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.