• Hall’s Corporate Coziness Creates Concerns in Congressional Race

    By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor

    Almost a year ago, when Nanette Barragán entered the race to succeed Janice Hahn in Congress, Random Lengths called her a “grassroots fighter.” She was an upstart outsider candidate in a race the political establishment had seemingly pre-decided. The day Hahn announced she would be stepping down to run for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, she turned around and endorsed State Sen. Isadore Hall to succeed her, just two months after he won his state senate seat in a low-turnout special election in December 2014.  Hall had won with just 17,951 votes, which wouldn’t have gotten him past the primary in 2012.

    Hahn’s endorsement seemed wildly disconnected from the will of the district’s voters, particularly since Hall was a top recipient of oil company money in the state legislature—second only to his predecessor, Rob Wright. According to a 2014 report by Common Cause, Hall has also been a major recipient of contributions from tobacco, gambling, sugared beverage, and payday lending interests—all  diametrically opposed to the welfare of Hall’s constituents. For example, twice since he announced, Hall helped kill a bill in committee requiring warning labels on sugary drinks—a measure supported by 78 percent of Californians, by 82.3 percent of African-Americans and 85.3 percent of Latinos, according to in a field poll released this January. Yet, Hall still insists that fighting childhood obesity and diabetes are top legislative priorities.

    Hall quickly gained a slew of endorsements from fellow lawmakers, scaring off a dozen or more rumored aspirants. But not Barragán, then Hermosa Beach Mayor Pro Tem, who had played a key role in the landslide 3-1 defeat of “Measure O.” The measure would have opened up Hermosa to oil drilling for decades to come. Since then, Barragán has moved back into the district, where she was born and reared. She has not only built grassroots support, she’s also gained significant endorsements, including early support from the Climate Hawks Vote super political action committee.

    “I consider this the most important congressional primary in California from a climate perspective,” said R.L. Miller, Climate Hawks Vote co-founder and chairwoman of the state Democratic Party’s environmental caucus.“Climate Hawks Vote endorsed [her] very early and has been joined by League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club, representing Nanette’s strength as a climate hawk. And, we’re happy to see the broad coalition of support she’s assembled: Latinos, women, progressives (Democracy For America). Nanette has proven to be a strong fundraiser, which she needs going up against the machine politics forces backing Isadore Hall.

    “The working class people of her district want a shot at the middle class, clean air and clean water, and a brighter future for their children. Isadore Hall stands for big oil, big tobacco, big sugar, the gambling industry and billboard blight…. The more people hear about him, the more they support Nanette.”

    In addition to organizations, Barragán’s also gained support from a growing list of Congress members, and recently even the Los Angeles Times, which wrote that “only Barragán has demonstrated the integrity, courage and commitment to the environment that this industrial district needs. Voters should choose her on June 7.”

    Barragán recently spoke about what she considers is the most important factor in building support.

    “It’s just been getting my message out there and talking to people about my values which are their values—whether it’s protecting our air and water, protecting and improving social security and Medicare, bringing better paying jobs, improving the waterfront or just improving quality of life issues,” she said. “The values that I have stood up for time and time again are the very values that were instilled in me growing up in this district.”

    Given the gridlocked state of Congress, the more informal role of facilitating local problem-solving within the district looms larger than ever. When asked what problems she’s observed while campaigning that would capture her time and attention, Barragán cited homelessness right off the bat, citing the efforts of city and county government, as well as federal policies that could be improved for veterans, for mental health services, and for affordable housing.

    “Housing prices are huge issue[s] here in LA, and we need to collaborate with local stakeholders, businesses and nonprofits to increase and build affordable housing,” she said. “We need to bring together local activists and leaders to make a bigger impact on this issue…. Bringing parties to the negotiating table as a lawyer would be an important piece to making sure we strategically tackle this problem with the best local and federal efforts possible.”

    Barragán would also take a similar approach to education.

    “ Mayor [Eric] Garcetti’s recent proposal that all [Los Angeles Unified School District] grads should get at least one free year of community college was a step in the right direction, and as a member of Congress, I would support free community college,” she said. “We need to increase Pell Grants to reflect the exponential rising cost of college…. Student debt is a financial crisis in this country…. We should allow people to refinance their student loans at lower, fair rates that don’t threaten their financial stability.”

    Hall’s Campaign Contributions

    In contrast to Barragán’s advocacy for reducing financing costs, Hall has received more than $35,000 in campaign contributions from payday lending companies and their executives since entering the state assembly in 2008. He’s voted to help expand their businesses.

    A third issue Barragán cites is something related to what she is helping her mother with.

    “You shouldn’t have to be a lawyer to get your Social Security benefits or Medicare coverage,” she said “This is something I would work to solve through open-door constituent services and working on efforts at a national level to reform the system.”

    This ties into something else Barragán said about the strengths she would bring to bear in office. “My strength is that I’ve experienced and had to overcome the problems that people in my district face every day,” Barragán said. “I grew up in a family of immigrants, so I know firsthand what immigration reform would mean to this community and how important it is that families here legally can get good jobs and health care. I really struggled to make it through school and I had to take on massive amounts of student debt to make it through college.”

    But she hasn’t just lived with these problems herself.

    “I also have the experience to help solve them,” she said. “As an attorney, I have spent my career advocating on behalf of people and families who have been failed by the system…. What I’ve learned is that people can’t do this on their own. They need someone who can bring people together, someone who’s not in it for themselves, but who actually wants to find solutions for their constituents.”

