Josefina López has made numerous valuable contributions to Latino culture. You can see it in her theatre and filmic writing, in Casa 0101, a Chicano-theatre she founded in her beloved East Los Angeles community of Boyle Heights, and in her promotion of an education system on the arts for the residents of Boyle Heights.
The latest project for the hardworking López is a comedy, Clean Start, which started out as a sitcom for television. After some rejections, it has been adapted – with assistance from co-writer Kathy Fischer – into a stage play. Clean Start opens on January 23rd, 2015, at Lopez’ pride-and-joy theatre, Casa 0101.
The project began when Fischer’s manager, and López’ agent (Leslie Conliffe) brought them together as writers of comedic bent, to hash around some ideas. Both women were excited about an article in a major magazine which discussed a famous man who died, leaving his wife penniless. She moved into the house in Mexico her maid of 20 years had built she had sent home during her work the rich couple.
(That story is reminiscent of the situation Mrs. Bernie Madoff found herself in, years before, when her husband went to jail for a billion-dollar swindle, a Ponzi-scheme that outweighed anything the originator of the scheme – Italian-American businessman Charles Ponzi – invented during the 1920s.)
Their idea was to take a similar experience that character Parker Reed faces when her husband’s chicanery loses their wealth, including their homes, automobiles, artwork, etc., in addition to her social standing. In all the confusion, she finds her (rich) friends turning their backs on her, and leaving her, for all intent, homeless. As it turns out, the only person willing to take her in is her Latina maid, Rosario. So she moves into the maid’s small East-L.A. home, sharing it with the maid’s mother and sister.
Described by the two writers as The Golden Girls for Latinas – a show López admits to being her “Saturday night date” – the light-heartedness of their situation-comedy idea is deepened by the underlying social and class message. The two writers spent weeks massaging their script, first as a half-hour television pilot and now as a two-act social comedic stage play.
Set in Boyle Heights, the rest of Rosario’s family doesn’t want her to save this woman from her husband’s folly, thus putting our heroine in the middle of classic confrontations between duty and loyalty to her former boss and of her own not-rich family.
The main theme for López is the impossibility to have a true friendship in an unequal state of affairs. And how very difficult it is for any of us to recognize racism in one’s own actions. Says López: “A privileged position can help you to think that you are entitled to everything, and are above others. Reverse that and you can see how it isn’t true.” López herself was born in Mexico and came to California when she was five. “Certainly, I had no sense of entitlement. As an undocumented girl, I was raised to follow orders from my father, then my husband, and to serve them. The entitled think they’re okay, and they don’t understand racial profiling.”
Fischer, however, differs slightly in what thinks the play is about. “For me, Clean Start is about finding wealth of a different kind as a result of hardship.”
One of López’ issues, which Fischer herself understood, was how Blacks and Latinos react so very differently to most whites to being I.D.’d while driving, or merely walking – facts which are the basis for Iliana Sosa’s film, based on Lopez’ play, she executive produced a couple of years ago, Detained In The Desert. “[Whites] don’t see what we go through and it’s frustrating to explain [it to them].”
Also, a few years ago, López was at a seminar for motivational speakers, and an Asian-American Little Person, “no taller than 3’6” or so, and physically-challenged, spoke about her life and I was able to realize that no matter how difficult my life, there’s always someone else worse off than I. I loved that she had to become a giant and teach us compassion for others, letting me learn the lesson that I could/would become a better person by accepting her lessons. I got it. I began to explore what ‘entitlements’ I thought I owned.” So, in their play, in a comedic style, this formerly rich lady, Parker, has to learn her lessons from Rosario in order to actually become her equal.
Another of the values López has been proving to the rest of the L.A. theatrical community is in her Youth Classes, which are free to the students. “We got a series of grants from the California Endowment [L.A. Chapter], which actually pays small stipends for young people to take our classes. I am very interested in the various ways we help the community to learn that their part of Los Angeles, called ‘The Barrio,’ is actually a valued community. I want them to challenge the paradigm of how we Latinos are viewed by others and to bond with each other to explore what ‘The Barrio’ means to them. We ask them to declare their intentions, in front of others – a spiritual affirmation of their worth and how their voice matters.” In fact, members of The Los Angeles Opera volunteered to teach them voice-work and watch them perform. “More than anything, it’s about promoting pride in their spiritual growth – to get past the focus on gangs, violence, trauma, and poverty. We’ve been given money to see how and why gangs are formed and how we can transcend them.”
López is gearing up to write her next play on gentrification – its pluses and minuses – with a white co-writer yet to be selected. “We’re seeing a lot of changes in Highland Park, and to a lesser extent in Boyle Heights, and the kind of social upheaval it engenders. Certainly our [Latino] communities are much more interesting than just gangs and poverty, but I want to explore what happens to renters, especially, as well as those who are purchasing the properties. And I want a non-Hispanic writer to help us present all points-of-view.”
Fischer had known of Lopez for some years, when she left Lincoln, Nebraska, to attend graduate school at UCLA (in screenwriting), a year after Lopez was there, and then missed her again when she went to the Sundance Festival in 2002 to see Real Women Have Curves, which is the basis of Lopez’ fame.
Soon after graduating from UCLA, Fischer was awarded the first David and Lynn Angell Humanitas Award for Comedy Writing for her Bernie Mac script, Soul Search. [David Angell was exec-producer on Frazier; both husband and wife were killed on 9/11, when their flight from Boston was diverted into the World Trade Center by Muslim terrorists.]
Fischer has written three-dozen projects – twenty long-form scripts (unproduced), including a feature for Disney, and eight television series and pilots, (Center of the Universe for eight episodes; ABC Family (“Just a Phase”); as a staff writer on The George Lopez Show); some one-act plays, and, now, this comedy, “of which I am most proud. We’ve done it on a shoestring, and it’s just amazing!”
Fischer even talked her husband, Rees Pugh, head of Performing Arts at Harvard-Westlake school, to design the set. “I’m taking lots of Xanex right now, but at least my marriage is still intact!” she jokes. Of Irish-German descent, her status as a non-Hispanic person has allowed for a deeper level of communication between her and López. “Well, I’ve had experience in this. Some years ago when I wrote that episode for Bernie Mac, Regency, the movie production company, called me into a meeting and were astounded that I wasn’t black. But I relate to a character’s position in life, not to their skin-color. And while Parker is a white person, I had no problem understanding the change in her financial status as I’ve always lived a 99-cent-Store existence. After the 2008 financial crash Josefina joked that all those hedge-fund managers would have to learn to live like Mexicans. This allowed both of us to find the richness in the difficulties of survival. We have found the emotional wealth, the richness that resides in the idea of family, which has allowed Parker to find common ground with folks she otherwise wouldn’t know at all. We definitely expect to draw audiences who will find the humor in this relationship.”
Interview by Dale Reynolds.
Clean Start opens January 23rd, 2015
2101 E. 1st Street,
Boyle Heights, CA 90033.
Tickets and more info can be found here or by calling (323) 263-7684.