Los Angeles

The Americano Mythos

La Victima.jpg

A theater movement born from a civil rights movement is underway like a brown tide.

Latino/a Theater is a under-documented literary form with deep roots in the fertile soil of California that began as voices from its fields and groves. It grew into Teatro Chicano and is now a prominent form of American Theater, rivaling the themes of the conflict, flux, or successes of the American Dreams from mid 20th-Century
playwrights like Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, and Tennessee Williams.

Because of Latino/a theater, those themes have migrated throughout the Southwest and are moving Eastward. It speaks to the very nature of our shared citizenship: Children of immigrants asking the question: What is the American Dream?

Myth Reappearing

But can the Chicano experience be interpreted as the American experience?

"Chicanos are Americans," says Jorge Huerta, a leading scholar of Chicano/a and Latino/a Theater. He notes how this theater movement has expanded by multiple generations and shaped a defined brand of nationalism, yet can also show the conflicts of assimilation or resistance to being colonized. "It is still moving forward," he says.

The cultural legacy of Latino storytelling is based in murals, as Huerta noted in our conversation by phone and in his writings, yet all art forms rooted in Chicano idealism use a linear interpretation of spirituality that, in part, comes from a history of invading Roman-Catholics attempting to eliminate indigenous Mexican folklore. That was not always successful. The figurative icons, such as Our Lady of Guadelupe, are among the spiritual references that become urbanized in the 1960s and 1970s, reviving Mexican figures and Aztec and Mayan theology on the walls of Los Angeles barrios.

But the use of "Chicano imaginary" was void of extended narrative that could be only provided by playwrights, Huerta postulates. It continued to grow, and current plays and scripts from Latino/a companies have become multicultural works, and showing how the movement has evolved and begun to carry bolder themes of sexuality, as well as speaking for the current wave of immigrants. "No one teaches strictly Chicano Theater," Huerta told me. "There are reconfigurations published and played. Latinas have come into the fold."

The genre just looks fresh because outside the Latino/a theatre radar, many are unaware of the stories that have been produced. "Latino/a Theatre is new to Americans," says Huerta.

In many ways, the movement is also new to the very people producing these works. This year, national companies who produce Latino/a theatre rediscovered one another. In May 2012, playwright Anne García-Romero, an assistant professor at the University of Notre Dame, attended The Center for the Theater Commons, who hosted a small group of Latino/a Theater Artists. Together they saw how a multi-cultural U.S. experience was being played out. "The stories have expanded the conversation of immigration and assimilation," García-Romero told me by phone. "This is a theatre community; a national theater of Latino culture that show a complexity of our heritage, as a multi-cultural society."

Later, in June, García-Romero was at 2012 Theater Communications Group National Conference, where more attendees gathered to once again affirm a movement has been rumbling.

At the conference, several long standing theater companies were revealed, showing that Latino/a based groups around the western United States go as far back as the 1970s.

Among those attending was Diane Rodriguez, Associate Producer/Director of New Play Production for Center Theatre Group, who oversees the search for prospective stories, walking through a playwright with workshops to produce new works.

There are now plans underway to create a national Latino/a network to seek ways to support each other, and keep moving works forward, far beyond its initial identity of Chicano/a theater.

"While Chicano theatre is still bantered around, it's a very diverse aesthetic. A lot of the younger playwrights are writing about diverse stories," says Rodriguez, who referred to the work, "Palestine, New Mexico." The 2010 play by Richard Montoya for Culture Clash portrayed a female Afghanistan War Veteran who crossed the desert only to find herself on the cultural borders of Latinos, Native Americans and Jews.

Richard Montoya in 'Palestine, New Mexico' written by Montoya for Culture Clash.

It Began with Field Work

As a marginalized ethnic American, poet Jose Montoya, Richard's father, embraced Bay Area counter culture in the early 1960s. As a high school teacher in Northern California, he challenged stereotypes while teaching and writing. He became active with striking farm workers as a matter of principle and developed a satirical veneer when presenting Chicanos poking holes in the walls that kept him or her out of the American Dream.

His founding of the Royal Chicano Air Force, which began as an education project at California State University, Sacramento, gave Jose Montoya a platform. With works supporting César E. Chávez and the United Farm Workers, he developed himself -- and others -- into writers, performance artists, and as muralists.

That visual aesthetic became focused dramaturgy by playwright Luis Valdez when, as a 1965 drama graduate from San José State University, wanted to create popular theater to support striking farm workers. First he joined the San Francisco Mime Troupe, where Valdez learned to translate social issues into political theater by adapting disciplines of agitprop theater, as practiced by Bertolt Brecht.

Through Teatro Campesino, the theater company used quick satirical sketches, actos, as based on Italian commedia dell'arte, that adapted stock characters immigrant farm workers understood."There are certain people that appeal to me. I think of them as Chicanos," Valdez once wrote when speaking of Plautus, Roman farcical playwright. "I like the fact he was a slave that became a playwright. That's me."

Valdez playwriting ideology re-interpreting early Chicano identity went beyond the short actos in a major work with sturdier narrative structure about a "grave injustice" committed in 1942.

In his touchstone Zoot Suit (1978), Valdez writes the character of Henry Reyna as a tragic figure during World War II era Los Angeles. His alter ego is El Pachuco, first played by Edward James Olmos.

