PLACAS is a stage play—a family drama, that stars Ric Salinas of the famed performance group Culture Clash and is playing this weekend at 450 Post St., just off Union Square. While Union Square is the largest theatre district in San Francisco, it was chosen as a location because of where it isn’t as opposed to where it is. The play was created as a tool to help dissuade young people from joining gangs and is set in the Mission district, but unfortunately that neighborhood is so impacted by gangs that there aren’t any theatres where we could present it that are not on one gang or another’s territory (meaning that anyone who identifies with or has family in a different gang cannot go to see it). Union Square is neutral, so it is okay for everyone to attend.
Based on true stories, the play focuses on Central American immigrant street-gangs—a bi-product of the civil war in El Salvador in the 1980s. The idea for PLACAS was conceived by Ana Perez, the Executive Director of the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN), an immigrant health care center based in San Francisco’s Mission district. It was the late summer of 2008 and the city had just been shocked by the terrible murder of Mr. Tony Bologna and two of his sons: the work of gang members and mistaken identity. In the resulting media hysteria San Francisco’s Sanctuary City policy—set up to protect refugees from the Salvadoran Civil War – was partially repealed, resulting in deportations of Central American youth and young adults.
Charged with caring for this population, Ms. Perez needed to find ways of overcoming the dehumanizing stereotypes of Central Americans that were becoming endemic. Producing a play about gangs and why joining them is not a good idea was not the most obvious strategy (and was by no means the only one), but by including the arts she invited an alternative approach to addressing the issue.
Writer Paul Flores was charged with creating the play. Research involved 100 interviews in the Bay Area, Los Angeles and El Salvador. It took over three years and at nearly every turn there were sound reasons for giving up on the project including the arrest and imprisonment by the FBI of a key consultant and another murder—that of a French film maker who created a documentary about the gangs but who negated to pay them for the interviews.
In the play, Ric Salinas plays a middle aged ex-gang member just released from a decade in prison. Disillusioned by gang life, his goal is to be a good father to his now teenage son and to stop the young man from becoming similarly ensnared in a gang. The play is about redemption, father-son relationships and a second chance. It uses tattoo removal (a service offered by CARECEN) as a metaphor for a new beginning. As far as we can tell, PLACAS is the first professional play ever staged in the United States about Salvadoran immigrants. It highlights the tensions within the community and the relationships to the broader population.
The inclusion of Salinas—famous for satire and political comedy with Culture Clash, has helped result in moments of great levity where the audiences is invited to share in the humour of an almost absurdist netherworld. Ultimately PLACAS is haunting and tragic, but it brings a human face to what might otherwise be seen as an almost intractable problem and offers a glimmer of hope. For tickets and more information, please visit: http://www.sfiaf.org/tickets/.