Monday, June 11, 2012

THE FRIDA KAHLO PROJECT


At work, I wanted to produce a work that had a multicultural feel, and being that my Mexican roots cry to be exposed every time an opportunities comes around, I decided I wanted to direct a play about Frida Kahlo, the "surrealist" Mexican painter, married to Diego Rivera, the great Mexican muralist. 

Originally I wanted to direct someone else's play but someone above my supervisor decided that I should write the play, after all, I'm a playwright, right? (Obviously, they don't know much about theatre.) And so, the Frida Kahlo Project was born. 

From the moment I knew I was going to be the playwright, I started the research. So far, I've read "Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo by Hayden Herrera." I watched two documentaries one by PBS titled, "The Life and Times of Frida Kahlo." I revisited the movie "FRIDA" directed y Julie Taymor and acted by Salma Hayek. I also read "Frida Intima," by Isolda P. Kahlo, who is Frida's niece and appears in many of the pictures and paintings. 

Right now I'm in Mexico City getting ready to tackle the visits to four different museums found in four different areas of the city. And no, one cannot visit two museums per day; there is a lot of distance to cover from one place to the next. So, I'm visiting one museum per day with the hopes that I don't overload.

Day 1: La Casa Azul (The Frida Museum)
Day 2: Anahuacalli (The Diego Rivera Museum)
Day 3: Diego's Studio (Frida and Diego's House)

You would think that with all this research, I should know what type of play I'm going to write. I don't know. But this I do know: I don't want to write a fictional account of Frida's life based on true events. I don't want to write a play about Frida and Diego; the movie did that and it bored me to death. I also don't want to write a story where everything of emphasis is the fact that Frida suffered, suffered, and suffered some more, which is basically what everyone seems to think when looking at her paintings and reading  about her life. 

It is clear I know what I DON'T WANT TO DO. But I'm still wondering what the hell is it that I WANT TO DO. Whatever it is, I hope it comes out in a way that sheds new light into Frida's personal life and artistic achievements while combining Mexican traditions, music, dance, and culture, specially from the State of Oaxaca. Why? Well, because Frida's roots are there hence the reason why she wore a Tehuana most of her life.  

Saturday, February 18, 2012

WHY WAIT FOR “THEM” TO SCREW US OVER WHEN WE CAN DO IT OURSELVES


Back in November 2011, Tlaloc Rivas, a theatre director and professor at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, called attention to an incident where Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) in Washington, DC decided to change the names of two characters to Latino names that were, needless to say, offensive to many of us Latino theatre artists. At the same time, TheaterWorks, a company in Hartford, CT decided to ignore the Latino nationality of the two main characters in the play, The Motherfucker with the Hat by Stephen Adly Guirgis. 

Tlaloc’s decision to confront the Shakespeare company called the attention of many of us, including Peter Marks from the Washington Post, who wrote an article on the issue. At the same time, the playwright of “TMWTH,” along with HOLA (Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors) in New York City and many of us, went after the TheaterWorks decision to cast white actors in Latino roles, and many different short postings appeared in The New York Times. At the end, some letters were sent out, some responses were received, some discussions took place, and all the brouhaha came and went. In short, time passed and life moved on.

A few days ago, The New York Times published an article regarding how Asian-American actors go uncast on the Broadway stage while Randy Gener—renowned lecturer and speaker in art, culture, and international theatre, talked about such fact in a NPR report.

When I saw such article, I sent a link of it to all my theatre contacts, via email, Facebook, and twitter. The link was accompanied with a set of questions: “Why is it that Latino artists aren’t even considered for an article in the NYT? Why are we so ignored? Why are we so behind? Why am I so angry about this?” My purpose was to initiate a conversation about an issue we’re facing as we speak.

Among the few responses there was one answer which brought to my attention a more troubling issue. It happens to be that Miracle Theatre Group (El Milagro Theatre) a Latino theatre company in Portland OR is producing a play by Jose Rivera titled, Boleros for the Disenchanted. This play has all Latino characters, from Puerto Rico, who at some point migrate to the United States, a great opportunity for any theatre director to take advantage and cast the best Latino actors they can find. Yet, sadly to say, El Milagro Theatre’s production seems to have cast actors who are not Latino. 