    It’s overwhelming likely that Barragán and Hall will both make it through the primary and face each other in November, so there will be plenty of time for voters in the district to weigh their competing arguments, as well as their track records. But one helpful example to consider is the ongoing public threat posed by the Rancho LPG facility.

    This past year, after activists approached him, Hall originally promised a State Senate hearing on the dangers posed by Rancho LPG. But the meeting was first postponed, then repurposed for a much more general forum in late March, which was largely boycotted by local activists.

    “I will not waste my time in Sen. Hall’s sham to try to ‘placate’ the potential victims of such an overwhelming disaster,” homeowner activists Janet Gunter announced.

    But Barragán said she has strong concerns about the tanks, especially since Plains All American have already proven to be careless when it comes to our environment and making sure their facilities are safe and up to code.

    “I took a position on this very early on and signed on to a letter demanding more oversight of the tanks,” Barragán said. “I’ve met with community leaders and marched with them to raise awareness about the site.”

    She said that if she were to get into Congress she would push for greater oversight and a full report on the potential dangers along with options to relocate the tanks.

    “This should be a given with the mistakes that have already been made by Plains All American, but I also think there needs to be a local component to this,” she said. “Some efforts have been made but they have not lead to any action, we need to do more, especially now in light of the recent indictment.”

    Retired oil industry consultant Connie Rutter said Barragán met with Gunter and her some months ago and seemed to understand the danger.

    “We certainly would welcome her input,” Rutter said. “The logical place to start would be to endorse the LAUSD resolution, Tony Patchett’s petition to the EPA and a promise to ride herd on the EPA’s Kowtoing to the American Petroleum Institute.”

    “The most important thing I want voters to know before this election is that this district needs someone who shares our values and will be a champion on the issues that we care about,” Barragán said.

    She’s done a lot to convince many that she’s the one for the job. But as Rutter’s remarks indicate, there’s still more that remains to be done.

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  • Can Bernie Win?

    Fringe Campaign Makes California Primary Relevant Again

    Photo by Kelvin Brown Sr.
    By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor

    In May 17, Sen. Bernie Sanders spoke to campaign rally at California State University Dominguez Hills in Carson at what he called “the beginning of the final push to win California.” He promised that “we are in till the last ballot is cast.”

    California rarely has an opportunity to have its voice heard in selecting a presidential candidate, and now is no different, as the level of last-minute distractions mounts to a fever pitch. Accusations of violence by Sanders supporters at the recent Nevada state convention are a case in point, The accusations, reported as fact, included claims of chairs being thrown— a charge that Snopes.com labeled “false.” And so, it seems fitting that we Californians should do our best to set aside the flurry of distractions and focus as deeply as possible on what’s really at stake.

    A year ago, the political world was expecting an election contest between dynasties—Bush versus Clinton. But now, the entire foundation of existing elite governance is being called into question. On the Republican side, George W. Bush’s record remains an unmitigated disaster. On the Democratic side, Barack Obama’s 2008 promise of “hope and change” has only marginally been fulfilled. And, the dark side of Bill Clinton’s presidency—NAFTA, mass incarceration and ‘welfare reform’—looms much larger than ever before. So, unlike eight years ago, Hillary Clinton rarely refers back to that era. Instead, she prefers to blur the considerable differences that separate her from Sanders.

    Early in his speech, Sanders pointed back to his campaign’s beginnings, labeled as “a fringe candidacy.”

    “We were 60 points behind Secretary [Hillary] Clinton in the polls, we had no political organization, no money, very little name recognition,” He noted. “A lot has changed in the past year. As of today we have won 19 state primaries and caucuses and over 9 million votes…. I think we’re going to win here in California.”

    A few minutes later Sanders’ announced he had won the Oregon primary, raising his total to 20 state victories.

    Sanders said he was “especially proud” that in every race, “we have received a significant majority of the votes of young people.”

    “We are winning people 45 years of age or younger,” he said, “And what that tells me is that our vision, a vision of social justice, economic justice, racial justice and environmental justice. That is the future of this country.”

    Win or lose, Sanders has already indelibly altered the political dynamics by giving voice to that vision.

    “Sanders can win California,” labor lawyer Diane Middleton said. “Tens of thousands of voters are wildly enthusiastic about his platform: war as a last resort (not first alternative), an end to the rigged economy that only works for the 1%, universal healthcare, free college tuition, ending private prisons for profit, no more Citizens United. The majority of the American people support all of these ideas, as proven by one poll after another.”

    Danny Glover

    Actor and activist Danny Glover, who formerly endorsed Bernie Sanders for president in February, introduced the candidate at a May 17 rally in Carson.

    The Mistake of Running for Obama’s Third Term

    Indeed, Bill Clinton’s first national pollster, Stan Greenberg, has been making a related argument throughout this election cycle: that Democrats need to be bold, think big and speak frankly about the obstacles to overcome.

    In an interview with Huffington Post this past October, on the release of his book, America Ascendant, he warned that it was a mistake for Democrats to run for President Barack Obama’s “third term,” as Hillary Clinton has seemingly done.

    “That’s not what the country wants,” Greenberg said. “It’s not what the base of the Democratic Party wants…. The Democratic Party is waiting for a president who will articulate the scale of the problems we face and challenge them to address it.”

    Obama’s mistake had been to downplay the scale of the obstacles, he said.

    “Reform politics is exciting, once you have a leader educating the country on the scale of the problems, and the fact there’s a path and a way to bring reform and change,” he said.

    “When you talk about Bernie Sanders, about what he wants to do, people say, ‘Well that can’t be done,’” said Julian Burger, president of the Progressive Democratic Club. “Then you say, ‘What’s wrong with trying? What if someone tried and least got 10 percent? You know that’s a lot better than nothing…. So I think people should be aware the fact that at least one candidate is not throwing up his or her hands and saying there’s nothing we can do. And we’re just going to have to live with it.”

