cast developed characters around different neighborhood figures, including an older Puerto Rican man, who says he knows every Puerto Rican in East Oakland, a gay Latino hairdresser, and a Cambodian refugee who works as a neighborhood “ambassador,” patrolling International Boulevard and reporting violations.
“I didn’t tell them, ‘You write about this person and you write about that person,’” said Arce. She told cast members to ask themselves, “What is interesting to you? Then extend it to the community, so that there’s a revelation for you and the audience throughout the piece.”
Finding the right dialogue was easy for the spoken word artists; it was the acting that came hard.
Many rehearsal hours were spent getting the artists—who were used to working with words—to focus on their bodies, Arce said.
“Our bodies are our home,” said Arce, who was 21 when came to the United States and has been directing for 16 years. “There are memories trapped inside our bodies,” an idea she feels is especially important for immigrants “because home is usually somewhere far away.”
The actors said the process worked.
“I felt like Elia was the perfect person to lead this, because she gets people to believe in themselves and their own organic process” said Paul Flores, who had never acted, and spent days reviewing tapes of his interviews to create characters like Jose, a 16-year-old Chicano Raiders fan struggling with responsibility, and Joe, a homeless Native American with a drinking problem.
He said Arce’s technique was unusual.
“You have to be very patient,” said Flores. “She comes in with a general idea, but the means by which we accomplish our goal isn’t articulated. All of a sudden, we’re lying on the floor in rehearsal for fifteen minutes, asking ourselves what stories are in our knees, what stories are in our shoulder blades.”
Meditation helped Flores to understand and create his characters. “It’s really important to me to track the dynamic of transition,” he said “I wanted to show how complex their experience was. I wanted to tell the story of how they got there.
“She pushes you to places where you didn’t think you could go, where you’re not comfortable going at first,” said Pablo Rodriguez, who drew inspiration for one of his pieces from the selfless dedication of the staff of Fruitvale’s Spanish Speaking Citizens Foundation. The workers there reminded him of the “tamale makers” from his youth who made sure that everyone had enough to eat.
“When I first started working with Elia, the subject was very general,” he said, “she pushed me to talk about personal issues—personal relationships at first and family secrets. It’s been a really cool process where you face some demons from the past, and grow as an artist. I don’t create in the same way I did two years ago because of Elia.”
Arce has been doing community theater since 1986. In addition to her solo work, she’s worked on productions with HIV positive immigrants in Houston, and the homeless on Skid Row in Los Angeles.
Six years ago she moved to a cabin in the Southern California desert near Joshua Tree National Monument, where she lives with her dog, cat, and musician boyfriend.
“The desert has been my spiritual home,” said Arce. “The moment I got there, the connection to the land is immediate, and it’s almost like the land is in charge.”
She handles preproduction work from her desert home, where she said she has “a computer, a fax machine, all the different gadgets that are necessary to get the work done. You just work at a different speed.”
Arce said she joined the Fruitvale Project because “of the need to believe we can support each other as colleagues.”
“It’s a way for me to empower a new generation of Latino artists that is coming behind me, and support them in their development as artists and in their access to more mainstream venues,” she said.
The Fruitvale Project has had several public showings but remains a work in progress, so none of the cast is quite sure what the show will be like on opening night.
That’s fine with Arce, who says she’s happy to let the cast decide what works for them. “Every artist’s process of creation is different,” she says. “You never know what’s going to happen until you do it.”
The Fruitvale Project is showing Friday, Nov. 7, at 8 p.m. at La Peña Cultural Center as part of the Hecho en Califas festival. Tickets are $10 in advance and $12 at the door. The next performance is at Fremont High School in Oakland Thursday, Nov. 13, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $1 at the door.