Fighting Shadows: Richard Cabral
The Emmy-nominated actor discusses life after gangs and the redemptive power of storytelling
Images courtesy of Fighting Shadows
Richard Cabral’s veins course proud with a belief in transformation. Even conversing over the phone, with 3,000 miles between us, the steady heartbeat, the thump-thump of his clear-eyed passion and ganas guides the rhythm of our conversation. We are talking his new one-man show, Fighting Shadows—a nothing-but-heart, can’t-get-more-real account of his coming up in East L.A. From a thicket of destruction—early days gang banging, addiction, and prison—the Emmy-nominated actor found his truth, and future in creation. Cabral is of the sons and daughters saved by art’s embrace.
The Mexican-American artist is now armed with only talent, sheer will, and the confidence instilled by Father Greg Boyle and Homeboy Industries, the nation’s largest and most successful gang intervention and rehab program, which provides job training, counseling, tattoo removal, and above all – hope – for formerly gang-involved youth and those recently incarcerated. Cabral’s life-affirming story truly takes shape in his urgency to share it and inspire others. He is a natural storyteller, a voice at the gate for those who Dr. King called “the least, the last, and the lost.” His work strips away the paper-thin exterior of Latino stereotype and reveals—through know-it-because-he-lived-it nuance and detail—a multidimensional narrative. With Fighting Shadows, Cabral has changed his marks of suffering into a thing beyond beauty. It is an artful promise of a way out.
Mass Appeal: Instead of going for just “entertainment,” you’re tapping into more of the ancient purpose of theater. At its origin, theater was intended to heal the city, to heal soldiers returning from war, and to help reintegrate them back into society. It’s like this show has the potential to do that for our street soldiers of today.
Richard Cabral: That’s the sole purpose. Originally, it started as a gang story, but the thing is that gang members suffer with just being lost and trying to belong. It’s the same thing that the whole world is going through. So it goes beyond just the streets. But definitely, it’s for the soldiers out there to just bring to life what the true essence is. For me now, it’s not following the lies no more. We don’t have to suffer like this. In the show, I go deep. I go real deep. Probably more than a lot of people, and the show is intense. My life is intense because the streets are intense. People are out here dying. That’s the reality. So, I cut the bullshit and I go straight to the heart.
The idea for a one-man show has been germinating for a while now?
Definitely. It’s been in creation for my whole life really. It’s my life story. I’m 32, so it’s been in creation for the last 32 years you could say.
Does the show follow the arc of your Lo Maximo Awards acceptance speech from 2013?
Yeah. That speech, it definitely is a piece of the heart of it. That speech was created by Robert Egan, the creator of this show also. He and I wrote that together. We rehearsed that speech. That was the first time me sending that message out. Definitely that was the seed of what we have today—this full blown one-man show.
Fighting Shadows incorporates aspects of story, as well as poetry and music?
There’s all that. I’ve been a poet since I was a kid. I never stopped and it’s part of me, so it’s definitely implemented in the show, from the beginning to the end. We have live music by one of the greatest authentic Mexican singers out here in Los Angeles, Rocio Libertad Mendoza. The show just has that vibe. All art forms coming into one.
What were some of the moments of transformation for you, where you realized that you couldn’t go back to the live you lived before, and you realized you would move forward through art?
I think there were two shifts. There was a worldly shift, and I say that because we have to live in this world and finances are what we have to live by. So when I had booked the show Southland, that was my first guest-starring role. That money was six months of wages at my other job. So that was one shift. But then, probably like a year late, like when I got really in-depth with storytelling and seeing the transformation it made in my life, I was standing in an acting class. I read this scene from one of my most favorite playwrights, Stephen Adly Guirgis. It was Den of Thieves. I was doing a monologue of Flaco. That was that moment for me. I remember just like crying through the whole scene because through Flaco all of my feelings were pouring out. I remember after that I thought “Fuck. I feel better.” I felt better, and I remember the audience getting up like we went through that experience with you. That’s when shit really triggered for me. Like this is what I’m supposed to do. This is my journey and I’ve been on it ever since.
Has acting satiated in you that longing to belong?
I definitely know now what I’m supposed to be doing. Now, I’m not trying to belong to anything. I know my journey is my journey and I believe that I’m here for a message, to help other people find their journey. And it might not be acting. It might not be writing. But we are all destined to do something. Whether it’s painting or helping others, I don’t know. But, my message is that they don’t have to just succumb to living in poverty or just working a 9-to-5 job to make ends meet. That there is a greater calling. You just have to be in tune with it.
You already mentioned Stephen Adly Guirgis. During the writing of this show, did you find yourself revisiting other key writers that influenced you?
Not really going back, but now I feel that my voice is just as valid. I mean there’s no one that talks about my streets. I had to tap into the East Coast playwrights because there is no one talking about it on the West Coast. I feel like it’s original. That’s where I’m at. I’m just fully concentrating on what’s happening right here, and just give my heart and soul to that. To give blood. To give this world blood. Because it hasn’t been given blood before.
