Jewish Journal


March 25, 2004

Passover Show Honors Oppressed


"The boy never spoke to anyone about why he didn't want to go home after school....

Slowly his anger became his new best friend.

He started to beat up on girls, kill chickens, steal bikes and clothes.

He would sneak into people's homes just to destroy them." --Daniel Cacho

Until he discovered poetry while he was in juvie for gun posession, Daniel Cacho felt enslaved by severe childhood abuse.

When he recites his searing work at the theater event "Doikayt: A Los Angeles Passover" on April 1, he'll recall how an uncle molested him and hung him from trees in his native Belize.

The abused Cacho felt worthless and powerless, even after he joined his mother in Los Angeles at age 15: He packed guns and courted danger, and landed himself in the juvenile detention center a few times.

It was there that the teenager chanced to attend a DreamYard/L.A. writing class three years ago.

"Poetry allowed me to take my power back," said Cacho, 22, who now teaches DreamYard workshops. "It's been my freedom song."

Overcoming oppression, both internal and external, will be the focus when Cacho and 20 other artists perform at Doikayt, produced by the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) and AVADA, a Yiddishkayt Los Angeles project to engage people under 35.

Passover, the holiday of redemption, celebrates many different types of freedom. "Through theater, poetry and music, we'll recontextualize Passover's themes of slavery and liberation within the framework of Los Angeles," said Tali Pressman, AVADA's founder and a PJA spokesperson.

The event's title, "Doikayt," refers to the philosophy espoused by Yiddish-speaking Jews who established unions while toiling in sweatshops a century ago. "It means 'here-ness,' or being present, as in fighting for social justice and making life better for everyone right where you live," Yiddishkayt's Aaron Paley said.

For "Doikayt," Paley and Pressman selected performers who are doing such work here and now. Phranc, the self-described "Jewish lesbian folk singer," will perform heart-wrenching Yiddish songs that could describe sweatshop conditions today in Los Angeles; soprano Gwen Wyatt will sing African American spirituals, many of which use imagery from the biblical Exodus (think "Go Down, Moses"); the Yuval Ron Quartet will gather Jewish and Arab musicians to perform a fusion of Bedouin, Sephardic and other music; and Marisela Norte will read from her play, "Scenes From the Dining Room," which explores questions of power and powerlessness raised by her waitressing experiences.

"You are the server, so people talk to you in a certain way," said Norte, 48, a prominent East Los Angeles writer. "I've had people snap their fingers at me, pull on my clothes, speak slowly because they don't think I speak English. Or they'll say, 'Wow, you don't even have an accent,' and I'm thinking, 'Yes, I was born here.'"

Norte -- whose Mexican forbears include one Jewish grandmother -- said her play's narrator is the fictional restaurant's dishwasher, an undocumented worker, "the invisible man."

"I like my work to give voice to the voiceless," she said.

Nobuko Miyamoto, 64, shares a similar goal; for "Doikayt," she'll perform her poignant song, "Gaman," ("To Endure" in Japanese), written around 1990 during the call for reparations for Japanese Americans interred during World War II.

The poised, soft-spoken Miyamoto was just a baby when her family was ordered to report to the holding camp at Santa Anita racetrack in the early 1940s. "Ganan" draws on her vague memories, such as being carried on her uncle's shoulders to mess hall and her allergic response to sleeping on hay in a horse stall: "I was covered in eczema from head to foot," she said.

Miyamoto and her mother were the only women at the Montana beet farm where her father was eventually sent as a slave laborer. Her family's experience, and that of other Japanese Americans, ultimately helped prompt her to found Great Leap, an organization that uses the arts to promote understanding between diverse groups. Thus Doikayt is her kind of event: "It's important to find these kinds of opportunities to identify with each others' culture," she said.

Paley believes that Passover is perfect timing for such an endeavor. "The holiday has universal themes of slavery and liberation," he said. "It's a reminder that we can never be completely free until everyone is free."

As the intense Cacho says in his poem, "Lost & Found," "Until I weep for 9-11, mourn for Vietnam and breathe for Iraq, I'll be trapped in this human maze, chased by time, searching for a rhyme to lead me back home."

The event takes place April 1, 9 p.m., at The Echo, 1822 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. A dance party with the band, the Alef Project, will follow the performance. $20. For tickets or information, call (323) 692-8151 or visit www.avadaproject.org .

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