Cornerstone Theater Company's Justice Cycle

Article excerpt

The audience nestled on the stone steps of the California Plaza amphitheatre in downtown Los Angeles quiets as an actor, sporting a dark red security-guard blazer, crosses downstage and exclaims, "Listen up, people: I got one thing to say to you: I see the future and it's going down" (Iizuka, 3 Truths 1). As the young African American performer continues riffing on injustice in contemporary Southern California, 3 Truths by Naomi Iizuka begins. Iizuka's play is the culmination of Cornerstone Theater Company's Justice Cycle, which explores how the justice system and larger questions of justice impact communities in Los Angeles. The Justice Cycle examines not only the issues surrounding criminal punishment and retribution, but also immigration and documentation, reproductive rights, and the environment. Two of the plays in the cycle were written by Cornerstone ensemble members: Michael John Garcés and Shishir Kurup. For the other plays, Cornerstone commissioned Julie Marie Myatt (later a member of the ensemble), KJ Sanchez, Julie Hébert, and Iizuka. The cycle spans four years, six plays, and over 150 community artists. Cornerstone's artists employ a unique community-based theatre methodology, gathering stories from myriad community members and weaving passionate, private, and public tales into the fabric of their original plays.

As a dramaturg in the cycle, I experienced firsthand the unique and transformative power of Cornerstone's methodology. The sheer number and diversity of voices and stories represented by the numerous performers and interview subjects participating in the project is impressive. The individuals interviewed and cast in the shows come from every community in Los Angeles, and from a range of socioeconomic and educational backgrounds. They represent different sides of the issues confronted by the plays. The range of perspectives included in the writing process is one unique feature of the Cornerstone methodology. The fact that members of the community are included in every step-from story circles in the earliest part of the writing process, to multiple readings of drafts-in-process where community members are invited to give feedback, to performance where community members are actually cast as actors-is also unique. It is rare to see that degree of community participation at every step of the theatre-making process. It is equally rare to witness the ways in which a Cornerstone project can bring together in a room individuals who might otherwise never meet, many of whom stand diametrically opposed to one another on issues like immigration or reproductive rights. The Cornerstone methodology provides a way for people to tell their stories, to have those stories heard, and to hear the stories of others whose life experiences and opinions may be different from their own. It is truly transformative to watch, for example, the sister of a homicide victim share her story with a man convicted of homicide. Those conversations happen over and over again in the process of writing a Cornerstone play. The Justice Cycle's unique production process provides a vibrant model for creating dynamic works of theatre that fully reflect the complexities of twenty-first century U.S. society.

Iizuka's play examines the question, "What is truth?" drawing upon elements in the previous five cycle plays and Aeschylus' Oresteia. In her three act drama, each act engages a question: What is my truth? What is your truth? What is the truth? This interrogation delves not only into characters' lives but also the ethos of greater Los Angeles and the state of the U.S. justice system. These questions can also serve as a frame with which to examine more closely the creation, collaboration, and production of Cornerstone's Justice Cycle.

My Truth: Inception of Cornerstone's Justice Cycle

Cornerstone Theater Company was founded in 1986 by Alison Carey and Bill Rauch and originally consisted of residencies in towns across the U. …

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