    “For me, this has become the values election,” said Sanders supporter Robert Farrell, a former Los Angeles city councilman. “What you believe? Why do you believe it? And, who do you think are the best people, the best man, the best woman, to carry forth what’s in your heart and what you value as an individual?”

    This is particularly important in reaching those who don’t often vote. The fact that the Sanders campaign has activated so many voters really excites Farrell.

    “Each and every state we go to, we’re bringing about change in the way the Democratic Party function in that particular state,” he said.

    The problem is that Sanders is up against a century-old voting deficit. Ever since eligible voter participation peaked in the late 1800s, America’s participation rates have lagged significantly, and with a decided class bias. In the South, this was driven by black disenfranchisement efforts, which disenfranchised poor whites as well. But significant, if less drastic, declines occurred in the North, too. In 2008, Democratic participation shot up momentarily, spurred by a combination of revulsion against eight years of Bush-Cheney and two potentially historic candidates. But two years later, Democratic participation plummeted, allowing Republicans to make unprecedented gains, not just in Congress but in state legislatures, where they aggressively gerrymandered legislative districts. This, effectively blocked majority rule for the rest of decade in many locales. That result, in turn, further depressed participation—augmented by a variety of voter suppression laws—which is why Sanders faces a particularly steep barrier.

    Yet, he remains undeterred.

    “This campaign understands a very, very important historical lesson,” Sanders said. “That lesson is that no real change has ever occurred in our country from the top on down. It has always been from the bottom on up.”

    He went on to cite a series of examples, from the fight to organize labor and create the American middle class, to the fight against slavery and segregation, to the movement for women’s equality, to the much more recent and more rapid victory of gay marriage, and the ongoing struggle for a $15-an-hour minimum wage.

    “If five years ago somebody stood up here and said, ‘Bernie, you know this seven-and-a-quarter minimum wage, that’s really awful; that’s terrible, we’ve got to raise it to 15 bucks an hour,’ the person next to him would have said, ‘Fifteen dollars an hour! You are nuts! You’re thinking too radically. You’re an extremist,’” Sanders said “But then what happened—and we’ve got some of them here—workers in the fast food industry went out on strike. Workers in McDonald’s and in Burger King and in Wendy’s and in Subway, and all these places, they told their community and they told the world, they cannot live on seven-and-a-quarter an hour, and then you know what happened, after the strikes and demonstrations, in Seattle, here in Los Angeles, in San Francisco: $15 dollars an hour. And, if I have anything to say about it, and as president I will: $15 an hour in every state in this country.”

    Bernie Sanders rally

    Thousand of supporters held campaign cards with Sen. Bernie Sanders’ name at a May 17 rally in Carson. Photo by Kelvin Brown Sr.

    The Democratic Challenge

    The challenge  faced by Sanders and his supporters is translating that enthusiasm and commitment into a broader agenda and a more institutionalized form, particularly when institutions as a whole have long been so seriously compromised.

    “My evaluation of Bernie is that I like everything he says, but he doesn’t have any way to get it done,” said Pat Nave, who is supporting Hillary Clinton. “It’s not going to happen…. Back in ‘68, I was at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. That’s where Diane (his wife) and I met. We hounded Hubert Humphrey all through the campaign, made sure that Richard Nixon got elected, I don’t think that was our intent, but we were just so mad at Johnson and Humphrey for the Vietnam War that we shot ourselves in the foot and made sure we got Richard Nixon as a president.”

    The same thing happened with Nixon’s re-election in 1972, he went on to say.

    “I’ve had enough of principled candidates who have no pathway to winning,” he said. “I no longer wish to be a martyr.”

    There are two problems with this analysis. First, Clinton has no idea how to get her agenda passed, either. The past six years prove that. Second, Sanders might actually be a stronger candidate than Clinton, as months of head-to-head polling against Trump suggests. Sanders thinks mobilizing people power can have impact, but Nave reminds us how Republicans ignored Obama’s popular support from the moment he took office. He’s got a point.

    But Obama never really tried to mobilize his supporters to influence Republican lawmakers directly. There was never any Democratic effort remotely like the Tea Party effort to shut down Democrats’ town hall meetings in the summer of 2009. That’s not to say Democrats should have bombarded Republicans with death panel-style lies. But it is to say that the Fight For Fifteen movement could have the capacity to further expand the influence it’s already had—influence far beyond what anyone imagined when the movement first began.

    All this suggests is that—for all its intensity— the debate between Sanders’ and Clinton’s supporters has yet to fully flesh itself out.

    Nave pointed out that in Wisconsin 18 percent Sanders’ supporters didn’t bother to vote for any of the down ballot candidates. This allowed a conservative Republican to be elected to the state supreme court. The failure to educate his voters on this score indicates a significant gap.

    But Burger argued that even if Sanders is not the Democratic nominee, what he’s accomplished is monumental.

    “It’s huge,” Burger said. “Look at Hillary Clinton. Everything she was talking about at the beginning of the campaign was the same crap that she was talking about in 2008, there were no changes, and then Bernie Sanders comes into the race.”

    The result has been a debate about how— not whether—to move in a more progressive direction.

    “This is a great opportunity to make some real tremendous changes this country,” Burger concluded.

    To bring that about, Sanders argues, the Democratic Party itself needs to be revolutionized from the bottom up, as well as infused with new blood. It could also benefit by absorbing the lessons of its more successful allies, such as the ILWU.

