The Off Center Festival Brings Nigerian Women, America’s Struggling Working Class, and a Bronx-Born Latin Musician and Poet to the Segerstrom Stage

The cast of Hear Now! Photo courtesy Segerstrom Center for the Arts

No one can argue there isn’t a lot of money in lima beans. Just consider the Segerstrom Center, the 14-acre performing-arts complex across the street from South Coast Plaza, which opened in 1986 on land that once was the Segerstrom family farm. It’s Orange County’s most impressive piece of architecture, ranks among the country’s largest performing-arts venues, and is the epicenter of the county’s higher-end cultural offerings, with big-ticket Broadway shows, operas, classical music, dance, etc. booked year-round.

And it’s a place built, supported and, largely, attended by white people with money, people who love the arts but are not necessarily looking to be challenged, intellectually provoked or exposed to different perspectives.

Which is why the creation of the Off Center Festival eight years ago was so noteworthy. Kind of an answer to New York City’s Under the Radar Festival, with whom the Off Center organizers work in curating shows, the festival has brought in dozens of organizations and productions that appeal to a more diverse and adventurous, not to mention younger, crowd.

From the beginning, the festival’s catch-phrase was “expect the unexpected.” But according to the Segerstrom Center president, no one really knew what it would look like—or if it would even work. “We didn’t know what it would be when we started,” Terrence W. Dwyer says. “But we knew we didn’t want it to be traditional, but forward in its appeal, to bring in interesting, new, talented and contemporary voices. . . . And I think, over the years, [the festival] has established an identity that is part of a broader range of [the center’s] programming that demonstrates artistic excellence, but is also a rather significant opening of the center to a more diverse audience, not just in terms of ethnicity, but age, geography, economics.”

While this year’s festival is the smallest in terms of productions, the three shows are all wildly different, yet each blends music, theater and no small amount of social community into original and creative works that address more universal concerns.

Each production gets its own weekend. A company from Nigeria starts the festival off with Hear Now! This weekend, 10 actresses will combine music and theater to relate fact-based stories of the struggles and victories of women in Africa’s most populous nation.

Director Ifeoma Fafunwa was unavailable for comment, but it seems clear that the battle for gender equality isn’t just being waged with pink pussy hats.

Flaco Navaja presents his one-man show, Evolution of a Sonero. Photo by Eduardo Fierro

Next weekend, Flaco Navaja brings to the Costa Mesa stage his Evolution of a Sonero. The Bronx-born poet, musician and actor, who performs with a six-person band, plays the sonero, a salsa singer who improvises lyrics based on the theme of the song. While the music draws on artists from Janis Joplin to the Doors, from Menudo to Ruben Blades, the play is as much about Navaja’s creative evolution as it is about the rhythms of salsa and the eclectic beat of the Bronx.

“The sonero draws from experiences, emotions and history to tell his story,” Navaja says. “I grew up in the Bronx listening to hip-hop, classic rock, as well as salsa. All these sounds inform my style, and this show is part memoir and part love letter to salsa and the Bronx. It deals with addiction, insecurity, faith, family and the difficulty of navigating an artistic life at an early age.”

The quirkiest of the three shows comes to town Jan. 25. Courtesy of Obie-winning playwright and musician Ethan Lipton, No Place to Go features Lipton performing with a three-member “orchestra” a combination of songs, spoken word and underscored text that forms a narrative that is part standup and part storytelling related by a man whose company is relocating to Mars.

Written in 2012 after he received a commission from the Public Theater to write a narrative piece of music, the work reflects what was going on at the time, Lipton says.

“The recession was just kicking in, Occupy Wall Street was in full effect, and I found out that the job that had paid my bills for 10 years was moving far, far away,” recalls Lipton, who calls the play a kind of 21st-century series of Dust Bowl ballads. “[And] I’ve always had a fondness for an arch conceit, and when I realized that it felt like the company was moving to Mars, I decided to take that feeling seriously, and I wrote a piece that tries to explore the universal degradation of workers through an absurdist, personal lens.”

Off Center Festival at Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Plaza Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 556-2787; www.sctfa.org. Hear Word! Thurs.-Sat., Jan. 10-12, 8 p.m.; Evolution of a Sonero, Thurs.-Sat., Jan. 17-19, 8 p.m.; No Place to Go, Jan. 25, 8 p.m.; Jan. 26, 2 & 8 p.m. Each production, $25.

Joel Beers has written about theater and other stuff for this infernal rag since its very first issue in, when was that again???

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