Playwright Tom Jacobson shares the origins of The Ballad of Bimini Baths
In 2013, Son of Semele Ensemble and I decided to collaborate on a project that had the following criteria: 1) focused on Los Angeles history, 2) site-specific, and 3) possibly immersive. Together, we explored a variety of fascinating locations in Southern California, including Summer Camp (an El Sereno art gallery and studio), the South Seas House in West Adams, and Heritage Square in the Arroyo. But we at last found what we were looking for much closer to home: the historic street Bimini Place, located just three blocks from the Son of Semele Theater revealed itself as the ideal location and subject matter.
A natural hot spring resort on the western border of Los Angeles when it was built just off Vermont Avenue in 1902, Bimini Baths had a dramatic history. Today it’s the site of Bresee Youth Center, Mijoo Peace Church, and Bimini Recovery Home. Tragic tales of drownings and arson contrasted with the hope of rebirth upon the founding of Los Angeles Eco-Village following the civil unrest in 1992. Drama practically bubbled up from the ground.
A series of workshops began with interviews, research, improvisations and lots of discussion. Actors from Son of Semele Ensemble were at the core of each workshop, but artists from outside the company also made vital contributions. Actors wrote letters to and from their characters, while I took notes, drafted outlines, radically revised storylines, and wrote several versions of a script, including one designed to go backward and forward in time simultaneously while tracing the century-long journey of a young woman whose brother drowned at Bimini. The Eco-Village and Bresee Center offered space and resources, and a comprehensive site-specific path was laid out that included a grave in a garden, ghosts in a storm drain, and fires igniting everywhere.
Ultimately, however, the site-specific approach proved logistically and financially impractical for a company as small as Son of Semele; they elected to step out. But I had enjoyed the process, and learned a great deal about our neighborhood, as well. Who knew that a restaurant named 13th Heaven on the top floor of American Storage Building featured waiters in angel wings? Who had seen photos of a secret stream named Sacatella Creek that still runs underneath Westmoreland Avenue? Who remembered when Charles Ray Studios filmed The Courtship of Miles Standish on a lake where a sex club stands today?
I decided to take this wealth of material to the Center Theatre Group LA Writer’s Workshop in 2015 and turned it into a trilogy of plays called The Ballad of Bimini Baths. The three plays are linked by Bimini as well as the conflict between two characters over four decades. Several of the characters in the trilogy were based on real people, including the first art curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science and Art (Everett Maxwell), an acclaimed Japanese-American short-story writer (Hisaye Yamamoto) and the architect of the 1963 March on Washington (Bayard Rustin). Their stories are funny, heart-breaking, inspiring and epic in scope. And now, coming full circle, The Ballad of Bimini Baths will have a series of developmental readings at Son of Semele, where the journey began!
— Tom Jacobson