King of the Tire Heap: Standing on the Corner of La Esquinita, USA
by Selene Santiago
My tire blew out the night when I was supposed to be writing this review. I can’t help but find this amusing considering La Esquinita, USA is set in a town plagued by drugs, crime, fear and a bus that never arrives due to the closing of what was once the town’s booming tire plant. Lencho, performed by the writer, Rubén C. Gonzalez, is our tour guide through La Esquinita. With the deft, transitional prowess of a cucaracha in a lit kitchen, Gonzalez slides between characters: Daniel, a strung out high school student, Sunshine an upbeat elderly woman, Wilo the hype, a handful of other characters, and curiously (from what I could gather from Gonzalez’s accent) some type of transcendental Indian deity whose presence I didn’t fully understand as part of this very Chicano narrative.
Gonzalez has this show in his skin. So quick and seamless that often the audience and I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, and really, that’s what life is like, no? I remember my mom used to say, “I’m laughing to keep from crying,” and La Esquinita embodied that saying. What was most appealing was the language of the play: I know this East LA Chicano language–it’s the language of my 2nd and 3rd generation parents, aunts, uncles, family friends, and neighbors. Some of it is a little dated but that didn’t keep me or the rest of audience from laughing and plugging in to the story.
When the character of Wilo was introduced, man, my heart skidded in my chest a little. I knew this guy. This guy lived around the corner from us in Boyle Heights—a Vietnam vet, a childhood friend of my dad’s that fell into drugs when he came back. “Eddieeeeee!” He would stand like an uninvited vampire at our yard gate and yell out my dad’s name over and over again until either my dad would go out and greet him or one of us would go out and shoo him away like we would a dog picking at our garbage. We were just kids—we didn’t know him or his plight—all we knew was that whenever he came yelling for my dad it was to “borrow” money. Money he needed because, as our mom would spitefully point out: he’s a hype.
La Esquinita may be a one-man show but Gonzalez’s performance of each character is rich, full, and vibrant. That being said, the 15-minute intermission is unnecessary and takes away from the momentum. The second act is shorter and feels less grounded and/or as if Gonzalez didn’t quite know how to wrap up the story. I also left with questions about Black vs Brown disparities. The issue was touched on through Lencho’s and an old barber named Mr. Jefferson’s intimate relationships with past lovers. It seemed like there was a sense of social disapproval with these relationships, but it wasn’t fully explored. Despite this, the show is wonderfully charming and a must see.
* * *
La Esquinita, Written and performed by Rubén C. Gonzalez, directed by Kinan Valdez and produced by El Teatro Campesino, is part of Los Angeles Theater Center’s inaugural Encuentro 2014 with remaining shows on: