Richard Cabral’s One-Man Show Is a Compelling Tearjerker on Going from Inmate to Emmy Nominee

Photo of Richard Cabral in 'Fighting Shadows' one-man show. Courtesy of Paper Planes Collective

Emmy-nominated actor Richard Cabral was born and raised in East L.A. His father abandoned him and his mother when he was young and treated them like an afterthought. Unfortunately, gangs welcomed him with open arms. He spent years in and out of jail and ultimately faced a life sentence for shooting a man. Cabral survived and eventually got a new lease on life. In prison he earned his GED and started writing poetry. After his last stint, a friend referred Cabral to Homeboy Industries and its leader Father Gregory Boyle, where he landed a job and some hope. The nonprofit also connected him with Central Casting. His first acting job was playing a Cuban gangster on NCIS: Miami. That role led to many others including Southland, Key and Peele and his turn as Hector Tonz in ABC’s critically acclaimed series American Crime that earned him an Emmy nod. Now he’s sharing his life experiences in a one-man show Fighting Shadows, one man’s story.

Richard Cabral is doing something pretty dope with his show. Produced by actress Jami Gertz in association with Homeboy Industries and Inner City Arts, Cabral wrote it with director Robert Egan, who has some serious theater cred. He is the Artistic Director of the Ojai Playwright’s Conference and former Producing Artistic Director of the Mark Taper Forum. The Taper Forum is L.A.’s Lincoln Center. Suffice to say Cabral has a legit team helping him tell his story.

For a hour and a half, you witness Cabral fight his innermost demons with even more commitment than what we are used to from his television acting. In the first 20 minutes you already know his father abandoned him and that the first girl he fell in love with, Grace, was killed in a car crash right after they starting going out. It’s intense. Sometimes you want a break, because damn, seriously? Another horrible thing happened to you?!

There’s a line in the show: “bend, don’t break,” but after watching him relay his history, you are left thinking, “How the fuck is this man alive?” He grew up in a world where passing down prison pants was a rite of passage. His father abandoned him, he became a drug dealer, drug addict, a gang member and he shot some people. He was not what we call an upstanding citizen. Yet, you can’t help but look up to him as he forgoes victimhood for resilience.

We’ve heard stories similar to his but, we’ve never heard them from Richard Cabral. The difference is that this one isn’t conceived by a Hollywood studio. This is a man owning up to his experiences and sharing them with an admirable vulnerability.

The soundtrack to this show can easily be titled “Sniffles, everybody in the audience had them.” There’s a scene where Cabral has to tell Father Boyle, Richard’s mentor from Homeboy Industries, that he messed up. Cabral is shaking and scared until he says what he needs to say. Father Boyle responds by opening his arms and offering a hug. You could feel Cabral learning how to breathe again. I don’t know how he does this show twice in a day.

When I left, a group of kids were waiting for Cabral to come out. When he did, he took his time with each one. “What kindness,” I thought. Then, as I was walking to my car, I saw a woman, probably in her late forties bawling. I asked her, “What got you the most?” She responded, “The drug shadows. I’m a recovering addict. Heroin. Two years. That was very real… that gave me hope.” Uff. Richard Cabral for the win.

Fighting Shadows runs through May 8 at The Rosenthal Theater at Inner-City Arts. A portion of the proceeds benefit Homeboy Industries.