For most of us, "beach read" means a thriller with "Girl" in the title, but for playwright Christina Ham it meant the beginnings of "West of Central."
Like Lin-Manuel Miranda, who read Ron Chernow's "Alexander Hamilton" in a Mexican hammock and then made a musical out of it, Ham was devouring a vacation book when inspiration struck for her play, which opens Friday at Pillsbury House Theatre.
"I was rereading Dashiell Hammett. I love 'The Thin Man' and, especially, the couple aspect of it," says Ham, who's also a fan of the "Thin Man" movies that star William Powell and Myrna Loy as quippy married detectives. "I started thinking, 'What if they were African-American? What would that look like?' That made me think of resetting it from the 1930s to the '60s. And then I started to think about making the female detective the lead."
All of those what-ifs led to "West of Central" and its protagonist, Thelma Higgins (played by Austene Van). After the Watts riots reveal racial fault lines in mid-1960s Los Angeles, Higgins is sucked into dual mysteries: Her husband (Harry Waters Jr.) isn't the man she thought he was, if information given to her by a young woman is accurate. And the murder of that woman, the daughter of a real estate titan (Stephen Yoakam), sends Higgins on a search for the killer.
Van was drawn to Thelma because she's unapologetic about her skill.
"In the '60s, with the potential for misogyny and sexism and racism all at once, having her be so confident in who she is makes me want to make sure that I honor this character," says Van. "It's important to see women in power, and this particular one is a black woman, which you don't often get to see."
'I am not the help'
That was even truer in the past. Cast lists of the six "Thin Man" movies made between 1934 and 1947 include two black women, Louise Beavers and Etta McDaniel. Both played maids.
In "West of Central," Thelma is often mistaken for a maid.
"Steve's character, when they first meet, doesn't even see her. He sees a glimpse of skin color and says, 'I told you to make sure you empty these trash cans,' and she's, like, 'I am not the help. I'm here to ask you some questions.' Then he sees how composed and how well-dressed she is and it's like, 'Well, then, what are you?' " says Ham.
Questions like that made the role an easy sell for Van when Faye Price, Pillsbury House's co-artistic producing director, called to describe the tough-to-summarize character.
"Faye said, 'This is a detective role,' and I went, 'Say what?' Because I have a detective's mind. And she said that it's the '60s, and I love the '70s and late '60s — the style, the music, even though those years were not great to my culture. And she said, 'She loves her husband,' so I said, 'Keep talking, Faye,' and Faye said Thelma is independent. And strong. She told me, 'Think "Get Christie Love," ' recalls Van, referencing the 1970s TV series about an African-American undercover cop.
Like Love, Thelma Higgins encounters prejudice on a daily basis. That's because Ham — an L.A. native who relocated to Minneapolis but is currently back in California, writing for this fall's upcoming Netflix series "Chilling Adventures of Sabrina" — wanted to ground "West of Central" in fact.
In addition to the hard-boiled detective material, "West of Central" deals with African-American communities that were ripped apart by developers (the title refers to Central Avenue, once a hub of African-American life in L.A.). There are parallels to St. Paul's Rondo neighborhood, which was paved over by Interstate 94 and, like the movie "Chinatown," "Central" entangles a private dick in the corruption that built Los Angeles.
"The background of this story, in terms of gentrification and politics, is applicable to just about any major city," says Ham, whose "Nina Simone: Four Women" currently is being produced around the country. "In north Minneapolis, racial covenant laws kept groups out of communities, and this happened all over the country."
Van thinks the personal details ring as true as the civic ramifications.
"It's a generalization, but black people, I think, feel that everything we do has to be bigger, better, faster, more bionic," says Van. "That's why this woman wears a vest from Bonwit Teller. She has to be beyond reproach. I can speak, as an African-American woman, that sometimes you're aware that you need to put on that armor just to be heard."
Change also is reconfiguring Los Angeles, where gentrification is altering even Compton, once ground zero for gang activity. Because of the constantly shifting landscape, Ham is continuing to rewrite "West of Central," even though not all of the changes will be incorporated by Pillsbury House.
The hope is that the serious subject matter grounds "West of Central" in truth, and that the humor lands even harder as a result. Van says there's a similar balancing act for the actors and creative team, trying to navigate the moody elements of the piece while achieving "a heightened style, but an emotional truth."
"It's really fun to watch the actors perform that 'Thin Man' kind of banter. Just like 'The Thin Man,' they get into awkward, criminal situations and they're having to navigate that together while they're also having a husband-and-wife argument," says Ham. "I hope it's real, but I also hope it's really funny."