Because I don’t know anything about the actors, I realized that I am basing my assumptions simply on their names, yet Kylie Clark Johnson, Logan Loughmiller, Ted Schultz, and Luisa Sermol do not sound like Latino actors who should be playing roles name: Flora and Eusebio, Puerto Rican immigrants living in Alabama; although Luisa Sermol sounds the closest to a Latino nationality, but my gut tells me is just ‘wishful thinking.”

And so, here are my thoughts on this issue: While many of us Latino artist are constantly fighting to have equality on the theatre stage, there seems to be at least one Latino theatre company who doesn’t mind that casting non-Latino actors in Latino roles is a problem. So I ask, ‘If a Latino theatre company does not care about taking the opportunity away from Latino actors, why should a non-Latino theatre company even take the time to think about it?” I mean, why wait for “them” to screw us over when we can do it ourselves?

This dilemma only emphasizes my belief on why we, as a Latino community in this country, are so far behind from every other minority group. We may be the fastest-largest growing community in the nation but we seem to be the most divided too. And although this entry is not about politics, this is exactly our problem as a political force.

But I digress.

Many of us have been trying for quite some time to come to grasps with the harsh reality that we, as a community of Latino theatre artists are being ignored left and right. And to see a Latino theatre company to suddenly do the same is not only a disappointment but also a slap on the face to the many efforts and goals we have been trying to accomplish. Although I admit, Miracle Theater is a very small company compared to others in Portland. But every little counts, doesn't it? 

I mean, what the hell do we need to do? Isn’t it enough we’re already fighting against the ignorance of non-Latino theatre companies that now we have to add a Latino theatre company to the list of our ‘frenemies?’

And what message that such action from “El Milagro” sends to the rest of the companies in the nation? I can see it now: “Look, they did it! Why can’t we?” or “If Latino theatre companies “brownfaced” why can’t we? If they complain, we can always call them off on their shit, right?” 

It is frustrating and difficult to talk about this matter, mainly because I’m a playwright and I know I am going to feel the backlash from many of my own artist friends. If Miracle Theatre did not know about my work, now they’re really not going to care.  But I rather call it as I see it, and mainly because the founders, the artistic directors, and associate directors are Latino, and one of them even serves in the Executive Committee for Theatre Communications Group's Board of Directors TCG, an organization dedicated to the promotion of non-profit professional theater in the country. 

I know I’m opening a can of worms, I know it. But I’m only doing it because if I am going to point the finger to those non-Latino theatre companies who decide to ‘brownface”, then it is only fair to do the same to Latino theatre companies who also dare to do it, no matter how small.

Will I be hated? I don’t know, but better hated for what I believe than be silent for not engaging in the conversation. I may be wrong about all this, including the fact that the actors in the aforementioned production AREN’T Latino and also because I don't know the reasons why the company decided to do what they did. I'm also well aware of the danger I have set myself up to because I'm solely basing my argument on the actors' last names. There are, after all, "non-Spanish" sound last names for Latinos, so I seem to be assuming. Then again, I could be right about my assumption regarding this casting. I don’t know. I only hope that when the time comes, a “milagro” can save me. 

Sunday, February 12, 2012

STOP ME IF YOU HEARD THIS ONE BEFORE


I recently attended the American College Theatre Festival, Region IV Conference. It took place in Daytona Beach, FL.  At the conference, I attend many events, especially those dedicated to new work. I do this because I am intrigued by what young people are interested in writing about. These new plays are by students, and regardless of who picked them for the conference, you are bound to be surprised by incredible pieces of work or works that truly don’t deserve to be there.

Take my experience with one of the one-acts from the year before. (Yes, I attended the same conference last year.) The written work was good, the acting was good, the staging was good, the plot, the themes, the story, everything was good, and by the audience reaction, the play did what it was supposed to do: touch the human spirit. Yet I did not enjoy such play. And why is that, you might ask yourself? Well, because I had seen that story, that plot, and those characters before. Literally! 

