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The Latin American community has given us many fine actors and actresses ranging from Oscar Nominees like Edward James Olmos and Andy Garcia to Golden Globe winner America Ferrera and countless others. The list goes on and on and we’re only discussing those in front of the camera. The Chicano Legacy Project has presented a means for the storytelling legacy of their culture in LA to encourage at risk Chicano youth to channel their energy into a productive and creative outlet. Working with Young Theaterworks, hundreds of East LA’s highest risk students have been engaged in using their forces to create works of art rather than less productive means of dealing with the frustration they have.

Lighting and projection designer Ning Ji is no stranger to the importance of one’s own cultural contributions. An acclaimed professional in live theater and concert productions around the world, her homeland of China is always within her. She relates, “There is a play called Begonia which I worked on. It’s about a man who is an opera performer who falls in love with a warlord’s wife and his face is destroyed, ending his career. He sacrifices everything to raise his daughter by himself and she eventually ends up becoming a famous singer with the Beijing Opera. The story communicates so many things that the Chinese people believe in; culture allows one to express themselves while respecting what others have done to pave the way for those they love. It’s like the movie COCO, [two-time Academy Award-Winner from Walt Disney Studios]. The Mexican culture’s sense of family and heritage seems similar to ours in that way. Having a big family, passing on good things to the next generation, the younger generation’s need to respect and obey their elders, these are virtues that relate directly to my own.” Ning’s appreciation for one’s own culture and developing the talent of hopeful artists resulted in her inclusion in Young Theaterworks “I: Witness” at Plaza De La Raza. As the lighting and projections designer on this project, Ning created the ambience which acknowledged the history of the Chicano Movement inthe East LA community during the 70s.

The play is communicated through the perspective of Marisela, both in present day and through flashbacks. At sixteen-years-old, Marisela was raped and became pregnant. While she had an abortion, her friend Gloria became pregnant but delivered a daughter in spite of no support from her parents and being ridiculed at school. When Marisela goes to a cemetery for writing inspiration, the Chicano Past Jaguar appears and guides her through past and present as she witnesses the struggles of her friends and their commitment to telling the “Chicano story.” Present day and flashback scenes were blended in this production to create a mix of fantasy and reality. To conjure up these contrasting worlds, Ning used contemporary lighting as well as projected animation. Ranging from the bathed in red riot scene to the lavender mood of the 80s, traditional and modern lighting/projection techniques created a bridge between the physical and metaphysical. The obvious excitement of the artistic youth taking part in this production implies a course reset and redirection of their energy. The overwhelming applause of the crowds in attendance solidified this notion.

Ning Ji sees her work on “I: Witness” as part of a cycle that is both localized and universal. It applies as much to herself and her homeland as it does to these young people in Southern California. She remarks, “Making art is a privilege. I thank my parents for being so supportive of me and what I wanted to do as an artist. Not many parents are so supportive to my generation, especially as the only child of a family. I grew up learning different kinds of art. My mother would spend time taking me to lessons for singing, dancing, and drawing. I’m so grateful that I had the privilege to learn all those lessons while I was in school and continued pursuing them to be an artist in college and graduate school. Art is a way to express ourselves but also a way for us to see the beauty in our life. Nature is a gift and we see colors, lights, and energy in it. Becoming an artist gives me passion for what I’m good at; to better know more about myself and become a better me to develop my passion in life.”

Author: Kelly King

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