    “I’m working with longshoremen for the first time with the Sanders campaign and I am absolutely fascinated,” Farrell said. “It’s really something to see representative leadership and a constituency that really is comfortable with their leadership, and they’re doing something special.”

    No other union has as much democratic accountability built into its basic structure—it’s been an enduring source of strength for more than 80 years.  It’s just the sort of example one might hope the Democratic Party is prepared to embrace, if it wants to be a lifelong home to all the younger voters that Sanders has motivated and inspired.


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  • A RAISIN IN THE SUN @ Long Beach Playhouse

    There are people who will tell you we live in a post-racial society. We have a Black president, they say. All citizens—regardless of ethnic extraction—enjoy the same rights and freedoms. Minorities even get special treatment when it comes to college admission and all sorts of stuff. The playing field is level now.

    But even if we didn’t have more evidence than Noam Chomsky can shake a stick at that being born Black in America means you’re more likely to be poor, arrested, incarcerated, assaulted by police, murdered, etc., etc., we should laugh at the idea that the generational setbacks of three centuries of slavery and then a century of Jim Crow could be completely eradicated in all facets of our culture in the half-century since the federal government finally got around to officially recognizing that there was a problem here. Yes, things are better than they were a hundred years ago, but that’s no reason to think we’re home.

    Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun examines the tilt of the entire playing field by focusing on a single Black family in 1950s Chicago as they struggle rise up to meet their American dreams in the face of the history that is weighing them down.

    Tomorrow is a big day for the Youngers. Some months ago the family patriarch died, and his widow Lena (Angela D. Watson) is finally receiving the $10,000 life-insurance payout that may help them break out of the confines of their lives (exemplified by the “rat trap” of an apartment the cohabit). Her children have big dreams for the money: 20-year-old Benetha (Dominique Johnson) plans to go to medical school, while 35-year-old Walter (Derek Shaun) wants to invest with friends in a liquor store on his way to becoming a big-time businessman who will be able to send his son (Tarek Coleman) to any of the world’s finest colleges.

    For her part, Lena dreams of a nice little house for the family, with a yard and some sunshine. Sunshine is what Walter’s wife Ruth (Latonya Kitchen) wants, too, although the kind she seeks is figurative. “[S]omething is happening between Walter and me,” she tells Lena. “I don’t know what it is—but he needs something—something I can’t give him any more.” It’s the same thing that befell Walter’s father, Lena says, recalling her late husband’s exact words: “Seem like God didn’t see fit to give the black man nothing but dreams—but He did give us children to make them dreams seem worth while.”

    A Raisin in the Sun may have one too many pithy monologs, but they always win you over because they’re always right on. Perhaps the most powerful comes from Joseph (Jeffery Rolle, Jr.), Benetha’s Nigerian suitor. Joseph dreams of going back to his village as an educator and contributing to the slow but sure march of progress:

    At times it will seem that nothing changes at all…and then again the sudden dramatic events which make history leap into the future. And then quiet again. Retrogression even. Guns, murder, revolution. And I even will have moments when I wonder if the quiet was not better than all that death and hatred. But I will look about my village at the illiteracy and disease and ignorance and I will not wonder long.

    Ultimately A Raisin in the Sun is not about the people at its center, but about the steps they take to help humankind advance toward ever-greater humanity, even when their fellow humans stand in their way.

    What surprises about A Raisin in the Sun is that Hansberry manages to find humor along the way. No-one’s going to mistake A Raisin in the Sun for comedy, but her script is populated with both little and big laughs, breaths that lighten the load and infuse the characters with an extra bit of authenticity. The cast always does well in these moments. Particularly good is Dominique Johnson. Benetha is at that age when she is beginning to feel the gravity of adult society, yet she’s still pulled by the petulant vigor of childhood. Johnson’s very deportment seems strung through with that tension.

    Of course, there’s a lot more weight than levity, and although a script with so much sententiousness is bound to make the actors seem stilted from time to time, the cast makes Hansberry’s speeches feel like their own. The biggest shortcoming of Long Beach Playhouse’s production is movement. For starters, director Phyllis B. Gitlin has blocked long stretches with this or that side of the audience must spend a significant chunk of time looking at the back of an actor’s head, which is often obscuring another’s face. This may not be entirely avoidable when the action takes place on a long stage with audience on three sides, but considering that this was mostly a non-issue during the Playhouse’s recent production of Pygmalion, Gitlin could have done better.

    The production is also a bit weak with its physicality. Not infrequently we catch the actors playing movement rather than simply moving. The most glaring examples are two aggressive moments Lena has with her children. While Angela D. Watson does yeoman’s work with Lena’s relaxed drawl, her moments of near-violence play as the worst kind of stage fighting.

    Despite its shortcomings, Long Beach Playhouse’s A Raisin in the Sun effectively immerses us into the Younger household (great job with the entire mise en scène), into the societal plight on post-WWII African-Americans, and into the wearying trudge of social progress. Some truths are never dated, and A Raisin in the Sun will remain more than a mere relic long after the U.S.’s first Black president has left office.


    (Photo credit: Michael Hardy Photography)

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  • WHAT LOVE IS and THE UNCERTAINTY FILES (U.S. premieres) @ the Garage Theatre

    I was surprised to find that Linda McLean is a playwright of some accomplishment, having written works for the BBC and serving as chairperson for Playwrights’ Studio, Scotland between 2008­’15. I fully expected that the author What Love Is and The Uncertainty Files, two one-acts U.S. premiering at the Garage Theatre, to be by a woman in her early 20s.