Stop me if you heard this plot before: Two pre-adolescent boys are sexually abused by an adult. Now, as young adults, one of the teenagers is depressed and contemplating suicide while the other has become an introvert and secludes himself to a fantasy world. The story uses flashbacks to reveal the past as the story moves forward in the present. There is a girl who’s also introvert and secludes herself to a fantasy world, as well as parents who are aloof. Have you heard it before? No?

How about this one? Two 8-year old boys are sexually abused by their baseball couch. Now as young adults one of them has become a male prostitute while the other retreats into a fantasy of alien abduction. There is a girl who’s also introvert and retreats into a fantasy of alien abduction, as well as parents who are aloof. The story uses flashback to reveal the past as the story moves forward in the present.  Recognized this one? No?

The first story is the plot of a one-act which won the playwriting competition at Region IV two years ago and as a prize it was produced and presented at the same conference last year. The second story is the plot for an award winning movie titled, “Mysterious Skin” based on the novel of the same name by Scott Heim.

Last year, when I was watching the one-act, I was not amused by the similarities to the movie. And I wondered if any of the students or professors present at the event knew what was happening. At the end of the show everyone applauded the young playwright. I, on the other hand, wanted to go to him and ask him a few questions. But it wasn’t my place, and because I didn’t know any of the judges, I simply decided to keep my mouth shut.

This year, while watching the winning productions of last year’s competition, I sat next to one of the judges, now a friend. During intermission, I mentioned to him my experience with the one-act from the year before. My friend revealed that he was one of the judges for that particular play. He said he had never heard of “Mysterious Skin,” the novel or the movie, and was very disturbed how I recognized the entire plot, characters and story in the one-act. He also mentioned that it would have been nice if I had said something. But, oh well.

The thing that bothers me the most about this one-act incident, and obviously still bothers me because I’m writing about it a year after it happened, is that in order for such one-act to be produced and presented at the conference, it needed to go through a series of steps:

1) Written by the student. 
2) Evaluated by the professor. 
3) Submitted to the festival. 
4) Chosen based on writing quality. 
5) Received a staged reading while competing against many other one-acts. 
6) Evaluated by a judging panel. 
7) If selected, presented as a production the next year.  

The play goes through a two year process before making it on stage as a production before moving to the national level. So if two years passed before making it to the stage, is it possible that no one caught on the fact that the student had stolen (my conclusion) the entire plot, story, theme, and characters from an independent film? Is it possible that no one recognized the story when the one-act was presented as a staged reading? (I did not attend the conference when the play was chosen as a staged reading.) Is it possible that no one really noticed the similarities? My biggest regret is not mentioning anything to the judges or to the playwright when the play was presented as a production. But as I said, it was a difficult situation. I wasn’t a judge; I was an audience member, and I was a new face at the conference.

This year, I attended the stage-readings of the 10-minute plays, the one-acts, and the production of the two one-acts which won the staged readings last year. I’m glad to report there were no similar plots to any obscure novel or independent film. There were however, two very horrible one-act productions and those who saw them would agree with me. But that’s a totally different conversation.  One perhaps save for next year. 

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

OUT OF SIGHT, OUT OF MIND

Last month, two discussions regarding Latino actors and Latino representation on stage took place in national newspapers, facebook, and in different blogs.

The issue regarding Latino actors has to do with a casting choice by Theatreworks in Connecticut who decided to cast the main two leads of the play, The Motherfucker with the Hat with two Anglo American actors when the roles were created for two Latino (Puerto Rican to be exact) actors.

The issue regarding Latino representation has to do with the renaming of two characters in Much Ado About Nothing, where the producing team decided to place the play in Cuba and named two characters Juan Frijoles and Juan Huevos.

In both cases, Latino Theatre artist, as well as Stephen Adly Guirgus, author of “The Hat,” spoke loudly about their disagreements with the choices made by both theatre companies.

