By Bliss Bowen
Pasadena Weekly Contributing Writer
During and after the pandemic shutdown, as live theaters scrambled to support their communities from behind shuttered doors, the Glendale-based Antaeus Theatre Company reached to the past to find a way forward.
“The Zip Code Plays,” each set in a different ZIP code of greater Los Angeles’ metropolitan sprawl, emulate old-time radio shows of the 1930s and ’40s with crisp dialogue, Foley artist Jeff Gardner’s vivid sound effects, and nuanced performances that encourage listeners to lean in. The focus on local stories and diversity as well as the intimacy of the podcast’s short radio-play format appealed to playwrights Peppur Chambers (peppurchambers.com) and Alex Goldberg (alexgoldberg.net).
Chambers’ “The Fire In-Between,” set on the day of the catastrophic 1933 Griffith Park Fire, and Goldberg’s “The Six Pianos of Miradero,” which explores a little-known scandal in Glendale in 1925, are two of the six new plays presented in the podcast’s third season, which premieres Thursday, Dec. 2.
The plays revisit episodes in LA history that illuminate contemporary dilemmas. (The other season three plays are Steve Apostolina’s “True Sound,” set in a Burbank post-production studio; Daniel Hirsch’s environmentally themed Frogtown comedy “Anaxyrus Boreas”; Diana Burbano’s “Marie Dressler: Good Gal,” which envisions the Hollywood legend in her dressing room while filming her 1933 film “Dinner at Eight”; and Ann Noble’s tale of family reunion in Lynwood, “Blue Like You.”)
“They’re all different neighborhoods, different playwrights, and all the writers have some connection — not necessarily to living in that neighborhood, but something that really gets down to their gut,” Goldberg said of the series, which he describes as an anthology. “That’s how the plays were chosen; the theater company responded to the playwrights who pitched ideas. All these stories need to be told.”
Chambers, who achieved some renown as the founder of the Brown Betties cabaret troupe (brownbetties.com), previously explored her favored theme of “hopes and dreams” with her North Hollywood dramedy “End of the Line” for Season Two of “The Zip Code Plays.” Goldberg’s “Annexing the Palisades” was a highlight of season one — a chilling look at Nazi sympathizers who built a secret bunker in the Santa Monica Mountains that echoes today’s political climate. History provided similarly fertile source material when Goldberg, an American Studies major in college, was researching ideas for what became “The Six Pianos of Miradero” — named after the hillside mansion built in 1904 by Leslie C. Brand, the land speculator who, as his wife declares early in the play, put Glendale on the map. But while Brand may have done much good for Glendale — including giving the city Miradero, which is now the Brand Library — he diligently hid aspects of his personal life, even from his wife. They inevitably emerge during the reading of his will, points upon which his entertaining plot twists.
Before that reading shatters her illusions, Brand’s wife, Mary Louise, quotes him saying, “A great society is built brick by brick on the backs of the unknown masses.” Goldberg hopes listeners heed that message.
“Empires are built on the backs of the unknown masses,” he observed. “You can’t build any empire without a ton of people not getting recognition for it.” That is what resonated with him while creating the play, which nods toward the modern issue of land acknowledgement.
“What happened to the people who were here before us? We know that everywhere in this country, basically, all of us are either immigrants or conquerors. The indigenous people are a much, much smaller population. No one can claim, ‘I found this place.’ We recognize the sacrifices made for those of us who are here today,” he noted. “The play doesn’t go into a deep dive of the Gabrielino-Tongva people, but it was on my mind while writing it.”
That theme is voiced more explicitly in Chambers’ “The Fire In-Between” by Difford Samuelson, a Black, self-described laborer who dreams of being a pilot, and Fernando Vasquez, a practical Mexican who wants to get back to the land by joining the Civilian Conservation Corps so he can live in a camp in Griffith Park and “be at one with her.” While working on a day crew digging a path through the forest, the two men question where they truly belong. Vasquez marvels at natural beauty (“I love how it feels like we are nowhere and everywhere in these woods”) and urges Samuelson to listen to spirits of the Gabrielino-Tongva tribe that he believes live in the trees and hawks overhead.
“I wanted to look at the concept of fire in LA, and indigenous people and practices and how we’re taking care of the land,” Chambers explained during a call from her new home in Phoenix, where she lives with her family when she isn’t commuting to LA for work. Because the Antaeus Theatre is located on Tongva land, she also “wanted to pay attention to the history of origin”; she weaves a remarkable amount of history into a drama barely 22 minutes.
“During the Depression, there was a work relief program where workers had to show their work permit and they were taken into Griffith Park to build roads. Some had been lawyers before, some had been bricklayers; some were homeless,” she elaborates. “The crazy part is that people were sharing work permits.”
When the Griffith Park Fire erupted in Mineral Wells Canyon on Oct. 3, 1933, 3,780 men were clearing brush in Griffith Park; 29 died and more than 150 were injured. Because of the shared work permits, many victims were never identified. Researching death certificates of those who were, Chambers “found 10 or 11 were Black. I’m Black myself. On some (death certificates), all it said was ‘Mexican,’ but I dug further and some were from Puerto Rico, some were Mexican. Other men were white — Hungarian, Russian, all these different people.” The experiences of her composite characters — Samuelson, Vasquez, and Foreman Krinker, a white military veteran “who sees the good in people” — embody her themes of classism, racism, and who Griffith Park is for. At a recent outdoor reading of the play in Griffith Park, a representative of the Tongva community was on hand to answer questions.
“I try to turn things on their head so we see people multidimensionally, but I also like to show that we are all the same. That’s a line in the play too: We’re the same,” Chambers said. “It’s important to show who people are individually but also show that in our hearts and our spirits, we always have something we can connect to because we’re a lot more similar than different.”
The circumstances that spawned “The Zip Code Plays” may be easing, but Chambers and Goldberg believe online radio podcasts such as this will remain a viable storytelling form in our hybridized film and theatrical landscape.
“I have a feeling they will be there as a complement. This was designed out of the need for theater during the pandemic, and we all got and still have Zoom fatigue, but we used to go to theater to escape staring at screens. Theater is a collective experience where we’re all in it together and we all feel emotions together. On Zoom, it’s lost,” Goldberg said.
“I think we’re all going to want to go back to theaters and movie theaters, but we don’t know what the next month or years are going to be like, and we’re all going to want at the end of our days to experience something in an artistic way.”
“The Zip Code Plays” can be heard for free at antaeus.org. Listeners can also take a virtual tour of sites mentioned in the plays at antaeus.org/welcome-to-the-zip-code-plays-tour.