Evan Caleb, the son of an unwed teen mother in East Los Angeles who made her living in the porn industry, could be forgiven for wanting to forget about his early life.
Instead, he’s been reliving it several times a week in front of an audience.
Caleb, who’s 30, plays drums in the Moxie Theatre’s production of “The Toughest Girl Alive,” a bold and brassy “autobiographical musical” by local blues singer Candye Kane, which San Diego Ballet’s Javier Velasco adapted, directed and choreographed. Kane calls it “the 99.9 percent true, stranger-than-fiction story of an ex-gang member, un-wed teen mother, rockabilly, punk rock, plus-sized, ex-adult film star, cancer surviving, multi-award-winning, bisexual, blues phenomenon.”
On opening night two weeks ago, Caleb sat mostly expressionless as he focused on his drumming even during the most personal moments in the production, which first appeared two years at the Diversionary Theatre. But in its final moments, he managed to crack a small smile.
This endearing little break in his facade made me wonder: What is it like for him to be on stage behind a drum kit as his mother exposes her gritty and often-unhappy past, complete with photos, and his role in it? Caleb — who grew up walking over sleeping bands at his North County house as he sought morning cereal and cartoons — told me himself.
What has the experience of being in the show been like for you?
Growing up with Candye, with my mom, I’ve heard all the stories and know the inside of what’s going on. The whole story isn’t really new for me, which makes it easier to be a part of.
The story itself does have some ups and downs and trials and tribulations. It’s the reality of what she went through, and in a way, it’s kind of therapeutic to talk about it and get it out there. In a way, it puts it behind you even more: you make something with it, people get to see it and witness it, so you can talk about what’s next on your list.
There are some extreme moments, but at the same time, I feel like the story is bigger than us personally and directly. The story, of course it’s about her, but it also speaks out to lots of different people who have been in those shoes, or know people who have.
What are the emotional parts of the show for you?
For me, it’s the singing parts. She has a song, it’s like a lullaby, that she’d sing when I was a little kid when we were staying with my grandparents in the Highland Park area in East L.A. I have an emotional tie to hearing the song and have it come from her.
At that moment, it’s me and her, and the lights are on us. It’s an emotional moment, and that’s what makes theater so great. If you have emotion and you have dark spots and have some heroic moments, that’s what makes theater.
How do you deal with the more intimate parts of the show, like those that deal with her porn career?
I’ve gotten used to it. Growing up with her as my mother, I’ve gotten used to a lot of things.
I’ve been in the band with her for seven years, and whenever someone wants to write about her, typically the first few sentences are about her being in the porn industry or having a ginormous rack and all this stuff. The reality of this whole thing is that she was really young when she did all that.
It happened so long ago. It’s relevant because of the play. But I think, and she feels the same way, that people are uninformed and they just end up writing about sex because it’s the first thing they associate her with when she’s a world-renowned singer and has traveled to almost every continent in the world. Her resume and what she really has accomplished has been amazing when you think about where she came from: it’s been amazing to see the transition of coming from a poor neighborhood in East L.A. to watching my mom dominate the blues and being one of the best blues singers we have around.
All she’s doing is talking and telling her story. And my story, but mostly hers. I’m fine with that. I don’t think I should feel uncomfortable about it, although most kids might, hearing their mom hear about certain things.
I’m not like most kids, and we’re not like most families.
Please contact Randy Dotinga directly at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/rdotinga.