    Sad to say, I’m not talking about the good kind of youthfulness. What Love Is seems written by an undergrad who just saw Samuel Beckett’s Endgame and said, “Kewl!” Gene (Bryan Jennings) and Jean (Karen Kahler) are an elderly couple doing a dance that is the last stage of their life. Their looks have gone, their memory is going, and their adult daughter (Victoria Marcello) yearns to go before it’s too late for her to find an independent life of her own. They potter about their flat musing about their lot at this stage of life in brisk phrases that recycle Beckett for both style and theme. Like so: “I remember how you were.” “Can you bear it?” “Some days better than others.” And so: “Light and dark.” “I used to be light.” “You have light.” But in these exchanges we find little of the great man’s cleverness or facility with language, and almost none of his pith.

    Fortunately, Jennings and Kahler are good enough to keep us passably engaged. Their tenderness makes us feel for them as they founder along life’s path with the knowledge that they can never reclaim the ground they’ve ceded. The have reached the end of the line, and the most they can hope for is together to enjoy the smallest morsels of pleasure life leaves for them to feed on in the immediate present.

    Unfortunately, The Uncertainty Files offers us less. You don’t realize this right away. Starting out as a train of mini-monologs about what is and is not certain in the world of dating, McLean shows a talent for rendering realistic speech rhythms, with all the “um”s and “you know”s in the right places and the cast doing them justice (Julie Marie Hassett particularly stands out). You’re interested to see where this is going to go, how this device will inform a story.

    But this train never leaves the station. The Uncertainty Files plays like a string of interview footage randomly spliced together by a filmmaker who has just discovered that people introspect and is amazed to find that uncertainty and, like, feeling like there are things outside of one’s control are common themes. To spice things up (I guess?), we rarely go 120 seconds without a truly meaningless sound cue, the silliest of which is refrigerator buzzing that comes and goes throughout the entire hour and that often has characters hopping up to stop it. (The refrigerator never actually factors into a single monolog. It’s just there to buzz.)

    Reading director Dave Barton’s program note elucidates why The Uncertainty Files is the way it is: McLean “asked a diverse group of people about uncertainty,” then transcribed the words and environmental sounds (an industrial fridge at one of her interview spots, a motorcycle passing by outside) verbatim. That wouldn’t make for much of a documentary; it doesn’t really make for a play at all. As if the Garage Theatre is aware of this, they have laid a movement element on top of the proceedings. That tactic worked wonderfully in the Garage’s last production, making a mediocre script far more fun by drilling to the core of the plot and extracting, even creating something that was not at the surface. But with The Uncertainty Files there’s little substance and no plot whatsoever, and so the movement element can only bob about at surface, never anchoring itself to deeper levels—because there are none.

    Considering the occasional mmming and hmming I heard during these U.S. premieres, undoubtedly some would argue I’m giving McLean short shrift. But during a night out at the theatre you hear mmming and hmming almost every time a character makes a common cultural reference. Some people simply respond positively to whatever they recognize in art. Are there thoughts and feelings you’ll recognize in What Love Is and The Uncertainty Files? Sure. Is that enough? Hey, I just work here.


    (Photo credit: Cat Elrod)

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  • Service: The Bel Canto of L’Opera

    By Gina Ruccione, Cuisine and Restaurant Writer

    Wants, needs and cravings vacillate with varying moods, but one thing we can all agree upon is that service rules.

    At L’Opera in downtown Long Beach, the service is extraordinary. These are not young college students waiting tables between midterms. These are restaurant industry professionals and people who absolutely love what they do — not easy to find in any industry.  These people provide a heightened attention to detail and willingness to please. I have never experienced that in any other restaurant, ever.

    I’m hardly a pretentious foodie, but when I go out to eat I bring expectations. When it comes to food and service there should be no room for error, especially not on Pine Avenue in downtown Long Beach. The area has essentially branded itself as restaurant row. There’s just too much competition to get away with subpar food or bad service.

    L’Opera Reputation

    L’Opera’s reputation precedes it: excellent food, amazing service and beautiful atmosphere.

    With a staggering list of accolades from various publications and organizations, there’s a reason L’Opera is synonymous with fine dining and participates in events like the Long Beach Grand Cru— the annual wine competition and tasting event that caters to the upper echelon. Not to mention, many of the Long Beach Grand Prix race car drivers are piled in there before and after races.

    Executive Chef Walter Cotta has been at L’Opera for more than 25 years, recreating traditional Northern Italian fare, with the same joie de vivre he’s had since the very beginning. Unlike many chefs, Cotta is willing to go off menu to cater to his regulars—a rarity in the restaurant business. It’s more common to see a chef throw a plate at a wall than accommodate menu changes and substitutions.

    Of course, I don’t recommend you order off menu. In fact, there are many dishes I would recommend like the butternut squash ravioli in a light but spicy marinara with fried sage. This is a well known dish in most Italian restaurants, but rarely do I see a butternut ravioli accompanied with anything other than a brown butter sauce.

    I was skeptical at first, but I enjoyed it immensely. The daily specials shouldn’t be missed  either. They might not all boast traditional Italian flavors, but they are crowd favorites and utilize seasonal ingredients. The octopus and scallop carpaccio was exceptional—think blood orange slices, basil oil, chili salt and crushed walnuts. This is not on the menu, but damn, it should be! It’s one of those dishes you think about after the fact and days later still makes you smile.

    Cotta isn’t the only permanent fixture at the restaurant. Most of the staff has been there for decades, not to be confused with  bitter old servers shuffling around in orthopedic shoes as they pour lukewarm cups of decaf coffee. In true Italian tradition, the staff is like family.

