|Rufino Romero (l.) as Luís J. Rodríguez or “Chin” with Haylee Sánchez as “Camila” in the new stage adaptation of Always Running by author Luís Rodríguez and director Hector Rodriguez at Casa 0101 Theater. Photo by Ed Krieger|
Based on the best-selling book by Luís J. Rodríguez, the Casa 0101 world-premiere of Always Running is a subtle tour de force. Directed by Hector Rodríguez (no relation to the renowned poet, novelist, youth advocate and founder of Tia Chucha Press), the production benefits from a surprisingly effective adaption of the classic memoir, a theatrical adaptation developed collaboratively by the director and the author himself.
A Carl Sandburg Literary Award winner that garnered early praise as a New York Times “Notable Book,” Always Running was originally published in 1993. The searing, achingly honest and often brutally personal account of the author’s struggle to overcome the soul-scarring wounds imprinted on his psyche as the product of an entrenched East L.A. gang culture, the now classic true-life chronicle offered a rare window into a dark world almost entirely unknown to outsiders. It was a realm where loyalty, violent turf wars, and a stoic warrior code—which bound Mexican American boys and young men inextricably to la vida loca—were an inescapable reality.
On the streets of East Los Angeles, in barrios where blood-soaked vendettas and an unending cycle of retribution had defined his existence, Rodríguez found his way out by embracing the Chicano Movement, grass-roots struggles against socio-political inequity and the arts as a cultural worker who had learned to seek peace and unity among all peoples. Enthralled by the healing power of poetry and the word, Rodriguez ventured forth, eventually moving to Chicago where he honed his craft as a poet committed to building bridges between Black and Latino communities.
Thoughtfully and adroitly directed, the bold new production derived from his most widely known literary work moves seamlessly from side-splitting humor to suspenseful drama. Hector Rodríguez, a long-time Casa 0101 friend and creative team stalwart, distinguishes himself with this show as a director to watch. The blocking, scene transitions, and set changes—representing roughly a decade of the author’s life—are velveteen, executed so smoothly they become almost imperceptible.
This fluid unfolding of action and dialogue virtually obligates the 11 actors who comprise the ensemble cast to move about with near cat-like precision on the set designed by Marco de León. But it also provides each of them ample room to reach more deeply into their emotional reservoirs, resulting in performances that resonate long after the actors have taken their bow. Rufino Romero merits special praise for a nuanced yet powerfully expressive turn as Luís Rodriguez or “Chin.” His delivery and range combine to evoke one of the most believable, groundbreaking characterizations ever presented at Casa 0101.
Having known the noted author for almost thirty years and written about him often for publications such as the Los Angeles Times Magazine, The Austin Chronicle, and the one you’re reading now, I can attest to the acute honesty and accuracy of Romero’s portrayal. The production is thoroughly enriched by an entirely laudable, stand-out cast, all so profoundly invested in the story and committed to their roles that at moments I felt transported to the pages of the memoir, which I first read in 1996 and later used as a teaching tool when I conducted writing workshops for incarcerated youth at several L.A. County juvenile halls.
Haylee Sánchez, playing “Payasa” and “Camila,” racks up stellar performances as two distinct characters, both filtered through her magnetic—but skillfully restrained when necessary—charisma. The casting throughout could not have been more perfect. The personification of Luís’ first mentor and role model by Joshua Nicholas as youth advocate “Chente Rámirez” was deeply moving and tempered by the depth and sincerity one would expect from a seasoned community leader twice the actor’s age.
Costumed with period panache by designer Abel Alvarado, a wardrobe accessorized by flawless lighting design from Kevin Vásquez, Always Running is presented through Oct. 20th with shows at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday evenings followed by a matinee at 5 p.m. on Sundays. The language veers occasionally toward the adult and the show does include a few brief representations of physical violence, but it is still suitable for children. And the discussions of identity and ethnicity that the play is likely to trigger among grammar school and middle school students make the already accessible the ticket price valuable beyond the performance.
The immaculate production values and the heart-stirring oldies soundtrack from sound designer Joe Luis Cedillo are luminous frosting on an already enticing, historically significant slice of Chicano literary art at its best. Leaving the theater after the opening night reception where audience members and the cast chatted one another up, it occurred to me that the play would have been right at home as one of those seasonal ABC After School Specials I was so captivated by during adolescence. It really is that good. It’s just a shame that, to this day, Hollywood still doesn’t get it.
UPDATE: Due to popular demand Always Running has been extended through November 24th with shows at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights as well as a matinee Sunday evening performance at 5 p.m. The additional performances are selling-out quickly. Tickets are available at www.casa0101.org