Inspired by a visit to the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia last summer, South Pasadena Mayor, Michael Cacciotti, had the idea to mount a collective, inclusive, theatrical production for the 4th of July. He reached out to Fremont Center Theatre owners James and Lissa Reynolds to produce the piece. They dug into a great amount of research with the help of Felix Gutierrez and Yvonne LaRose, gathered a talented and diverse group of actors and put together “We, Too, Are America” at South Pasadena High School on July 3, 2022. The show featured a blend of poems, songs, speeches and pieces of history highlighting the diversity, joy and struggle of the American experience along with music by Hank Mehren’s Here & Now Trio.
The eight actors including James Reynolds, Tina Huang, Vaughn Armstrong, Iona Morris, Jed Reynolds, Gloria De Leon, Dean Ghaffari, and Chris Edsey (understudies were Gloria Bennett and Aaron Theron) performed in a semi-circle, alternating between sitting and standing, in front of music stands. They spoke in turn mostly, interpreting poems and readings, sometimes in the character of the writer. There were inspiring quotes about tolerance, diversity, working together and celebrating our differences. There were dramatic readings of poetry and even a scene from the Mexican American War that took place right here in South Pasadena.
Iona Morris gave an impassioned rendition of Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I A Woman?” that was incredibly moving. James Reynolds’ booming voice gave a depth of emotion to “I, Too” by Langston Hughes. Gloria De Leon recounted the story of an undocumented young woman and her trials to get to America and the horrors she suffered in the foster care system. There were stories of hope and pride, pain and suffering. The piece ended with the audience joining in a chorus of “This Land Is My Land” and a standing ovation.
During a lively post-show talkback with the audience James Reynolds said, “We’ve always been aspirationally inclusive in this country. We talk about being free and having liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but it’s been an aspiration, which is a good and valuable thing.”
Tina Huang said “This play is very much like an American quilt – just the image of that. The American quilt is such an iconic identifier as American and this feels like that, not just diversity but inclusivity is really what we’re aspiring to. She also expressed that she felt angry this 4th of July and said, “but that’s part of it. The freedom of expression.”
“We’ve lost the meaning of the word patriotic,” added Reynolds, “perhaps the height of what we can do is love and respect this country, and be critical when it’s wrong.”
This was the first time the show has been performed and the hope is that it may become a yearly event and with that, the piece itself may continue to evolve. Jed Reynolds, who grew up in South Pasadena, was taken by surprise by his own emotions as he read “Ode to South Pasadena” by South Pasadena’s poet laureate Ron Koertge. It touches on such familiar sights as our parrots, the Moreton Bay Fig tree at the library, the old ostrich farm and orange groves of yesteryear and the Soda Fountain and Dinosaur Farm of today. He said of his emotion, “I wasn’t expecting that!” It’s a beautiful piece and as a resident who has lived here over 27 years, it moved me as well.
In answering a question about including passages about the January 6 insurrection and current political divide, producer Lissa Reynolds said “there was so much information that we could have included – it would have been over three hours.” Jed Reynolds added to that, “the history of this country is so vast and there are so many stories to include. On a day meant to celebrate the country, I think it’s important to point out the flaws that are happening. But it’s also happening right now and these past few years so much has been going on and everyone’s going crazy – a part of me just got numb. So it was great to be able to do this because it brought back that reinvigoration of hey, yeah, I’m part of this, I like this place, I want it to be better. We’re all striving for something that’s more than today and we look for more for our country and these kinds of stories help show us that movement.”
James chimed in, “Let’s remember how much our ancestors struggled and how hard their lives were – all of our ancestors – very few of them landed here with money in their pockets. We should be appreciative of that instead of attempting to deny opportunity to other people. We don’t seem to talk about our grandparents and our great grandparents – the people that went to work every day. I grew up in a farming area and it takes a lot of work to run a farm – that’s what they did. People went out and worked with their hands, men and women, to sustain their families – and that perhaps is the height of patriotism.”
Yvonne LaRose, who helped research the project, said she had so much emotion throughout the show and wanted to get up and cheer! She said she had read Sojourner Truth’s speech many times over the years and never quite got its meaning until Iona gave powerful voice to it during the show. She said, “That’s what she’s saying! I got it!”