    Scott Fisher, the sommelier, has worked at L’Opera longer than I’ve been alive. If you happen to be seated in his section,be prepared for a truly fine dining experience. Fisher’s knowledge of wine is almost unparalleled, but he is incredibly friendly, engaging and he approached the table with a “let’s play” attitude. Let him take the wheel and bring out his own recommendations for both food and wine

    Speaking of wine, L’Opera is known for its vast collection of high end, Old World Italian wines.

    For those who appreciate a history lesson, L’Opera used to be a bank building, so all wine is stored underneath the building in the vault. There’s actually a tunnel between L’Opera and what is now known as the Federal Bar directly across the street. If anyone is interested in planning a wine heist, I’ve got a friend with a Toyota Prius for a clean getaway.

    Details: (562) 491-0066, www.lopera.com
    Venue: L’Opera,101 Pine Street, Long Beach
    A member of the Southern California Restaurant Writers Association, Gina Ruccione has traveled throughout Europe and Asia and has lived in almost every nook of Los Angeles County. You can visit her website at www.foodfashionfoolishfornication.com.

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  • *** RLn ANNOUNCEMENTS *** May 19 to June 9, 2016

    May 19
    Service Providers Training
    Community members impacted by the criminal justice are invited to learn about Proposition 47. Prop. 47 provides people the opportunity to reduce their felony convictions into misdemeanors.
    Time: 2 to 4 p.m. May 19
    Cost: Free
    Details: Julia@bhclongbeach.org
    Venue: Miller Family Health Education Center, 3820 Cherry Ave., Long Beach

    May 19
    2016 Leadership Series
    Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Michelle King will be the featured speaker of the 2016 Leadership Series. She is responsible for creating policy and making recommendations to the members of the Los Angeles Board of Education.
    Time: 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. May 19
    Cost: $35 to $40
    Details: (310) 832-7272
    Venue: Ports O’ Call Waterfront, 1200 Nagoya Way, San Pedro

    May 20
    LB 4th Annual Dyke Rally, March, The After Party
    Long Beach women will take to the streets in Long Beach’s 4th Annual Rally and Dyke March.
    The goal of a Dyke March is to increase lesbian visibility and support the rights of all women regardless of labels, including bisexual and transgender women.  Disparities in health care, equal pay, LGBT rights, domestic violence and hiring opportunities are some of the issues that are still real for us.
    Time: 7 p.m. May 20
    Cost: Free
    Details: denisepenn@aol.com, info@artfulthinking.org
    Bixby Park, 130 Cherry Ave., Long Beach

    May 25
    Open Conversations at Willmore Wine Bar
    Have an agenda-free conversation with the Long Beach Arts Council President Marco Schindelmann and Executive Director Griselda Suárez.
    This is part of an ongoing conversation with the public; it is an informal time for us to hear your ideas as well as answer any questions you may have about the Arts Council’s latest initiatives.
    Time: 5 to 7 p.m. May 25
    Cost: Free
    Venue: Willmore Wine Bar, 3848 Atlantic Ave., Long Beach

    May 28
    Fair Housing Workshops
    Long Beach, as a recipient of federal community development and housing funds, is conducting an Assessment of Fair Housing .  The Assessment of Fair Housing will explore issues such as disparities in access to renting or purchasing homes, unmet housing needs, lack of integration, and racially or ethnically concentrated areas of poverty. The city is hosting a series of workshops to provide opportunities for public input on May 28 and June 11.
    Time: 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. May 28
    Cost: Free
    Details: www.lbds.info
    Venue: Houghton Park, 6301 Myrtle Ave., Long Beach
    June 1
    FOLBA Student Essay/Poetry Contest
    The Friends of Long Beach Animals is hosting its annual student essay/poetry contest.  This year’s theme is “Be Kind to Animals”.  All entries are due by June 1, 2016.  There will be a cash prize for the top 3 entries in each grade category (elementary & middle school). Guideline include: one entry per student and one page only (up to 250 words). Be sure to include: first & last name, home address, telephone, grade level, school name. Send all entries via email to Deborah Turner, Humane Educator, at deborah@folba.org no later than midnight, June 1, 2016.
    Details: deborah@folba.org.
    June 4
    Monthly Beach Cleanup
    Cabrillo Marine Aquarium invites the public to participate in our monthly Beach Clean-Up. Volunteers learn about coastal habitat, the growing amount of marine debris within it and the benefits of protecting this ecosystem.
    Time: 8 to 10 a.m. June 4
    Details: (310) 548-7562; www.cabrillomarineaquarium.org
    Venue: 3720 Stephen M. White Drive, San Pedro.
    June 7
    Board selections for the Central San Pedro Neighborhood Council and the Primary Elections will take place June 7.
    Time: 4 to 8 p.m. June 7
    Details: http://tinyurl.com/CentralSPNCCandidates, http://sanpedrocity.org/candidate-filing-information
    Venues: Rancho Housing Authority, 275 W. 1st St., San Pedro
    Anderson Senior Center, 828 S. Mesa St., San Pedro
    Cabrillo Avenue Elementary School, 732 S. Cabrillo Ave., San Pedro
    Sharing Your Neighborhood with Coyotes
    The City of Los Angeles Department of Animal Services has recently had an increase in the number of coyote sightings reported in residential areas and public parks.
    LA Animal Services urges the community to follow these prevention tips and actions to keep two and four-legged family members safe:

    • Never feed coyotes
    • Do not approach coyotes for any reason.
    • Closely supervise all children while outside.
    • Keep pets on leash and close by at all times.
    • Keep pet food and water dishes inside.
    • Secure food and trash at all times and remove all sources of water.
    • Remove overgrown brush and hanging bushes to improve visibility.
    • If a coyote approaches or acts aggressively, throw rocks, make noise, look big, and pick up small children and pets. Do not turn your back to the animal.
    • If a coyote attacks, call 911.

