Since January 2009, Chalk Repertory Theatre has been crafting site-specific theatre in Los Angeles, and now in its 12th season, they have crafted a Covid-safe theatrical experience that focuses on Districts 8 (western South Los Angeles), 9 (South Los Angeles and the western section of Downtown Los Angeles where we have the Staples Center and Convention Center) and 10 (southern Central Los Angeles and northern South Los Angeles) through the eyes of BIPOC and LGBTQ perspectives.  Their diverse creative team has written five audio plays and for each, we are encouraged to put our headphones on for a fully immersive experience. The plays and their locations are all reachable by public transit but some walking is definitely involved.  Not feeling super secure about crowds of any kind even with a vaccine, I opted to drive and it was a really lovely experience (though parking in most if not all of these locations can be a misery – that’s just LA).

First on the playlist is “March of Time – Time Warp” by Luis Alfaro, featuring Giovanni Adams as a local playing tourist through 150 years of LA history and Emily Kuroda as a tour guide whose line “Old Chinatown, under Union Station” was the first of many to make me look up some history and wonder at how much I don’t know about this place I call home. (Much more important story made far too short, the city’s first Chinatown was razed to the ground in 1930 to build our central train station).  If you are able to be on-site, you are asked to listen to the play in the Waiting Room at Union Station.  Kuroda notes they then pass by the Chinese Massacre of 1871 but spends no more time explaining that startling bit of history than any of the others she touches on and neither Kuroda nor Adams seems to really feel the tragedies they discuss.  We seem to move into the future but there’s a presentational manner in the performance that keeps us at a distance and though the audio is full of rich layers it’s really hard not to feel that this piece would have benefitted from visuals, given how stylized the writing and delivery seems to be.   There are few striking lines that feel very LA, as Kuroda notes, “In this city change is hard, especially when you are at the edge of the ocean, the pacific rim, nowhere to go but change.”  There’s also a twist in the last minute or so that doesn’t feel fully earned.

Sound Designers Justin Asher and Colin Wambsgans at Expo Park for CHALK LINES An Immersive Audio Play Tour. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Chalk Repertory Theatre.

Next up is “From Your Homeworld to Mine” by Joseph Guy Maldonado featuring Gregg T. Daniel as Rodney, taking place in The Rose Garden at L.A.’s Natural History Museum at Expo Park.  USC is a stone’s throw away, as is the California Science Center (home of the Endeavour).  Rodney greets us as we step off the subway with the kind of energy you know you wouldn’t be able to step away from easily were we meeting in real life.  He only uses a flip phone and has his suspicions about the Science Center but he also takes us into a bit of history talking about Agriculture Park – what Expo Park used to be in the before times (horses, dogs, and camels raced there among other things, it’s worth looking up).  Rodney then tells us about Delphine (sp. uncertain – I only had my ears to guess with), the love of his life that he met when they were teenagers (he may adore her but when he imitates her in his story, it seems less than so).  He asks us to accompany him to the Rose Garden as he pivots the conversation to talk about a ship hidden under the Science Center poised to invade via the aliens that took his love from him.  His phone keeps ringing, insistent, building to a climax that will leave you thinking Rodney has left us with a legacy that we may not be ready to take on (we aren’t really sure what happens there).  He urges us to “Tell the story… of everyone who matters”, and something about the way he asks us to do that hits home.

CHALK LINES An Immersive Audio Play Tour. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Chalk Repertory Theatre.

The next audio play takes us to the Expo Line where Veralyn Jones (Diamond) sells incense, candles, keychains, 15 for $20 (among other things – along those same bargaining lines) and Emily Stout (Karly) feels the pressure of running late to class at USC in “8 for 16” by Kimrie Lewis.  Karly has a walk across campus in her future in high heels and Diamond uses her hustling skills to convince the (ever so slightly) entitled white student to purchase some flip flops (8 for 16).  When Karly tries to play the ‘women should stick together’ card, Diamond will have none of it.  When Karly tries to strike back by suggesting Diamond can’t get a date it’s hard not to wince a little, wishing the conversation didn’t have to turn in that direction (two women talking about men again), though Diamond’s response detailing exactly how well she does with men seems to be directed at making the girl uncomfortable and is, therefore, a delight.  A little under half the way through things turn a little metaphysical/supernatural in a way that is entertaining, though we can’t really know why Karly sits and listens.  Things get really interesting in an uncomfortable way when the subject turns to white privilege and though it gets real for a moment, the exchange feels a little too formulated, too clean, as if it was easy to say and hear the words.

CHALK LINES An Immersive Audio Play Tour. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Chalk Repertory Theatre.

The next stop on the audio play tour, “Leimert Park Drum Circle, Sunday Afternoon” by Colette Robert turned into a uniquely immersive experience for the drums were in full circle when I pulled up close.  Covid prevented me from feeling comfortable enough to explore the market that seemed to surround the drums but it looked fantastic.  Veralyn Jones makes another appearance here as Parent, and as she walks toward the park she moves through a neighborhood that has markedly changed from her childhood when she fell in love with tap dancing – long before the “yoga studios and CBD-whatevers” moved in.  Jones has a wonderful voice that you just love to devote your attention to and she paints vivid pictures for your mind.  As she draws closer to the circle and describes the dancers that she sees we can feel the pull that moves her from the outer circle to the inner and it’s impossible not to be carried away by her story.  This one is such a transportive delight, it’s tempting to rave on and on about what transpires in just shy of 13 minutes but I’d hate to spoil it for anyone by trying to describe it.

“Mutual Life” by Giovanni Adams is the final destination on this tour, featuring Xan Churchwell (Dee) and Tonatiuh Elizarraraz (Arturo).  Set in 1992 in the former Carl Bean AIDS Care Center in Historic West Adams where Dee arrives selling life insurance.  Arturo is not thrilled to see her in his doorway but she makes her way inside regardless and Dee wins him over with persistence and the story of the woman she loved, of having to leave their parents, ending up in prison where she was locked up with men that mishandled her.  Arturo shares his story about his mister, how they met, how they are both sick now in this AIDS Care Center – sick and dying.  There’s a dream-like quality to the writing that makes us wish we had more time with these characters – time enough to slow down and listen to their stories in greater detail – but that might actually be the point for, as we are reminded here, we always think we have more time.  When it comes to a close we feel that we have come full circle, back to Union Station, though nothing instructs us that we have in particular – the sound of the train pulling into a station pulls us there.

All told, this was an engaging way to get out of my neighborhood and into my city.  If there is a central thematic thread, that might be the closest we come to it for the five plays together, all directed by Jennifer Chang, don’t add up to a clear sum of its parts.  Rodney says (in summary) “Tell the story… of everyone who matters” – that’s what this piece as a whole seems to be trying to do.  Just enough history is given to make us (me, maybe only) looks things up.  Maybe that’s enough too.  The best thing you can do is come see – and hear – for yourselves.  This piece will continue through December 2021, so you should have plenty of time.  (Don’t forget your headphones)

Sound Design by Justin Asher and Colin Wambsgans.  Directed by Jennifer Chang.  Dramaturgy by Deborah Stein. Produced by Chalk Repertory Theatre.

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This post was written by Christine Deitner.

The views expressed here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect our views and opinions.