Federal Jazz Project, San Diego

Written by:
Lynne Friedmann
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‘Federal Jazz Project’

Written by Richard Montoya
Directed by Sam Woodhouse
Original Jazz Score by Gilbert Castellanos
San Diego Repertory Theater
April 6 – May 5, 2013 (world premiere)

Hear the word “jazz” and the cities of New Orleans and Chicago come to mind. You will add San Diego to this list after seeing “Federal Jazz Project” in its world premiere at the San Diego REP.

Richard Montoya, co-founder and lead writer for the Chicano American performance troupe Culture Clash, has crafted a work of fiction that incorporates tidbits of San Diego history including speakeasies, Jim Crow housing covenants, Communist infiltration, nascent Mexican filmmaking, Lawrence Welk, and opium dens in Mexicali. Who knew?

All this underscored by a vibrant jazz scene that at one time lay literally under the city’s feet.

The story spans from 1939 to present with all the action taking place in a smoky, subterranean night club somewhere “south of Broadway.” Enter Montoya as the narrator El Poeta who holds together the threads of this story tapestry sometimes with tight seams at other times with exaggerated stitches.

The club is run by Sally (the remarkable Mark Pinter, who does triple duty as a G-Man and a sassy Lawrence Welk). The counterpart of Sally’s no-nonsense demeanor is the likeable Kidd (Joe Hernandez-Kolski) who can barely contain his excitement and confidence that he has a sure-fire act for the club.

Fans of playwright Montoya will recognize story themes covered previously in “Culture Clash in Bordertown,” performed at The REP in 1998. Primary among these is the sister-city nature of San Diego and Tijuana. In “Federal Jazz Project” this reference is literal when Kidd introduces us to sisters named San Diego (Lorraine Castellanos) and Tijuana (Claudia Gomez; also the play’s choreographer). The former is a classical guitarist and songstress; the latter an astonishing tap dancer.

In addition to her talents as a hoofer, Tijuana is also a communist secretly working to unionize San Diego’s tuna fishermen. Eventually called out and deported, she quickly goes to rack and ruin— not unlike her city namesake when border security tightens over the decades.

Among other cast members is Keith Jefferson as Jules, an African-American marine from the South, who came West seeking a better life during the San Diego postwar manufacturing boom only to face discrimination and segregation. From time to time “Las Rafas” (played by three members of the Los Cabrones motorcycle club) are sentries to the proceedings. They are memorably eloquent in their stoic silence, dark glasses, and brims.

Playing the roles of La Trampeta/Band Leader is trumpet virtuoso Gilbert Castellanos, a fixture on the San Diego jazz scene for two decades, who wrote the original jazz score for the production. Onstage, the “Federal Jazz Project” house band is Rob Thorsen on bass, Brett Sanders on drums, Irving Flores on piano, and Ian Tordella on saxophone. And these cats are smokin’!

Christina Wright’s costume designs hit all the right notes in spanning nearly 75 years of fashion.

A lengthy scene near the play’s end concerning military personal returning from war with post-traumatic stress disorder is the only discordant note in the story. Yes, it is an important issue, but one for another time and a different play.

During the run, a series of “surround events” affords theatergoers additional live music, after-performance discussion with the artists, and a tequila tasting.

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