Theatreworks defended its position given different explanations and went on to have the run of the show, while Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, DC decided to go back to the original name of the characters and made the necessary changes to the program.

While one company took action and another ignored the people’s outcry, the most important aspect about these events is not what they did or how it was resolved but rather that they did it in the first place.

Since 9/11, Latino people have been the escape goat for American politics. We are immigrants and therefore we’re a danger to national security. We’re also “Illegal” in the country and therefore a burden to it.

Politicians have used immigration as a platform to run for governors, senators, and presidents. Unfortunately, most politicians have used the immigration issue to gain the confidence of conservative constituents who believe immigrants (Latinos) do not belong in this country and therefore need to be ‘send back to where they came from.’

Another aspect that has played out in our nation is the issue of race. When most people talk about race, they talk about it in terms of “Black people and White people.” For some reason, we, the brown people are not part of the equation. When this happens, we Latinos are placed in the back burner and slowly we start to disappear from people’s consciousness. The only reason why we seem to be present in people’s minds is because of immigration, and as we know, that is a bad thing.

So, when we as a Latino community and culture, are place at the back of the bus and are ignored and only acknowledge for negative emphasis, we lose credibility and strength. We lose our voice and our visibility. And suddenly, as the saying goes, we are “out of sight and out of mind.”

To me, these two examples are reasons why theatre companies are able to cast white actors in Latino roles and rename characters with insensitive Latino stereotypes. They know we are here but we are not really in their consciousness. So to them, it is easy to make decisions like the aforementioned without really thinking of the consequences.

This phenomenon happened to the Asian American community back in the 90s, when Broadway brought to the stage Miss Saigon and the role of The Engineer was given to Jonathan Pryce, an English white actor instead of an Asian Actor. At the time, playwright David Henry Hwang took issue with such decision through letters, protests and strikes. At the end, Mr. Hwang’s efforts did not change the producing team’s decision and Mr. Pryce went on to receive a Tony for his performance.

In the long run, however, David Henry Hwang’s efforts came on top because thanks to such actions, Asian American theatre artists have received the respect they deserved and since then have been in people’s consciousness, thus in theatre companies’ minds.

********************************** ESPAÑOL ********************************************
No one dares to use an Asian stereotype on stage, nor do they dare to cast a non-Asian in an Asian role. And if they do, the Asian community presses a red button and solutions are made even before a show goes into rehearsals. I know I’ve seen it.

The Asian community, like the Black community, has a voice and representation on Broadway thanks to the efforts of their theatre artists. We as Latinos, however, haven’t been able to break the invisible shield that keeps “the other” from reaching Broadway.  We have been able to sneak in and out without much controversy, but we really haven’t been able to leave a print on the Great White Way.

This is yet another reason why theatre companies feel they can do as they please with the Latino community and its culture. After all, if we’re out of sight, we’re out of mind and no one will really care about us, right?  


El mes pasado, una discusión acerca de actores latinos y otra acerca de la representación de latinos en el teatro se llevó a cabo en los periódicos nacionales, facebook, y en diferentes blogs.

El problema acerca de actores latinos tiene que ver con el ‘casting’ por la compañía TheatreWorks en la ciudad de Connecticut, los cuales decidieron darle los papeles principales en la obra, “The Motherfucker with the Hat” a dos actores anglo-sajones en lugar de a dos actores latinos (Puerto Roqueños para ser exactos.)

El problema acerca de la representación de latinos en el teatro tiene que ver con cambiar los nombres de dos personajes en la obra Much Ado About Nothing, donde la producción decidió ubicar la obra en Cuba y nombrar a dos personajes Juan Frijoles y Juan Huevos.

En los dos casos, los teatros, al igual que el dramaturgo Stephen Adly Guirgus, autor de “The Hat,” pronunciaron su desacuerdo con las decisiones tomadas por las dos compañías de teatro.

Theatreworks defendió su posición dando varias explicaciones y continuó presentando la obra, mientras que la Compañía Teatral de Shakespeare de la Ciudad de Washington decidió regresar a los nombres originales e hizo los cambios necesarios en los programas de la función.