For sure. There are so many stories, particularly Latino stories, that have yet to be told. Or they have been told, but reduced it all to some bullshit cholo stereotype.
That’s my whole thing. Right now, based on where my career has been at, I have the opportunity to work on other projects, but I shut down everything, because I wasn’t going to be happy with myself if I kept on working on films that portrayed this life, but weren’t getting it right. They’ve never got it right. And I worked with some of the greatest, but they have like never really told the story of what happens out here. I wouldn’t live happy, I wouldn’t die happy if I didn’t do this show.
There’s a sense of responsibility that comes with it.
But not everyone heeds that call. They run away, sip champagne to forget where they came from.
Yeah. Right. Right. But my family is still involved. At the end of the day, I can drink champagne, but then there’s the moment where I look back and I see my family. My family will always be there. So, it’s like either I do something about it now, or I do something about it later. But, the problem is always going to there. Why? Because of my family. I might as well just fucking do it right now and keep on doing it. It’s just about that. It’s about giving. There is no greater prize, no greater exchange than helping somebody out I believe.
And that’s often missing when this narrative is told by an outsider, that gang life is intergenerational. It’s hereditary. It’s transmitted from one generation to the next.
Definitely. My family has been involved in gangs since the 1970s. So, it’s not like some shit I stumbled on. Like you said, it was passed on, and that’s how it is. In these communities, it’s all passed on. You learn it from somewhere.
When did you come to realize that the world was bigger than the block, the neighborhood? Did that come through reading?
I think definitely through reading. I was always a big reader in jail. I mean, the first time I got out of the county or something was on a prison bus. Running into other people from other areas and understanding that there’s more to the city of Los Angeles, you’re not exposed to that in the inner city as a kid. You’re just exposed to these blocks, and that’s all you know. When I started traveling, that opened another door. Getting out. Simple, just getting out.
What do you say then to the kid locked up now, in juvie, that’s already been in and out of the system at an early age, that’s starting to write and discover their own voice, that maybe dreams of telling their story?
That their stories are valid. That their stories really matter. That they don’t have to live and die like the rest of the community that they came from. There’s more than that. It’s hard and it’s sad, but sometimes the closest people to us can bring us down, like family. But you don’t know any better. It doesn’t matter where the negativity comes from. You have to shape it into positivity. If you are around that negativity you will be sucked in. The more you pursue the opposite, you pursue the positive, the more the greatness in you grows, and you will be able to achieve it. I mean, I haven’t gotten there yet, but I feel like I’m a testament to that. I mean I haven’t arrived. You never arrive. But, I feel like I’ve lived some truth of that statement.
Have you thought about your show possibly being someone’s first experience going to the theater?
Oh hell yeah. We have a Homeboy Industries Night. I know for a fact that more than half of those, like nearly 80 percent of them have never been to a theater or have ever been to see a play in their life. I never went to a play. My first play wasn’t until I was in my late 20s. And that just happened to be because I was pursing acting. 90 percent of these kids, 99.9 percent of these kids don’t care about acting. So yeah, this will be their first experience.
Just how intrinsic are Father Greg and Homeboy Industries to your journey? Would we even be sitting here and talking if it weren’t for your paths crossing?
Definitely not. Definitely not. It comes down to Father Greg. He’s the one. He’s the one that gave me that awakening. That existence to believe. It was through him. It was that belief in me that he instilled. That goes beyond anything. I wouldn’t be talking to you to here today otherwise.
Before going to Homeboy Industries, what was it like looking for job and reintegrating back into life after you got out of prison?
Homeboy Industries was like a last resort. I thought that I had the capability to do it on my own, but when shit hit the fan, I realized that I couldn’t. It was a lot harder than I thought it would be. It was difficult, but Homeboy Industries helped me with the transition. They took me in. As I was. They loved me as I was. Father G took me in as I was. He didn’t have these bullshit expectations that this society has of you.
Is it from that philosophy that you’ve implemented a notion of giving back into your creative practice?
Yeah. I’ve been blessed to have great mentors throughout my life, but my first mentor was Father Greg Boyle. And I still look up to him like that. What he does is beyond. I want to be like him. He changed my life, so how can I not pass on the medicine? How can I not pass on what he passed on to me? And I’m doing it. And it’s needed. I’m doing it, slowly, but surely. I’m bringing others to art. I have people that before have only experienced the hood, and now they are at my old acting studio with my acting coach. Like, fuck. It worked. They are transforming their lives. That’s the bottom line.
Fighting Shadows will preview on Friday, April 15, at 8 p.m. The show officially opens on Saturday, April 16, and will run through May 8, 2016, (Thurs. & Fri. at 8 p.m., Sat. at 5 p.m. & 8 p.m., Sun. at 3 p.m. & 6 p.m.) at The Rosenthal Theater at Inner-City Arts in Los Angeles (720 Kohler Street). A portion of the proceeds will benefit Homeboy Industries. Purchase tickets here.