Alex Valdivia (center) and ensemble in 'Heart Mountain' at Santa Monica College. (Photo by Judy Louff)

This is the week that Robert Mapplethorpe is being honored at both the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Getty Center. A major photographic talent, the late Mapplethorpe created a storm of controversy with his starkly dramatic black and white, and by some standards, pornographic images of male sexuality. These shows provide important studies of the groundbreaking work Mapplethorpe engaged in, looking beyond the culture wars that polarized Americans in the 1990s and are ongoing to this day.
Events like these deserve the media attention they receive, but there are other worthy cultural offerings that deserve some recognition, too.
That’s the case this week as the documentary “Brooklyn Castle” makes its West Coast debut at the Landmark Theatres; G. Bruce Smith’s multimedia production of “Heart Mountain” premieres in Santa Monica for seven performances only; and Cornerstone Theatre’s “SEED: A Weird Act of Faith” begins a brief theatrical run in Inglewood, Calif.
“Brooklyn Castle” is not your stereotypical “kids’ competition” film, where you hone in on a few characters as they dramatically triumph in whatever endeavor they’re engaged in. Winner of the South by Southwest (SWSX) Audience prize, this film tells the unlikely story of Intermediate School 318 in Brooklyn, N.Y. where 60 percent of the students live below the poverty line, yet they’ve become the top youth chess championship team in the country. Just this year, I.S. 318 was the first junior high school team to become High School National Champions, a triumph honored by New York’s Mayor Bloomberg and featured on page one of The New York Times.
It’s not about how the kids compete with each other or against other teams, although you will find out who wins the various trophies. It’s about how they overcome the obstacles that come at them from all sides — poverty, school budget crises, personal and emotional development — and how they persevere in the face of daunting odds. And it’s about the teachers, administrators and family members who encourage and support their mission in every way they can.
Chess goes beyond competitive sport to become a teaching moment, offering lessons in analytical thinking that will serve these students well as they consider choices about their lives and futures.
Today is the last day that public school teachers can see “Brooklyn Castle” for free; find out how here: In addition to the Landmark Theatres in West Los Angeles, it’s playing around SoCal and elsewhere:

Japanese internment onstage

Somehow, while working full time and supporting a family, my former colleague G. Bruce Smith, Santa Monica College’s public information officer (who joins me as a retiree at the end of the year), managed to become an award-winning playwright with works produced in Los Angeles, Sacramento, Calif. and even Minnesota.
In one of his more ambitious efforts, Bruce has created “Heart Mountain,” a drama about a family forced to live in a World War II Japanese internment camp, told through dance (inspired by Butoh), music and projected imagery. It was commissioned by SMC’s Theatre Arts Department Chair Pervis Sawoski, who directs and choreographs the production.
The story takes its name from the internment camp in Wyoming where some of the more than 100,000 people of Japanese heritage were sent during World War II, in response to the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Alex Valdivia (center) and ensemble in ‘Heart Mountain’ at Santa Monica College. (Photo by Judy Louff)

Heart Mountain became a center for a draft resistance movement. Although fictional, it’s based on research with former camp internees, their relatives and other sources, and it’s about the choices people face maintaining their dignity while acting in accordance with their conscience.
A free panel discussion will follow the Nov. 4 performance featuring one of the play’s inspirations, Noboru Kamibayashi of Santa Monica, who was interned at Manzanar and Tule Lake; also speaking will be Manzanar internee Arnold Maeda, who’s active with a group organizing the Venice Japanese American Memorial Marker, along with others including a representative of the Japanese American Citizens League.
“Heart Mountain” runs Nov. 2 through Nov. 11 at the SMC Theatre Arts Studio Stage at 1900 Pico Blvd. The free panel discussion and reception takes place at 4:30 p.m. following the Nov. 4 matinee. Very affordably priced, advance-ticket purchase is advised. Call (310) 434-4319 or visit Parking is free on Friday evenings and weekends.

A seed of hope

Cornerstone Theatre Co. is not your typical theatrical enterprise. Cornerstone goes deep into communities, basing the plays they create on the words, stories and concerns of the people who live there.
The second play in their multi-year “Hunger Cycle” series is “SEED: A Weird Act of Faith.” Hunger in Los Angeles may very well be one of the most critical issues facing our community. An enormous yet somehow mostly invisible crisis, hunger affects one in six of L.A. County’s 10 million residents; 600,000 are children.
In South L.A., where there are more liquor stores than grocery stores and fast food abounds, “SEED” picks up where the 2008 Oscar-nominated documentary “The Garden”— about the battle over the destruction of one of the city’s most successful urban community gardens — leaves off.
Cornerstone spent months with a number of community organizations that serve South Los Angeles, including Community Services Unlimited, Root Down LA and the South Central Farmers, and the play they’ve created puts an imaginative spin on the real-life daily struggle these groups face as they try to help eradicate hunger.
Written by playwright Sigrid Gilmer and actor/writer/director Shishir Kurup, the play features a surreal, wild ride, with such characters as angry agricultural gods, a smart-talking broccoli, and an unhinged farmer, among others.
Cornerstone Theater’s Artistic Director Michael John Garc√©s says, “We didn’t want to take a dry or earnest approach to the issue of food equity in South L.A., and that meant taking big risks,” he said. “We chose playwright Sigrid Gilmer because we knew she’d bring her unique voice to the story. I think audiences will be surprised and excited by its audacity and humor in the face of such a serious subject.”
“SEED: A Weird Act of Faith” opens Nov. 3 and runs through Nov. 18, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. at Chuco’s Justice Center, 1137 E. Redondo Blvd., Inglewood, Calif. Tickets are pay-what-you-can and available online at

Sarah A. Spitz is a former freelance arts producer for NPR and former staff producer at public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica. She reviews theatre for

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