Mientras que una compañía decidió escuchar las quejas, otra decidió ignorarlas. El aspecto más importante de estos eventos no es lo que las compañías hicieron ni como se resolvieron o no los eventos, sino el hecho de que estas cosas llegaron a pasar.

Desde los ataques de Septiembre 11, los latinos han sido utilizados como el chivo expiatorio dentro de la política Norte Americana. Somos inmigrantes y por lo tanto un peligro para la seguridad nacional. Y como somos “ilegales” en este país también somos un estorbo.

Los políticos han utilizado la inmigración como tema en sus plataformas cuando están tratando de llegar a ser gobernadores, senadores y presidentes. Desafortunadamente, la mayoría de los políticos han utilizado el tema migratorio para obtener la confianza de constituyentes conservativos que creen que los inmigrantes (latinos) no pertenecen a este país y por lo tanto deben ser mandados de regreso a sus países de origen.

Otro aspecto que se ha presentado en el país tiene que ver con el racismo. Cuando la mayoría de las personas hablan acerca del racismo lo hacen en términos de ‘gente negra y gente blanca.’ Por alguna razón, nosotros, los cafecitos, no somos parte de la ecuación. Cuando esto pasa, a nosotros los latinos se nos ignora y poco a poco desaparecemos de la conciencia del público. Y la única razón por la cual parecemos estar presente en las mentes de los demás, es por la inmigración, y como lo sabemos, eso no es tan bueno.

Cuando nosotros como comunidad latina y cultura se nos posiciona hasta el fondo de la habitación, somos ignorados, y solo se nos toma en cuenta para subrayar lo negativo, perdemos credibilidad y fuerza. Perdemos nuestra voz y nuestra visibilidad. Y de repente, como dice el dicho, “Ojos que no ven, corazón que no siente.”

Para mí, estos dos ejemplos son razones por la cual compañías de teatro se atreven a darle los papeles principales destinados a latinos a anglo-sajones y también a cambiar los nombres de personajes con estereotipos. Ellos saben que estamos presentes pero la verdad no estamos en su subconsciente. Así que para ellos es mucho más fácil tomar esas decisiones como las mencionadas sin pensar en los daños que ocasionan.

Este fenómeno le paso a la comunidad Asiática en los años 90s cuando se presentó la obra Miss Saigón y el papel de “El Ingeniero” se lo dieron a Jonathan Pryce, un actor inglés en lugar de a un actor asiático. Cuando esto ocurrió, el dramaturgo David Henry Hwang tomó manos en el asunto por medio de cartas, protestas y huelgas. Al final, las acciones del señor Hwang no cambiaron la decisión del equipo de producción y Jonathan Pryce terminó recibiendo el Tony por el mejor actor de comedia.

Aun así, con el tiempo los esfuerzos del dramaturgo dieron fruto porque gracias a ellos, la comunidad artística Asiática  ha recibido el respeto que se merece, y han estado en la conciencia de toda la gente, al igual que en la mente de las compañías de teatro. 

Nadie se atreve a utilizar estereotipos asiáticos en el escenario, ni tampoco se atreven a darle el papel de un asiático a un anglo-sajón.  Y si alguien lo hace la comunidad pone presión y todo se soluciona mucho antes de que comiencen los ensayos. Lo sé, lo he visto.

La comunidad Asiática, como la comunidad Afroamericana tienen voz y representación en Broadway gracias a los esfuerzos de sus artistas. Sin embargo, nosotros como latinos no hemos podido romper el escudo invisible que mantiene “a los otros” por llegar a Broadway. De vez en cuando hemos infiltrado los escenarios de Broadway y lo hemos hecho sin controversia, pero realmente no hemos dejado gran huella.

Esta es una razón más por la cual las compañías de teatro creen que pueden hacer como les da su regalada gana con nuestra comunidad y nuestra cultura. Después de todo, si no estamos presentes nadie nos extraña, y a nadie le va a importar. ¿O sí?