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Oxnard — generally unheralded except for the hinky name — didn’t get to be the fifth largest city on the California coast without some kind of history behind it. A hundred forty years ago, Chumash, Hispanic and Anglo cultures thrived in that part of Ventura County behind four British brothers’ thirst for farming commerce; what resulted was a uniquely prosperous area that would help grow a state agricultural industry now worth $20 billion a year.

That’s a weird introduction to a play about artistic truth behind hip-hop music, but it very much bears mention here: At long last, a writer has seen fit to color his story beyond character development, touching (however briefly) on some of the elements that make his setting what it is. It’s all part of the storycraft behind San Diego-based Gill Sotu’s The Best Goodbye, a decidedly clever Circle Circle dot dot premiere at the ParkArts Blackbox. While Sotu’s wholesale use of anecdote sometimes oversimplifies, it also yields some damn funny lines and fuels the cast’s quick-wittedness in a Patrick Kelly-directed memory show about artistic integrity and its sometimes unlikely evolution.

The late Wilson (Wrekless Watson, left) has a lifetime of memories, good and bad, shared with Rudo (Xavier Scott) in a priceless journal. Photo by Rich Soublet.

The late Wilson (Wrekless Watson, left) has a lifetime of memories, good and bad, shared with Rudo (Xavier Scott) in a priceless journal. Photo by Rich Soublet.

In this case, the 1996-set irony centers around a discovered corpse, and not just anybody’s. Wilson, a singer/writer from the Motown era, has died in the house that’s become an impromptu meeting place for the Natives, a fledgling but promising Oxnard rap ensemble. The group is beset with flaps from without and within — hip-hop icon Tupac Shakur has just been gunned down in Las Vegas at age 25, and one of the Natives has his own troubles, as he’s left to decide whether to pilfer Wison’s house to pay for studio time. His name is Rudo, and his indolence makes him the less than ideal candidate to act when push comes to shove. “Only a loser,” friend Oz tells Rudo, “spends his life deciding whether he wants to live it.”

But the goat is soon a hero, as his cunning thwarts a very real threat to the group’s lives. The Natives will see another day, even as the upshot from Shakur’s violent death swirls about their industry and big money from bigger cities stokes — perhaps taints — the growth of an art by then only 20 years old. Through it all, Wilson’s apparition boldly and often laments the bigger picture, his journal reflecting a global hatred fueled by a grotesque joy.

[ParkArts Blackbox is] a serviceable venue unveiled in January at University Heights’ Diversionary Theatre.

Sotu sometimes slips into generalities designed only to fill time — yes, we all have to make some kind of plans for ourselves; yes, Rudo’s befuddlements rankle girlfriend Sabina — but the other side to his writing invites the cast’s breezy histrionics as Natives member Cease miscoins “carpe denim” and Oz declares that gangstas and cockroaches are the only things that will survive humanity. Life cereal on slaveships; the theory that bushes and the Bushes are one and the same (if you get the drift); old Wilson’s palpable pain at the memory of Jim Crow laws and Martin Luther King: The range of references is strong and sure, written and directed in a youthful, true storyteller style that hip-hop itself seeks to reflect.

Xavier Scott’s and Andrea Agosto’s babyfaces are perfect for their Rudo and Sabina — the characters are girlfriend and boyfriend in name only, and the actors portray them such that the two know they’ll soon drift apart for good. Big lug Oz has somehow become the group’s figurehead, and Javid Wasson has his character’s punch-drunk side downpat (he’s also a riot in a scene involving Oz and a jar of prunes). Latino Cease has his qualities as a spearhead of a lot of Sotu’s dialogue, but performer Robert Malave is a little too quick on the uptake, ever so slightly watching himself act.

This likeness of the late Tupac Shakur colors an exterior in New York City's East Harlem, Shakur's birthplace. Image by JJ & Special K.

This likeness of the late Tupac Shakur colors an exterior in New York City’s East Harlem, Shakur’s birthplace. Image by JJ & Special K.

Brian Burke’s Cody meets his match in Rudo, but hard prison time has softened his heart amid maternal demands; he and moll Latrice (Kamryn Harris) act accordingly. And do enjoy veteran Wrekless Watson, whose grizzled Wilson sports an oratorical talent to die for.

Kristin McReddie’s costumes paint the characters’ intents in the grit of day (dig the yellow shirt she came up with for Oz!). Kelly’s responsible for every other design; his set is properly nondescript and does well in the space, a serviceable studio venue unveiled in January at Diversionary Theatre.

For five years, I lived in Ventura, Oxnard’s next-door neighbor. Oxnard isn’t quite a suburb of L.A., as the script claims (I should think Ventura County’s L.A. influence probably starts in Thousand Oaks) — in any case, it’s definitely a serious pit, leveled and scavenged by 1970s development just about the time hip-hop was making a name for itself (we used to call it Oxyard). Oh, for the days of yore, when the excitement of its original expansion must have fairly rent the air — and kudos to Sotu, Kelly and his cast for reminding us that true art leaves the concepts of time and place to the discretion of its creators. Nice piece.

This review is based on the opening-night performance of July 23. The Best Goodbye runs through Aug. 6 at ParkArts Blackbox, 4545 Park Blvd. in University Heights. $15-$25. circle2dot2.com.

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Martin Jones Westlin

Martin Jones Westlin

Martin Jones Westlin, principal at editorial consultancy Words Are Not Enough and La Jolla Village News editor emeritus, has been a theater critic and editor/writer for 25 of his 47 years... More...

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