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Logan Heights

It’s too bad they don’t give a Craig Noel Award for Audience of the Year. I sat in a sure nominee recently at OnStage. High school students packed the house. They hung on every word of Josephina Lopez’s early drama about a young writer finding her voice.

Okay, each student had a two-page questionnaire, and had to write a paper on the play – but still. How they reacted!! They watched with both eyes and – unlike the current malaise of using only one, at best – they listened with both ears. And couldn’t hide their feelings.

An unrepressed audience. Imagine that!

For the actors it was instant feedback, for the students, maybe a preview of upcoming choices.

Lopez’s Detained in the Desert enjoyed a successful run at the La Jolla Playhouse last month. She grew up in East L.A. and originally named her play Boyle Heights after her neighborhood. For OnStage in Chula Vista, director Bryant Hernandez got Lopez’s permission to change the name to Logan Heights and add local references.

Dahlia is 25 and doesn’t fit in. She’s long past her parent’s dream: “a white-gown marriage in a Catholic church.” At last count she’s had 20 boyfriends, even lived with one, and is the “weird sister in the family.”

One reason, unlike her brother and two sisters, she has a degree from UCSD; another, she wants to be a writer. So she sits on the roof penning “bad” poems – she confesses – and watching her neighborhood change.

Her parents, Reuben and Carmela Rosales, were the first Latinos in Logan Heights (technically not true; the first arrived in the 1890s). Reuben came to “El Norte” as an undocumented immigrant from a little pueblo in Mexico. Now, 27 years later, he’s about to retire and wants to return to the pueblo.

Someone put a curse on Carmela, who stayed behind when Reuben went north. She gave birth out of wedlock. So, goes the curse, will her daughters.

Although Logan Heights centers on Dahlia’s attempts to break free, the play details differing expectations and conflicting dreams. Many surround Dahlia. To find a man she should become demure and “stop speaking her mind.”

Not happening.

As Dahlia, Jennifer Paredes has a natural rapport with the audience (even plays the ukulele). She runs an emotional gambit from hope and tenacity to sudden, horrible loss. Remember her name. You could be hearing it again – often.

Carlos Angel-Barajas impresses as Chava, a tagger/artist and the unlikely apple of Dahlia’s eye. Angel-Barajas smartly understates and gives Chava inner strength as a result.

Veteran actor Goyo Flores grounds Reuben with dignity and humor.

Overall, however, the performances are uneven, possibly from the instant feedback, which could upset timing. To match Lopez’s crisp dialogue, the cast could “cue up” – respond quicker.

Bruce Wilde’s set begins at the entryway. You see not the stage, but Chicano Park – “La Tierra Mia”; a cement pillar, decked with “community art” looms ahead. There’s even a newsstand for El Latino. As OnStage has done before (unforgettably in The Diary of Anne Frank) the show starts with an instant immersion into the terrain.

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