Drag and immigrant experience collide onstage

Practicing poverty law in East Los Angeles and doing the rounds in the city’s spoken word scene might not seem like steps on the usual path toward becoming playwright. But then again, Evangeline Ordaz is not often accused of writing usual plays.

Photo courtesy of Xavi Moreno

Case in point, her latest work, Bordering on Love, charts the platonic love affair that develops between a drag queen and his female stylist, an undocumented immigrant upon whom he becomes fiercely dependent to remain competitive in the drag pageant circuit. The play is produced by Company of Angels in its historic Downtown performance space on the third floor of the Alexandria Hotel, the one-time tenement of such Hollywood legends as Humphrey Bogart, Greta Garbo and Charlie Chaplin. Company of Angels artistic director and Ordaz’s husband Armando Molina is directing the play, which goes into previews on Thursday and will kick off its monthlong run with a proper opening Saturday.

Ordaz, a Boyle Heights native whose father’s job as a helicopter mechanic required relocating the family from East Los Angeles to Southeast Asia for parts of Ordaz’s childhood, completed her undergraduate education at nearby Loyola Marymount University before heading north to study law at UC Berkeley. Upon graduating, she returned to the community of her youth and went to work for the Legal Aid Foundation, an organization providing free legal services to low-income clients in the greater L.A. area.

“My area of expertise was housing and organizational development, but I also did government benefits advocacy,” Ordaz said. “I would represent people in administrative hearings, I would represent people in eviction proceedings in court, consumer law, domestic violence — just anything.”

Even while employed by the Legal Aid Foundation, Ordaz learned to make time for her writing fairly quickly after returning to Los Angeles.

“When I came back to L.A. after law school, I got together with a group of women and we formed a kind of writing workshop,” Ordaz said.

The group didn’t produce much in the way of playwriting, but rather focusing on poetry, prose and spoken word. What began as a writer’s group eventually became a sort of spoken word collective, with the group’s members called themselves ¿Y Qué Más?, Spanish for “And what more?” (“As in ‘And what more could you possibly want? This is us,’” Ordaz explained.)

The women — generally numbering between four and six — started performing around town at coffee shops and in poetry jams, racking up something akin to a following in the process. It was at that point that Ordaz began to visualize her work being brought to life in an even more theatrical sense.

“Once we actually started performing our work and we got to be kind of popular … I started to see words onstage,” Ordaz recalled.

Running around in Los Angeles’ performance circles, Ordaz soon met her husband, Armando Molina, Company of Angels’ current artistic director. Molina introduced Ordaz to the city’s rich theater culture, and together the pair saw more than their fair share of live theater. Not long after, Ordaz continued on the logical trajectory from spoken word poetry to actual playwriting.

And clearly, Ordaz has a wealth of life experience to bring to that writing. Her on-again, off-again work in the legal field — as well as her experience as a community activist — has repeatedly manifested itself in her plays.

“Themes in my plays are always about how societal structures — like legal structures — impact of our day-to-day living, our day-to-day lives,” Ordaz said. “I’m interested in how these things can be at odds.”

Like Bordering on Love, an earlier work by the playwright also confronted the issue of immigration. Visitor’s Guide To Arivaca, which was also directed by Ordaz’s husband Armando Molina, described a situation in which the realities of human needs ran smack-dab into the unforgiving realities of the law. In Visitor’s Guide, immigration policies are utterly out of touch with the realities of people’s lives — and as such, adherence isn’t always an option.

“In some ways it doesn’t change how people live, but in other ways it does, but in a way that’s really detrimental,” Ordaz said.

In Bordering on Love, a gay man named Anthony (drag name: Antoinette) seeks to get an edge on the competition in drag beauty pageants by enlisting the help of a stylist at a nearby beauty college. Marilu Molina, an undocumented immigrant who was turned away at the airport in an effort to get to the United States legally, and only then resorted to smuggling, responds to his posting. From there, the pair develop a friendship that Ordaz describes alternately as dependence and a platonic romance.

Their unusual arrangement comes to a crashing halt when a federal financial aid document on which Marilu misrepresented herself as an American citizen catches up to her, and Anthony must confront the reality of his reliance on the migrant stylist.

With the exception of a visit to a nightclub north of Melrose Avenue in the ’90s, Ordaz had little familiarity with the drag world before writing the play.

“I did research,” Ordaz said.

Although the playwright is a newcomer to the drag world, she is has more than enough experience to accurately capture the plight of society’s marginalized communities.

Bordering on Love seeks to address the apparent injustice of a federal government that only attempts to define marriage in two instances: when discussing immigrants and gays. That’s a tall order, to be sure, but Ordaz’s peculiar platonic love story might just be able to do it.