    Details: laanimalservices.com, keepmewild.com

    Summer Artist Residency, Shop Front Studio Space
    6021 is a professional artist studio situated in a shop front in North Long Beach. For the second year artist Angela Willcocks is offering two months of free studio space from June 15 to Aug.15.
    Details: awillcocks88@yahoo.com.

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  • AMADEUS @ South Coast Repertory

    When I first read Peter Shaffer’s Equus, I was so enthralled that I ran out and rented Sidney Lumet’s film adaptation. Although quite faithful to its source, I noted minor variations from the play—all of them improvements. And why not? It was Shaffer who wrote the screenplay, so he was basically taking a second bite at the apple. I’ve seen multiple productions of Equus, but the film is simply better.

    There’s been a similar hazard in staging Shaffer’s Amadeus since 1984, when Milos Foreman—with Shaffer’s help—turned the play into an Academy Award-winner for Best Picture. So why see South Coast Repertory’s current production? Well, it’s been a long time since you’ve seen the film Amadeus. Besides, unlike with Equus, the differences between the stage and film versions are pronounced. This isn’t an apples-to-apples thing. The play and the film are truly different fruits.

    On what he says is the last night of his life, composer Antonio Salieri (Marco Barricelli) directly addresses the audience. We are “ghosts of the future” he has conjured on this night in 1823 so we can hear his final composition: The Death of Mozart—or, Did I Do It? Mozart, of course, needs no introduction. He remains the most celebrated composer in the history of “classical” music, and Salieri knows that we future ghosts know Mozart’s music. But Salieri has conjured us so that we also know why he worked to destroy the man he dubs both “the Creature” and “God’s instrument.”

    We are transported back to 1781, when Mozart (Asher Grodman) first arrived in Vienna. Salieri, at 31 “the most successful young musician in the city of musicians,” is appalled to find that 25-year-old Mozart, already famous for nearly two decades, is a lout, “an obscene child.” But the music that child produces! “It seemed to me that I had heard the voice of God,” he says, “[…] and it says only one name: MOZART! Spiteful, sniggering, conceited, infantine Mozart, who has never worked one minute to help another man! [… God] has chosen him to be [His] sole conduit! And my only reward—my sublime privilege—is to be the sole man alive in this time who shall clearly recognize [God’s] incarnation!” And so Salieri declares war on God, “in the waging of which, of course, the Creature had to be destroyed.”

    Barricelli is a solid Salieri, able to sound the whole scale: joy and despair, amusement and disgust, self-assurance and existential doubt. He plays the dramatic as well as the comedic, seamlessly sliding between situational dialog and expository monolog. And considering that there’s generally not a moment of downtime for him to collect himself (Shaffer expressly wrote that the play’s action should not pause even during scene changes), such seamlessness is no mean trick. Fail on that count, and even a well-acted staging will take on a stilted quality. But SCR’s never does.

    The role of Mozart is an odd one. Despite being the eponym, Shaffer’s Mozart—or Salieri’s Mozart, if you will—displays far less range than his bitter antagonist. There’s only one onstage moment when we glimpse his genius; otherwise, he’s all puerility, churlishness, and ego in Act 1, before privation and personal demons take their toll. Because there’s not a lot to do with the role, it’s more difficult for those of us who have seen the film to put out of mind Tom Hulce’s big-screen take (that ridiculous laugh) than it is F. Murray Abraham’s Oscar-winning Salieri. So although Grodman is good, we are haunted by Hulce’s ghost.

    The most challenging supporting roles—and perhaps the most thankless—are Salieri’s venticelli, the two “little winds” (Christian Barillas and Louis Lotorto) who both bring Salieri news and gossip and function as a Greek chorus. Their proclamations, almost always adagios of alternating sentences or even single words in length, are always delivered with the perfect synchronization Shaffer requires of them.

    As usual, SCR’s production values are top-notch. Alex Jaeger’s costumes are killer (Mozart’s coats!), and Lap Chi Chu’s lighting always evokes the right mood. Director Kent Nicholson utilizes all of the elements at his disposal to perfection, producing just the flow that Shaffer intends.

    Sure, you can hop on Netflix and see an outstanding version of Amadeus. But what South Coast Repertory is offering is pure Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus. And that ain’t bad.


    (Photo credit: Debora Robinson/SCR)

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  • Progressive Report Card Slams State Legislators

    Assemblymen Mike Gipson and Patrick O’Donnell did not support key bills on due process protection, health care expansions, environmental protections and racial profiling, the Courage Campaign recently reported.

    Read more on page 3 of the May 12 edition of Random Lengths News. Click here to find a location near you.

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  • Many Senate Candidates, So Little Viability

    By Lyn Jensen, Reporter

    Look at the 34  candidates from California for the U.S. Senate and you might wonder if the race will prove as chaotic as the Republican presidential campaign.

    Read more on page 4 of the May 12 edition of Random Lengths News. Click here to find a location near your.

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  • American Wrestles for Sumo Stardom

    By Joseph Baroud, Contributing Writer

    Roy Sims is hoping that his success will help propel sumo wrestling in the United States.

    Sims also is hoping for success in the upcoming event, May 21, the 16th Annual U.S. Sumo Open National Championships at The Pyramid in Long Beach.

