Hollywood Fringe 2019
A powerful example of theatre’s ability to shed light on unheard stories, Ya Basta is an important and daring work of homegrown theatre created by the men and women fighting to end sexual abuse and misogyny amongst Los Angeles janitors.
One of the refreshing things about Fringe Festivals is the sense of democracy that they espouse. With no curation, they are an open forum for any voice to be heard—provided the owner of that voice can pony up the theatre rental and registration fee. In efforts to encourage diversity within the pool of artists represented at the festival, the Hollywood Fringe offers yearly scholarships that cover registration and a stipend for venue rental and production costs. One of this year’s scholarship winners was a marvelous example of the kind of daring and socially significant theatre that such inclusivity can encourage. Ya Basta presents the stories of service workers in Los Angeles who have been striving to end rape on the night shift and ensure a safe working environment for all. Presented in Spanish by the very union workers who are still actively advocating for legislative reforms that will advance their cause, the piece is a powerful work that blends theatre with social justice.
The show boasts an enormous cast which is used throughout the show to tell the story of an ongoing fight by immigrant janitors to end injustice in the workplace. From unionization to the “Justice for Janitors” campaign in the 1990s to the more recent “End Rape on the Night Shift” campaign in 2016, the show blends live demonstrations that parade through the aisles between portrayals of the workplace and Women’s Center educational seminars. These moments of realism suspend when women share their stories, sometimes shifting into abstract reenactments with other characters. The insidious nature of abuse is effectively conveyed by tracing one woman’s journey from her first days of work, which ultimately end in her being abused by a notoriously sadistic supervisor. A lesser-seen side of the #MeToo movement (that, as the show likes to point out, was fighting such injustices way earlier) Ya Basta highlights how Latino machismo encourages the mistreatment of not only women, but LGBTQ workers as well, and how concerted efforts need to be made to shift these deeply entrenched cultural norms that keep allowing men in power to victimize others. The difficult but necessary work of organizing becomes clear through the storytelling, which brings the audience along to the Women’s Center all the way to Sacramento for a hunger strike that ultimately convinced Governor Brown to sign into law a critical bill they’d advocated for. The piece makes clear that the fight these people have begun is not yet over: AB 547 is another law that would support the Promotoras program, which would enable important counseling and sexual violence/harassment training to be organized by janitorial service workers.
Without this show, I would absolutely not have known about this piece of legislation, nor that Gov. Brown almost vetoed an important bill that helped stop the rape of janitorial workers on the night shift. Frankly, it was appalling to realize how ignorant I was of these tragic stories, but I was grateful that there was a vehicle for spreading the word in this piece. It was also powerful and affecting to see the show presented entirely in Spanish. Supertitles projected overhead made the message accessible and easily digested by all while allowing those who lived the realities of the stories to present the piece on their own terms, in their native tongue.
The show was most engrossing when it stayed closest to reality, which makes sense as this was truly a blend of reality blending with theatre. There was a somewhat odd choice to manifest predatory figures in the storytelling as a man in a suit with lion facepaint and a mane. While I think it was an interesting choice to embody the “beast” theatrically, but I would have preferred something more abstract and terrifying. This version came across a bit hokey, like Mister Mistoffelees stopped by on his way to a business lunch. Interestingly, the supertitles evoked more of the “beast” I’d have liked, using a jagged, creepy font for his lines that was unsettling in its abstraction. (The supertitles deserve their own credit as being creatively executed and supporting the storytelling.) As might be expected, there were some rocky moments in the presentation, as it was presented by amateur actors of varying degrees of comfort onstage. But it is precisely the fact that these are all real people that gives the piece its power, and I found myself deeply moved by the experience.
On the whole, Ya Basta was a bravely performed work with the power to enroll and create even more allies who’ll support the Promotoras mission. It was something I was grateful to have a chance to witness, and it taught me about an important cause that I will not soon forget.