THE BALLAD OF BIMINI BATHS:MEXICAN DAY Theater Review
The personal is extremely personal in Rogue Machine’s Mexican Day. Tom Jacobson’s insightful script intimately, intricately interweaves ethnicity, class, sexuality and more in his story depicting a landmark Civil Rights struggle in late 1940s Los Angeles, when a sort of “apartheid light” was still being practiced in a not so angelic City of the Angels. This segregation is the source of the title of Jacobson’s play, which is part of a trilogy.
Tom Jacobson’s insightful script intimately, intricately interweaves ethnicity, class, sexuality and more in his story depicting a landmark Civil Rights struggle in late 1940s Los Angeles.
At least three of the drama’s thespian quartet depicts actual historical personages in Jacobson’s two-acter. First and foremost is the renowned African American equal rights activist Bayard Rustin (Donathan Walters, who recently understudied Bigger Thomas and The Black Rat at Antaeus Theatre’s gut-wrenching production of Richard Wright’s Native Son). In the late 1940s, Rustin - who eventually became a key organizer of 1963’s legendary “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” wherein Dr. King made his “I have a dream speech” - is dispatched to L.A. to desegregate Bimini Baths, an actual hot springs oasis with mineral waters that had existed in what is now L.A.’s Koreatown.
Bayard was not only “Black and proud” more than 20 years before James Brown sang that anthem of ethnic pride, but also rather openly gay at a time when that was strictly taboo. This out of the box radical was also a socialist and a pacifist, who was imprisoned during WWII for refusing to serve in the U.S. military. As he reports back to someone called “A.J.”, the organization that sent Bayard to L.A. on his desegregation mission was presumably the Fellowship of Reconciliation, led by the late great A.J. Muste, who during the Depression was a Trotskyist and leader of one of the most successful, militant sit-down strikes in U.S. history in 1934 at Toledo, and later an organizer with the pacifist War Resisters’ League.
Holy Toledo, it was great to see the overlooked but world historically important A.J. Muste remembered onstage! If memory serves correctly, as the four thesps have multiple roles, Muste is briefly reincarnated on The MET’s boards by Jully Lee (her TV appearances include on This Is Us and Jane the Virgin). Lee primarily portrays future short story writer Hisaye Yamamoto, another historical figure identified in the play as the Nisei correspondent for the Los Angeles Tribune, a mainly Black newspaper. Yamamoto was imprisoned during WWII in an internment camp at Arizona for people of Japanese ancestry (including many U.S. citizens, such as the Redondo Beach-born Hisaye). The Fellowship originally secundered Bayard to California to assist the persecuted Americans of Japanese Ancestry, et al, although I don’t remember this being mentioned in Mexican Day, which could have served as a plot point illumining the creative alliance between Hisaye and Bayard.
Recommended for You
The play’s third historical personage is the artsy Caucasian Everett Maxwell (Darrell Larson, who looks remarkably like John Hurt and has acted in films such as Frances and The Manchurian Candidate, aka The Donald Trump Story). Everett is the play’s most problematic character - he is identified as having committed extremely heinous crimes for which he was sent to San Quentin. And his character begs the question: How can wrongdoers redeem themselves? Are criminals entitled to second chances?
Maxwell was a screenwriter, and two of his actual 1927 movies, including The Eyes of the Totem and The Heart of the Totem, are cited by the composite and/or fictitious character, Zenobio Remedios (whose credits include HBO’s Westworld), which telegraphs plot points revealed in Act II. Zenobio is a Mexican-American WWII vet who was wounded (psychically as well as physically) while liberating the Dachau death camp. He is the guardian of Bimini Baths, enforcing its strict segregation policies and denying Bayard and Hisaye ingress to the hot baths, which also features s variety of treatments and venues, including the Plunge.
The playwright has woven a web that is a paragon of intersectionality, revealing how social movements and history are part of the tapestry of our private lives. As in Warren Beatty’s Reichian Russian Revolution epic Reds - wherein Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks overthrow capitalism so John Reed (Beatty) and Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton) can improve their sex lives - Jacobson shows how sexual liberation is linked up with the class struggle, ethnic liberation, etc., which lead to overthrowing sexual repression, as well as racism and homophobia. This drama, in particular, has a strong statement to make about gay rights, as well as racial and human rights in general. And Lee’s unfulfilled hetero character is Hisaye the Virgin no more.
Jeff Liu ably directs his ensemble, and Jacobson uses some stylistic screenwriting techniques to creatively tell his complex story. With Mexican Day, L.A.’s risk-taking Rogue Machine Theatre continues to push the dramatic envelope and the winning streak that won the company the Best Season Ovation Award for 2017. Adventurous theatergoers should take the plunge!
Rogue Machine’s production of The Ballad of Bimini Baths: Mexican Day runs 4:00 p.m. on Saturdays, 8:00 p.m. on Fridays and Sundays through July 1. Rogue Machine is located at The Met, 1089 N Oxford Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90029. Reservations: (855)585-5185 or at: http://www.biminitrilogy.com.
L.A.-based reviewer/historian Ed Rampell is co-presenting “Marx @ 200: The Marxist Movie Series”(https://www.gofundme.com/marx-200-the-marxist-movie-serie). The third edition of “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book”co-authored by Rampell is now available at: https://mutualpublishing.com/product/the-hawaii-movie-and-television-book/ .