Boyle Heights - A State of Mind
by Jenni "Emiko" Kuida
January 22, 2003


As the Managing Director of the performing arts organization Great Leap for the last 5 1/2 years, I have produced a whole lot of performances. It is always a joy for me to see audiences engaged, laughing and crying with our artists during a two-hour performance. But for arts administrators like me, productions often reflect the culmination of several years work – countless meetings, writing grants, coordinating logistics and budgets, doing outreach and publicity.

In the next two weeks, Great Leap will present 13 performances of "To All Relations: Memories of Boyle Heights," a poetic fusion of stories, music and dance drawn from the lives of the people of Boyle Heights, beginning on Saturday, January 25 through Sunday, February 2, 2003.

Although I feel a lot of pride in my work, I am comfortable in my anonymity. My role is behind the scenes – not onstage. However, this project is different for me because my family comes from Boyle Heights. I am stepping out from behind my comfort zones and will be "performing" with Great Leap for the first time.

These performances culminate Great Leap’s Boyle Heights residency, which began in October 2002, just after the exhibit Boyle Heights: The Power of Place, opened at the Japanese American National Museum.

Dozens of participants have come through our weekly Story Gathering workshops. One week, we shared stories about rituals and foods. The first four people to share stories were Mexican American. Each gave a different story about the same thing: watching their aunts and grandmothers make tamales, learning how to make tamales, selling tamales at their family restaurant, etc. Another week we focused on the things we love and hate about Boyle Heights. Always, the stories were fascinating and heartfelt.

In the upcoming shows, performers Nobuko Miyamoto and Stella Matsuda will share the story about their first dance school experiences in Boyle Heights. Dan Kwong will perform a story about playing baseball as a teenager at the Evergreen Recreation Center. We will be graced with spoken word by Ruben Guevara, an Eastside musician and poet. Maceo Hernandez, taiko drummer who toured the world with Japanese taiko group, "Ondekoza" as a teenager, will also perform his story and music.

I am also proud of the folks who have joined our ensemble. Many of us have no prior performing experience, but we will be bravely sharing stories of our families and experiences in Boyle Heights, directed by Nobuko and Dan. Some are fun and lighthearted, some are difficult stories, and others set the scene for Boyle Heights then, and now.

Aurora Cerda and Jo Anna Ley, will tell their powerful story of leaving Boyle Heights each morning and facing racism in their exclusive private school in Pasadena. Kathy Masaoka will share her story of returning to Boyle Heights during the Asian American Movement in an effort to organize the community.

Bambi Chow will tell about her 12 sisters and brothers living downtown and how she went to live with her aunt in Boyle Heights at the age of 8. Stories of a Roosevelt High School cheerleader and homecoming queen will be shared by Debra Cortez. Paula Neustadt will share stories about her great Uncle Morrie’s Bakery on Brooklyn Avenue.

My own story will focus on the Tenrikyo Church that my Grandma Okazaki founded and a young man named Raul, who lived at the church in Boyle Heights. Bringing out my story and watching the other participant’s true-life stories evolve has been an amazing process.

Public performance dates and times are Saturday, January 25 and Sunday, January 26 at 2 pm and 4 pm, Thursday, January 30 at 7:30 pm, and Saturday, February 1 at 2 pm and 4 pm. School assemblies and both performances on Sunday, February 2 are SOLD OUT.

Admission is free with museum entry, although I suggest that you make reservations soon as the space is limited with each performance. The performances will take place in the actual exhibit. To RSVP, please call (213) 250-8800. The Japanese American National Museum is located at 369 E. First Street in Little Tokyo. Museum admission is $6 for Adults, $5 for Seniors, $3 for students and children, Museum members and children under 5 are Free.

This project is supported in part by the California Arts Council, Los Angeles County Arts Commission, Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Theatre Communications Group, The Ralph M. Parsons Foundation, Japanese American Community Services, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Hitachi, Ltd., The Gas Company, Target, Meissner Manufacturing Co., Inc., and The Aaroe Associates Charitable Foundation.

As Kathy, one of the performers says in her piece, "Boyle Heights is a state of mind." We hope you’ll come join us for the show.

Jenni "Emiko" Kuida is the Managing Director of Great Leap and writes from Los Angeles. Since 1998, Great Leap has completed "To All Relations" residencies throughout the United States in diverse communities such as Watts, Phoenix, San Jose and Detroit. See our website: www.greatleap.org. Opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo. ©2003


Originally published in The Rafu Shimpo, January 22, 2003.
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Updated: 1/31/03