Cornerstone Theater united a diverse cast of Venetians to tell a story of Venice past and present

Above: The cast of “Ghost Town”; Lower left: Vivian the Developer  and her pup encounter Zelda; Lower Right: The Bungalow has a chat with Zelda

Above: The cast of “Ghost Town”; Lower left: Vivian the Developer
and her pup encounter Zelda; Lower Right: The Bungalow has a chat with Zelda

By Regan Kibbee

A unique theatrical production brought together Venetians from all walks of life to tell a story about their community, from its beginnings 111 years ago to the current pains of gentrification.

Between 300 and 450 people gathered for each of three performances of “Ghost Town: A Venice Community Play” on Aug. 4, 5 and 6 in Oakwood Park.

“Ghost Town” was a production of the L.A.-based Cornerstone Theater Company, which pairs professional artists with community members for collaborative productions that strive to build bridges between people.

Billed as a “love story between a woman and her house,” the play’s premise is: “When Zelda is offered big bucks for her charming bungalow, she’ll have to decide — should she stay or should she go?”

A witness to the changing landscape around her, community-minded Venetian Sue Kaplan had long pondered a collaboration with Cornerstone. Deciding the time was ripe, she and fellow Oakwood Recreation Center board member Carmen Navarro convinced Cornerstone to
do a residency.

The play was written by Juliette Carrillo, a 19-year Venice resident with even deeper family ties to the area. She developed the script from Cornerstone-hosted “story circles,” in which locals shared their experiences and issues, as well as additional interviews and research.

Carrillo and director Rebecca Novick were especially interested in exploring the less-told story of the black community’s very long roots in the area. Cousins Arthur Reese and Irvin (a.k.a. Irving) Tabor, who contributed to the founding of Venice, are prominently featured. So are Abbot Kinney and the house he willed to Tabor. (Zelda is an invented character, but her bungalow is 555 Westminster Ave, which was Reese’s address.)

Rather than focus on the ghettoization of Oakwood in the 1980s and ‘90s, Carrillo chose “to illuminate parts of the African-American history that are so empowering to the residents who remain,” she said.

However, at one point in the story a gondolier ghost does reveal a bullet wound, showing the residue of gang violence remains.

Carrillo heard many explanations for why Oakwood has been called Ghost Town and said she was intrigued by the image of empty streets — of Venice changing “from an active porch and street community life to people hiding behind fences in McMansions.”

Satirical elements prompted peals of laughter, such as when numerous “HARDEE HARHAR + Partners” signs appear on stage (looking like the omnipresent real life signs of a prominent local realtor). Another crowd favorite was when the waitress at an upscale restaurant with no sign on the door and a name that “sounds like a sneeze” — “MASCHZPINA …The “Z” is silent” — recites her spiel that all the foods are “vegan, gluten-dairy-GMO free, grass-fed, cultured, curated …”

Carrillo sought to present diverse viewpoints. Her interview with a local developer helped inspire the character of Vivian, whose aria bemoaning how much it costs to be a developer these days was taken “almost word for word” from what he said.

Jataun Valentine, a community activist and a descendent of Tabor, was played by her longtime friend Ernestine Anderson. The role of Young Jataun went to a 6-year-old girl whom Novick says nailed the audition; turns out she was Valentine’s actual great-great niece!

Out of the 45 performers, 10 were children, two were in their eighties, two were homeless, one didn’t speak any English, five or six were professional actors, fewer than 10 had any significant acting experience, and nearly 30 had never been in a play before.

“My job was to help people understand how to be in a play and their job was to help us all understand the stories we were telling,” relates Novick. Cornerstone calls the process mutual mentorship.

A lot of participants said they’d met neighbors with whom they otherwise might never have interacted; those connections sparked new relationships that will outlive the play.

The audiences reflected the diversity of characters in the play — African Americans, Latinos, Abbot Kinney Boulevard restaurant employees, developers, hippies, hipsters, homeowners, the houseless, the young and the old.

“Everybody came away smiling and proud to be a Venetian,” says Kaplan.

Her hope is the production is just one step in a continuing process of community dialogue.

The play was filmed for archival purposes, and a copy will eventually be available for viewing at the Venice-Abbot Kinney Memorial Branch Library.

Visit cornerstonetheater.org/ghosttown for more information.