Many artists view their day jobs as a necessary evil: something to be slogged through with as little effort as possible, that’s entirely divorced from emotional fulfillment or professional development. Not so for Ruben C. Gonzalez, whose day job ended up being such a powerful inspiration that he wrote a play about it.
Gonzalez was doing the aspiring-actor thing in Los Angeles, auditioning for bit parts in movies and TV shows and subbing in public schools to pay the bills. He was assigned to a class of seventeen of the school’s most difficult cases — a group Gonzalez refers to as “real Sweathog types, except they had these crazy issues.” Most of them had been held back, many had kids of their own, and several had been to juvenile hall. They smoked crystal meth, largely because it was cheaper than anything else, and, as the poorest of LA’s poor, were being hit hard by the first twinges of the recession.
Gonzalez got in with them by virtue of the fact that he’d had a small role in the movie Selena and could therefore field endless questions about Jennifer Lopez. Over the course of his ten-week assignment, he developed special relationships with all of them, but especially Daniel, who needed to make up several credits in order to meet his goal of graduating by his nineteenth birthday. Gonzalez started doing favors for Daniel — driving him home, helping him with assignments, offering him extra credit in exchange for thrice-weekly walks around the school’s track. They’d already gotten close by the time Daniel’s stories stopped adding up and Gonzalez realized he’d been, as he recalled, “totally played.” Daniel was tweaking the whole time, and he’d manipulated Gonzalez’s do-gooder impulses in order to get the credits he needed to graduate and leapfrog out of the system.
After his assignment ended, Gonzalez moved to Oakland and began writing a play about Daniel and the world he inhabited. He moved the action out of inner-city LA and to a part of the world that had also been ravaged by trickle-down economics and divided by race: a fictional former company town that was once home to a tire factory but had been abandoned by outsourcing and crushed by steepening unemployment. A version of Daniel — tweaked out, in debt to a dealer, afraid — served as the show’s anti-hero, and he was joined by a cast of other, equally tragic characters, all played by Gonzalez: a heroin addict, a Vietnam vet, a pair of tortured cops. Gonzalez got so wrapped up in writing that when his agent called about a sitcom role, he turned it down and was promptly canned. He eventually moved to Oakland for good, and La Esquinita, USA premiered at a Southern California theater before making its way to La Peña Cultural Center (3105 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley), first for a short and well-received engagement in July and then for a special one-night benefit this Sunday, January 9, which will raise funds for Homies Empowerment, a group that benefits the kind of kids Gonzalez used to teach.
Structurally, Gonzalez said Esquinita is something like an amalgam of Our Town and the work of Danny Hoch: a sweeping view of a single town’s inhabitants and their interlocking lives, as seen through the eyes of an omniscient narrator and expressed by a single, wildly versatile actor. The play’s name, which translates to “little corner,” is, of course, the entire metaphor, writ small. Daniel’s little corner of the universe could be any decaying town in the country, and his characters could be anyone. “It’s about how the economy affects the soul,” Gonzalez said, and that’s universal. 7 p.m., $5-$12. 510-849-2568 or LaPena.org