Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Review: FIGHTING SHADOWS - An L.A. Story of Love and Redemption

Richard Cabral. All photos by Chelsea Sutton

His words. His story. Our city.

We tell a lot of stories in the theatre. Here in Los Angeles, however, we don’t often tell stories that are authentically home-grown. Fighting Shadows is that rare exception, a deeply personal story of a Mexican-American boy who grew up in east L.A., survived abuse, gangs, prison, and drugs, ultimately overcoming every bad card dealt him. It is an important story and an especially meaningful one told with unflinching honesty and hard-won humility.

Written and performed by Richard Cabral as a one man play with music, it was developed at the Ojai Playwrights Conference New Works Festival under the auspices of OPC’s artistic director & producer Robert Egan. Egan now directs the play’s world premiere at the Rosenthal Theater at Inner City Arts and shares writing credit with Cabral. Together they have created a mesmerizing 90 minutes of storytelling that unfolds like an extended lyrical poem. Do whatever you can to see it. It’s that powerful.

More than once it reminded me of the kind of epic journey Shakespeare wrote about in his long-form narratives like Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Cabral’s story is based on his own experiences growing up with a father who left when he was 6 and a mother who was ill-equipped to raise a child. A string of abusive boyfriends followed and when it was clear there was no love to be found within his family, he turned to the streets to find the love he desperately craved.

In the gang motto “endure the pain, receive the love” he was reborn and at 13 he stole his first bike and ended up in a correctional facility. Probation followed and more difficulties. At 15 his girlfriend dies in a car crash. His new loves, meth and heroin, take over and revenge becomes his holy crusade. He’s arrested for possession and, while out on probation, shoots another boy for crossing the street, landing him a 35-year-to-life sentence at Ironwood State Prison. Once again he wrestles with the contradictions of life as an inmate and the shadowy demons that refuse to stay quiet.

Eventually he is released and a turning point comes when he meets his young son for the first time. These are gripping sequences delivered with heartbreaking vulnerability. Still, there is more jail time ahead and more stumbles along the way.

His saving grace comes at the age of 25 when he is introduced to Father Greg Boyle of Homeboy Industries whose belief that “nothing stops a bullet like a job” has helped thousands of former gang members transform their lives and break the cycle of violence. With his unconditional love and compassion, Cabral finds his way to redemption one step at a time.

While working as a baker at Homeboy Industries he is discovered by the producers of Southland and in a few short years he begins to thrive as an actor, appearing most notably in the first two seasons of American Crime, where I first saw his work. Perhaps it is the intensity with which he has experienced life that makes his acting so open and vulnerable. Whatever the reason, he has a gift and an uncanny ability to tell the truth moment by moment on stage.

Cabral’s stories explain rather than preach and are crafted using a measured cadence that highlights his own natural rhythms in Fighting Shadows. A live soundtrack by Rocio Libertad Mendoza and Jesus Martinez underscores the beauty in the pain with haunting subtlety. Its effect is intoxicating as you’re drawn deeper and deeper into Cabral’s world.

Scenic designer David Mauer captures the various street exteriors, and home and prison interiors, with three compact sections of chain link fence set against a dynamic mural panel emblazoned with the word “love.” Daniel Ionazzi’s angular lighting effects give depth to the intimate space and open up the breathing room beautifully.

So, should you see this production? If you want to understand the story of a city you must first listen to the stories of its people. If you live in Los Angeles, I don’t think you can possibly miss it. What has come out of Cabral’s gut-wrenching past is a tale full of grit, courage, and inspiration unlike any you’ve ever seen on stage before. It is a true L.A. story and I recommend it unconditionally. I also hope it gets picked up for a longer run so more audiences have the opportunity to see it.

April 15 – May 8, 2016
The Rosenthal Theatre at Inner City Arts
720 Kohler Street, Los Angeles, CA 90021
Free, ample street and lot parking
Tickets ($35): Fightingshadows.brownpapertickets.com or

Fighting Shadows is produced by Jami Gertz in association with Homeboy Industries and The Rosenthal Theater at Inner-City Arts. A portion of the proceeds will benefit Homeboy Industries.
Performances are Thursdays & Fridays at 8pm; Saturdays at 5pm & 8pm & Sundays at 3pm & 6pm.  (There will be no performances Thursday, May 5 & Friday, May 6 at 8pm and Saturday, May 7 at 5pm).  

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