El Pachuco's entrance begins with a switchblade slicing through a mural-sized newspaper with presumed historical non-truths. He stepped toward the audience with a move as smooth and slow as a jazz riff so Valdez and his words could invite the audience to allow social realism to mix with polished staging, while reviving the Aztec and Mayan Gods as a flashy and stylized barrio incarnation. The production opens with, "Ladies and gentlemen the play you are about to see is a construct of fact and fantasy. The Pachuco was an act in life and his language a new creation." With that opening monologue, Valdez channeled of all his previous dramaturgy and ushered in Chicano Theater with measured epic defiance.

The Movement

Perhaps now, Broadway in downtown Los Angeles, named after the Great White Way, can meet its own myth by becoming a symbolic center of Latino/a theatre: call it the Great Brown Way.

With Latino/Chicano Theater now representing a major portion of the Southwest populous, Broadway is the very street where the Zoot Suit riots occurred.

The Center Theater Group, two blocks from Broadway, continues to workshop new works since, as Rodriguez says, "Latinos are still marginalized." Cornerstone Theatre Company creates pieces with and for communities are sometimes staged at Los Angeles Theater Center on Spring and 5th, one block away from Broadway, such as Café Vida, a doppelgänger for Homeboy Cafe in Downtown Los Angeles. Across the street is Company of Angels, which includes Latino-written works in their seasons. The Latino Theatre Company, in residence at Los Angeles Theater Center, who have shaped Los Angeles Latino's theater under Artistic Director, Jose Luis Valenzuela, since 1984.

Artistic Director Michael John Garcés with members of Cornerstone Theater Company | Photo: Ed Fuentes.

Los Bards

It was also in 1984 Culture Clash was formed. If there is a need to identify a movement by its playwrights, Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas, Herbert Siguenza would be on the short list of those successfully bringing urgent, even if satirical, content to the stage.

"Our power structure alone is relatively new, and indictments and people who run afoul are many: Southgate City Council, The Bronx City Councilman," Richard Montoya told me. "We are reaching, and some want a short cut to the brass ring. Irish, Italian, Jewish-American communities all went through this and the playwrights and picture writers responded with the cautionary tale."

When Montoya was developing "Water & Power," he recalls asking Gordon Davidson, then Center Theater Group Artistic Director, if it was "too early for a cautionary tale as we were celebrating the election of our first Chicano mayor in over a century." Montoya says Davidson advised him with "It's never too early for a such a story."

They moved forward thoughtful works while still keeping their satire as a form of resistance, and their update of Chicano theater as multicultural theater still relies on their ideology, playwriting, and performance. That political focus once used the eradicated community of Chávez Ravine as subject in 2003's 'Chávez Ravine.' Playwright August Wilson considered Chávez Ravine as a parallel with his own Radio Golf, once said Montoya during the run of "Water and Power." Like Wilson's works, shaping one's own culture is not about fearing "the white devil," but handling the devil within. "Ours is about our own Latino demons, ambitions and desires, our very American ideals," said Montoya, as they aspire to producing a higher form of literature. "Since Clifford Odets, Arthur Miller and Edward Albee, Latinos have been asking and yearning for our 'Death of a Salesman.' And from me saying: we can handle drama."

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In "American Night: The Ballad of Juan José," a 2011 production written by Richard Montoya, developed by Culture Clash and Jo Bonney, alternative American history was again the subject, anchored by the ballad protagonist, Juan José, a Mexican immigrant seeking citizenship. Fatigued after grappling with the details of constitutional amendments and the moral contradiction of war the night before his test, José's deep sleep takes him on a journey through 200 years of lost history never formally taught.

The play addresses the immigration and anti-immigrant fervor that, according to Montoya, followed "Arizona and the rise of the Tea Party movement."

This has Culture Clash realigning Teatro Chicano satire by authoring ethnic faces as a new form of the aliented American dreamer as contemporary national character.

Juan José is one of the many potential Willy Lomans.

"American Night: The Ballad of Juan José" is opening at Yale Repertory Theatre in September, after being staged at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, La Jolla Playhouse, Taper and Denver Theater Center. "These are not Latino centers, exactly. But the work -- searing political satire in the case of 'Night' -- needs to be seen in the Anglo enclaves" said Montoya. "I am taking back the Town Hall and we have had very few walk-outs. Yes, I have an agenda, but at the core of that agenda is to humanize the central character, Juan Jose."

But is there something more behind the agenda? "Angry? Yes. Is our theater thriving? I don't know. I see many Latino writers avoiding these issues and writing about other things -- which is their choice," adds Montoya. "I have a responsibility to stay focused, (and keep) cross hairs on the most sensitive issues facing America. And business is booming."

Or as Huerta says, "All forms of art are essential in self-aware society" and its work is now "fundamental to a better understanding" to what it means to have ancestry from Mexico. American Drama becomes its own duality of Chicano and Latino/a as a mandate hoping for the "American Mythos." As a theatre movement, it invites self-awareness that the American Dream is, as Valdez wrote for El Pachuco, a "mix of fact and fantasy."


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Top Image: Lupe Ontiveros (on floor,) Lucy Rodriquez, Sal Lopez and J. Ed Araiza in "La Victima," directed by Jose Luis Valenzuela. | Photo: Ed Krieger

About the Author

Ed Fuentes is an arts journalist, photographer, graphic designer, and digital muralist who covers a variety of topics and geographies in Southern California for KCET.
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