Actor Dean Ghaffari said that when Iona spoke about Juneteenth in the script it brought to mind an image by photographer Gordon Parks of a woman named Ella Watson, who was a maintenance person in a building. “In many ways she was the backbone of our country,” he said, “and there’s a very powerful picture where she’s holding two brooms and there’s an American flag in the background and as I’m looking at it, the subtext is, “here I am. I love this country. I’m putting my blood, sweat and tears into this country but this country does not love me back.” It opened my heart to a lot of things and when it comes to ancestry it reminded me of my ancestors and all of our ancestors because they had it a lot harder than we do and if I could say one thing to my ancestors it would be “thank you for the sacrifice”.”
The actors were asked by LaRose if they felt emotional performing these works and Morris answered, “oh yes, I was emotional through all of it. My family comes from both black parents but there is Irish, there’s French – if you’re American, I don’t care if you look black, look white – more than anything, we’re all mixed with each other. And though I do think it was much harder during enslaved times, I am very worried with what is happening in our country, what we’re going to leave these beautiful children because it was our job to make it better. That’s why it’s so important that we do pieces like this to acknowledge our history and learn to embrace each other and love each other and to forgive each other. Because all cultures have done things that have not been very cool but we survive together.” She continued emphatically, “I don’t want to go to a restaurant with only two things on the menu! I want to have choices so I don’t want to see a world with only two kinds of people in it. What we have now is this beautiful melting pot of America – look at all of us up here – we get to share our truths and our hearts with you and I’m so grateful that you are all here and that you received this in the way that it was meant to be, with love.” And she broke out into the title verse of the Beatles “All We Need Is Love”!
Jed Reynolds remarked, “being someone who is bi-racial, I grew up constantly trying to figure out how things work and where I belong and I found myself identifying with all different parts of these stories. And I think that’s a really cool thing about stories like this is if you’re open to it you can learn a lot about yourself and about the people around you. And that’s so valuable nowadays especially because it’s so different today than it was for my parents – I think the world looked at things as so black and white and now we look at things in shades much more. I’m part of that “Loving” generation of mixed race kids and growing up I kind of felt I had to choose one side or the other – and now it’s not the case. I’m a little jealous of the generation under me where they can just identify as mixed race and I’m like, “wait, what? You can do that?” But I think it’s super cool and we live in a world now where that identification marker isn’t as simple as it was before and it makes it harder and more complex and we run into a lot of the issues that we do today because it’s hard for people to understand and they don’t want to get into the complexities. But if you can hear all of these stories from all of these different backgrounds and you can identify with them and understand them, then you’re better equipped to deal with the world as it is today.” He went on to say, “understanding our history tells us that there is so much diversity in it. South Pasadena’s history is incredibly diverse and complex, and maybe a little embarrassing, but once you own it then you can move forward and look where South Pasadena is today and I think you can be really proud of it.”
“I thought it was wonderful! Very moving,” exclaimed Mayor Cacciotti. “I just hope this is a yearly tradition that really supplements what Joe Payne and the 4th of the July committee have done for 40 years. This is just another more inclusive, more diverse aspect as we evolve as a community, as a country.”
Afterwards, James Reynolds reflected, “I feel really good. You never know when you’re doing any play what the reaction’s going to be – and of course when you’re doing a play that touches on issues that are difficult for people to talk about, you’re not sure. But the audience really responded and got everything we were talking about and I couldn’t be more pleased. It encourages me, if we do it again, it encourages me to maybe take another step and go a little bit further.”
Indeed, it will be exciting to see how “We Too, Are America” evolves. Stay tuned!
“We Too, Are America” was produced in collaboration with The City of South Pasadena, 4th of July Committee, South Pasadena Chamber of Commerce, Fremont Centre Theatre, The South Pasadenan News, South Pasadena Chinese-American Club, South Pasadena Preservation Foundation, South Pasadena High School, and Vecinos de South Pasadena. Produced by Lissa and James Reynolds, directed by James Reynolds, technical director James Jontz, stage manager Sam Udero, with graphic design by Dominique Heffley. Special thanks to South Pasadena City Council and to Mayor Michael Cacciotti for inspiring the event.