The synopsis of “Placas: The Most Dangerous Tattoo” gives off an earnest, do-gooder vibe like a certain type of theater that’s as achingly earnest as it is numbingly predictable. With good intentions, the stereotypical work would have at its center a big social issue and would feature bland, two-dimensional minority characters.
In “Placas,” a young man tries to escape the deadly grip of the El Salvadorean gang Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13) by removing its identifying tattoos. But “Placas” is a more complex piece than it might appear at first glance, or so thinks its star, Ric Salinas.
A serious drama about gangs, it isn’t the type of piece one would expect Salinas to appear in.
Salinas is a 30-year veteran of a very different type of theater. In 1984, he co-founded the political satire collective Culture Clash in San Francisco’s Mission with Herbert Sigüenza and Richard Montoya. Now based in Los Angeles, Culture Clash continues to break down stereotypes with its studied awareness, irreverent anarchy and politically astute, site-specific works.
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“Being in Culture Clash, I always say that I’m Chicano by osmosis, because we’re really a Chicano group, and I grew up Chicano, but I’m actually from El Salvador and it’s a different thing,” Salinas said by phone from Los Angeles.
Salinas plays the central character, Fausto Carbajal. He has been involved with “Placas,” which derives its name from a barrio term for body tattoos, from its earliest readings three years ago. Initially he had misgivings.
“When they first told me about it, I thought, ‘Oh no, not another gang play.’ But this one really comes with a lot of heart, and it deals with family. It’s a father-and-son relationship,” Salinas said.
“This play is a play that surprises. It looks as if it’s one thing, but it’s definitely not. It’s more universal,” he continued.
The bilingual – Spanish and English – play is from the pen of San Francisco-based playwright and community activist Paul Flores. Flores interviewed more than 100 gang members and their families in San Francisco, Los Angeles and El Salvador over a year while gathering material.
After four years of development with director Michael John Garcés, Flores premiered “Placas” two years ago in San Franciso. He had wanted to ground the story in El Salvador’s bloody civil war, a significant reason so many refugees fled the country in the 1980s and ’90s. His first draft was a three-hour war epic.
“I learned a lot, and my inspiration changed as I got deeper into it,” Flores said.
The story was refocused into an intimate family drama. Flores fictionalizes the true story of an ex-gang member he met early in his research. The man, who was in the United States illegally, was swept up in an immigration raid and taken to jail.
While inside, he was jumped into the MS 13 gang and received its tattoos.
“He ended up spending much longer than he would have,” Flores said. “His legal support made it known that if he was deported to El Salvador, he would be murdered for his gang affiliation, and he won his asylum case.
“When he got out and tried to reconnect with his family, his son was in a rival gang. It was a fascinating story that I could not have made up myself,” Flores said.
The man realizes he must erase his obvious and telling gang tattoos, and he sets about getting them removed.
The production has toured the country, including a run in Washington, D.C., which has a Salvadorean population second in the U.S. only to the one in Los Angeles.
“When we did the show there (Washington) we mentioned some Salvadorean idiosyncrasies, specific names and innuendos, and we got great ovations for those things,” Salinas said. “They’re not used to seeing it on stage.”
Salinas said Flores has allowed him to lighten up the story a bit.
“When when he first wrote it, it was pretty harsh. Little by little, we added some humor into it,” Salinas said.
“It’s like in life – we have serious moments, and then we crack up a minute later,” Salinas said. “We’re showing a gang situation, but there is hope. There is an out. That’s very difficult to do.”
Call The Bee’s Marcus Crowder, (916) 321-1120. Follow him on Twitter @marcuscrowder.
THE MOST DANGEROUS TATTOO
What: A play by Paul Flores starring Ric Salinas, Fidel Gomez, Vivia Font, Luis Juárez, Xavi Moreno, and Sarita Ocon
When: 7:30 p.m Thursdayand Nov. 14
Where: The Crest Theatre, 1013 K St., Sacramento
Cost: $15-$20 in advance; $20-$25 at the door
Running time: Three hours
Information: (415) 399-9554, (916) 716-9506; www.sfiaf.org/placas
Note: A Boys and Men of Color Resource Fair will be held at the Crest in conjunction with the play on Thursday and Nov. 14, 4-7 p.m.