Louie Perez gets a little flummoxed when he reflects on his partnership with fellow Los Lobos bandmate David Hidalgo.
“I’ve been writing songs with David and the band for forty years!” he said. “That’s kind of scary.”
Perez chatted with me ahead of the Autry’s presentation this week of Evangeline, The Queen of Make-Believe, an About… Productions theatre workshop loosely based on their song Evangeline that will be performed in the Autry’s Montgomery gallery, surrounded by the art of six Mexican-American Los Angeles artists from the Pacific Standard Time exhibition Art Along the Hyphen: The Mexican-American Generation. This performance is the culmination of an idea Perez has been turning over in his mind for several years.
“For me, I’ve always been interested in re-imagining things,” Perez said. “I had this idea of turning the album Kiko into a theatre piece.”
Perez said he initially thought a script could emerge from stringing all the songs in the album together. After all, what is a song but a three-and-a-half-minute narrative? He began talking to people, trying to put the project together, but soon it began to get bogged down in legalities and red tape.
When Perez and Hidalgo began considering whom to hire to write the script, they decided to take a crack at it themselves. The result was less than encouraging.
“We did a draft,” he said. “It wasn’t exactly Miss Saigon. We knew we needed to find a real playwright. Then it just got really complicated. It left a little bitter taste in my mouth.”
For years, the project crept along, until Perez was ready to just call off the whole thing.
“It was difficult,” he said. “Five years into it, and we hadn’t even looked at a script.”
Then, a couple of years ago, Los Lobos performed at a benefit concert at Plaza de la Raza in Lincoln Park. There, Perez met an old friend, Rose Portillo, an actress and associate director at About… Productions, who introduced him to Theresa Chavez, About’s artistic director.
As they talked, they realized Chavez and Portillo’s non-profit theatre company, which works with at-risk teens and creates original stage productions, might be the perfect vehicle for Perez’s project. They began sketching out a few ideas. Those conversations got distilled into the idea of working a single song into the story, rather than an entire album.
“All the songs we’ve done, you can imagine real people in them,” Perez said. “They’re populated with real live people. It’s the singer/songwriter thing .… So we asked ourselves, ‘why don’t we take a song that’s three and a half minutes long and turn it into a play that’s 90 minutes long?’ In a way, we’ve been doing this kind of shorthand thing all along. I’ve always thought that we had a number of songs that had a book or something in them.”
They settled on the song Evangeline, and they began looking at their own past to re-imagine this particular 17-year-old girl’s story. Eventually, they decided to set her down in the middle of the Chicano awakening of the sixties, under the sway of conflicting influences: on the one hand, her traditional Latino upbringing, on the other, the American rock-n-roll scene.
“It’s interesting how a lot of people have come to believe that Chicanos grew up int his kind of vacuum, like they weren’t part of this country,” Perez said. “We watched reruns of Father Knows Best and Carl Reiner comedies. We grew up being American. It wasn’t that kind of pervasive thing. To a certain degree, it’s true we were somewhat sheltered, because we were in our own neighborhoods with the tienditas and stuff.”
So Evangeline, Perez says, is the classic young girl come from the small town — or in this case, the barrio — to try to make a name for herself in Hollywood. She soon realizes it’s not what she expected, and finds herself kind of lost. Because the characters in Los Lobos songs often are based on real people, Perez said he looked around his own family to find this one. Evangeline, he says, is loosely based on his older sister.
“I wrote the part in a way that was the idea that I had at first, but it can read like a coming of age,” he said. “There’s a tug of war between her culture and mainstream American culture. My sister was there. She was listening to the music on the couch, dancing in the living room.”
Perez calls Evangeline a work in progress, and that is on purpose. Since it was first developed about a year ago, it has been performed in a handful of venues, all with the aim of getting feedback from the audience, and based on that, making changes.
“I relate it to songwriting,” Perez said. “What looks great at two in the morning, at ten o’clock the next day you take a look at it again and sometimes you say, ‘What was that?’ So you have to take a scalpel and work on it.”
This, their fourth version of the play, is the most fleshed out so far, incorporating the work of a video artist, Claudio Rocha, into the skeletal set, making the whole production into a multi-media kind of experience.
Perez said he has enjoyed the audience participation in the process. Earlier this year, KPCC presented a version of it, but turned into a community forum and involving professionals who judged the performance. It was called Civil Rights and Go-Go Boots.
“We had an actual panel of judges,” Perez said. “Four people to discuss the historical significance of the period and to react to the piece. What a cool night that was. We had people really almost to the point getting choked up, sharing experiences.”
The project is something that has caught Perez’s imagination and helped him glimpse, perhaps, a next stage in his long career.
“To see life after rock and roll, it’s like I’m going to have to do it, to be there,” he said. “This has kind of opened this thing about community for me. I have to admit there’s a little bit of that thing of ‘You forgot where you came from.’ Sometimes, it’s so hard to get from A to B, and then B is great. Through this thing of working with Theresa and Rose, it’s brought me back to the point where I’ve got to give it away …. I’ve been back in touch with a lot of my old homies. I see them again and get a sense that they are saying, ‘Welcome back.’ It’s kind of cool.”