    With a couple of medals under his belt — or around his neck —  you would think Sims has already been wrestling for many years. Sims stepped into the sumo circle, which is called a dohyo, only two years ago and has helped put the United States on the map in a limited time.

    At 34, Sims has won a bronze medal in his first competition, at the Sumo U.S. Open in 2014 and another bronze medal in his weight class — the heaviest one available — in 2015, along with a gold medal in the open-weight class competition.  It’s odd that someone would take up a sport at 34 and be dominant enough to take home medals at national championships. It’s because he was an athlete preceding his sumo career.

    There’s a separation between mind and body, but, Sims made up his mind about the sport he wanted to play, because of his body type and 376 lb. frame  — some being fat, a lot being muscle. He couldn’t find another sport he would be able to excel in at his weight class.

    “I wanted to continue to do sports,” Sims said. “ I’ve always thought about sumo being a really amazing, traditional sport.”

    In the past, Sims played football and competed in mixed martial arts, judo and jiu-jitsu. He believes that football played the biggest part in his success as a sumo wrestler. Playing on the defensive line consisted of him practicing and training involving a lot of heavy pushing, pulling and moving your opponent out of your way to eliminate the obstruction he’s creating. It was as if he had an early lead when he began, seeing that training for sumo wrestling involved working out similarly.

    Sumo is a big sport with a long and traditional history in Japan and Mongolia. It began in Japan as a form of Japanese martial arts. It was used as a trial of strength in combat and also has a tradition in Japan’s Imperial courts. Representatives from each province were summoned to wrestle at the court. Sumo has also been used as a ritual dance where participants wrestle with a divine spirit and the ritual comes in the form of the individual’s movements.

    Sims said that it’s been around for almost 1,500 years. He said the sport’s tradition is one of the aspects that attracted him. If the U.S. sumo wrestling community continues its success, then it can build a rich and extensive tradition of its own and attract more Americans to it.

    “We got all these great guys that people can start to get behind and I think that’s making it more popular here,” Sims said. “When you got your own guys from your own country that are dominating the sport, that’s about 1500-years-old and plus, you got people like Andrew, who’s really supporting us and because of that, people get an opportunity to look at [the sport]. And when you see it, you’re like, ‘Wow! This is a really fun sport to watch.’”

    Andrew Freund is a friend of Sims who helps him locate and sign up for events and tournaments.

    “For the longest time, the international community really dominated, even the U.S. Open,” Sims said. “Last year, was the first year an American, myself, won the U.S. Open category.”

    The issue with sumo wrestling lacking the major popularity in the United States that exists in other countries abroad is financial. Wrestlers have to spend time and energy raising money in order to compete. It’s also at a point in many cases in which the wrestler must work in order to sustain a living, while wrestling on the side.

    That takes away from a wrestler’s energy and time to train. It also leaves them incapable of competing in some events because they lack the funds necessary to cover the registration costs and other costs related to competing in a tournament spanning a few days. This is contrary to wrestlers in some countries who can focus on, and only on, competing.

    “The hardest part has been that it’s not a predominantly accepted sport in America,” Sims said. “So, financially, a lot of the burden gets placed on the athletes. Most athletes here that are sumo wrestlers are really paying their own way in and are competing at high levels against countries where that’s their job, that’s what they do.

    “They don’t have normal jobs like us Americans, where we work 9 to 5, then we train. They wake up and they’re doing sumo wrestling and we’re going against those guys. That’s probably the hardest thing.”

    Thanks to a community with a lot of warm hearts, Sims has help in the area he describes as being the toughest. Sims said he receives monetary support from people in his community, which is Hollister, Calif. Lacking proper sponsors and coaches renders Sims at a disadvantage compared with other international competitors. America loves nothing more than rooting for the underdog though, especially if it’s one of their own.

    “I have an amazing community where I come from,” Sims said. “And so, for the most part, my small community has really been the ones that have sponsored me and allowed me to continue. There’s not major sponsorships, there’s not major companies coming into it. Maybe on a small degree for the sumo open itself, but not on an athlete base, it’s just not there yet, here in the United States.”

    Sims trains with other top wrestlers in absence of a coach. He said he’s developed good enough and enough relationships to be able to get by without a coach, but would jump on the opportunity to have one if it presented itself.

    He also said that it’s key to train with someone who understands the mechanics of the sport. You want to work with someone who knows the proper technique and who is familiar with the way you’re going to be moving your body when you’re wrestling. Since he has began wrestling, his training has focused more on building muscle mass and less on cardio.

    His training regimen for the tournament consists of doing judo once a week, yoga at least once a week and weight training five or six times a week. He also cross trains, consisting of various physical activities, such as playing basketball, hiking and even doing yard work. He exercises his mind and soul, spiritually, by meditating and paying homage to the sumo wrestling gods.

    His wife Libby helps keep his life and career in order. She arranges his scheduling, sets up his appointments and manages all of the fundraising. Sims couldn’t do that if he wanted to maintain a top-notch, professional, sumo wrestling career.

    Sims has a bachelor’s degree in exercise physiology and criminal justice, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kan., and is an information technology director. He enjoys the mentally stimulating pace being an IT director involves. He said it helps him stay sharp in the dohyo. He wants to open his own gym, with a dohyo, one day and invite big name wrestlers and fighters that do grappling and sumo to spar and train.

    Catch Sims competing in the U.S. Open at the Pyramid in Long Beach from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. May 21. Admission ranges between $25 and $120. Japanese cuisine will be served on site. Almost 60 competitors will square off in just more than 150 matches. This will be a tremendous opportunity to get to know more about the sport and to watch some of the world’s top competitors.


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