“Talk About a Revolution”
By Benjamin Ortiz, for
Café Latino Lifestyle Magazine
June/July 2010

Six women talk about patriarchy, language, motherhood and men, about princes and princesas over bubbly mixed with sangría. They switch between codes not only of two different tongues but from across generations, continents and traditions long forgotten in ranchos and campos that might not even exist anymore.

“Not in my house! We were a matriarchy!” The response: “But you know what, though, here’s the difference: Matriarchs with men having the final say Â… They still have the power!” They talk about brothers who didn’t have to make the bed or do the dishes. They swear and laugh and animate their stories with gestures and tearful mimes that bring their families to life, including the stepdad whose wife picked the chicken bones out of his caldo.

Brazilian, Mejicana, Boricua — diverse Chicagoans working on a script titled “Generic Latina,” they are ensemble members and lab students of Teatro Luna, the 10-year-old all-Latina theater troupe that creates original works from autobiographical content, poring over stories all can relate to from our own piece of the American experience.

The whole Latino theater scene started something like this — with conversations in the community among those who wanted to talk about and turn their stories into art for a people who are now a quarter of Chicago’s population and growing.

Latino theater in Chicago has a long and rocky history. But now, Chicago is poised to become the center stage of a massive Latino theater revolution. The past year alone has seen an explosion in activity, talent and recognition.

The 2009 smash run and critical triumph of Kristoffer Diaz’s “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity” at Victory Gardens led to Teatro Vista mounting an off-Broadway version in New York City. Teatro Luna co-founder Tanya Saracho’s adaptation of Sandra Cisneros’ “The House on Mango Street” was produced by The Steppenwolf Theatre Company in late 2009 with a ground-breaking first for the storied organization — an all-Latino cast. Then, in March, Steppenwolf awarded its inaugural Mellon Grant to two playwrights, including Saracho, commissioning two new plays over the next few years.

Polly Carl, the Steppenwolf’s director of artistic development, confirms that they are serious also about mounting Saracho’s work on their stage. “She’s going to bring work that surprises us,” Carl says, “and when you’re working in the theater, that to me is the most thrilling part of working with writers who will give you access to stories you haven’t already heard.”

And now, the 5th biennial Latino Theatre Festival at the Goodman brings together its typical menu of international and local talents to showcase performance arts from a community that can no longer be denied its representation on stage.
Goodman artistic associate Henry Godinez, long a fixture at the Goodman and an advocate for more Latino works in the mainstream, credits consistent support and commitment from the Goodman, while saying that his mission has been “to fight the good fight and to make sure that our voice is heard, and sometimes you got to pound your fist a little harder than others,” he says.

Godinez believes the time is right for Latino theater: there are now more Latino companies that are strong and young, while mainstream houses are also more open to Latino programming. In general, Chicago’s theatre scene is “the best theatre community in the country,” says Godinez, “not just because of the size or the scope or the variety, but I think it’s a healthy community.”

Mutual support, respect, clarity of purpose, and truthfulness are all a part of this healthiness, according to Godinez. It’s a place to create without the pressure or commercialism of New York and Los Angeles. “And when you succeed, others are genuinely happy, excited and supportive,” he adds.

But mainstream and non-Latino houses were not always so welcoming, and there was a time when Latinos had no stage or company to call their own. In a 1992 Chicago Tribune article, Achy Obejas reported: “Professional Latino theater may have started in Chicago when, due to a lack of Hispanic roles, a Latino actor auditioned for the role of an African-American [at Victory Gardens in the late 1970s] Â… A church, student group or neighborhood organization might put on a performance, but nothing was on-going. Productions were modest, in Spanish, and usually filled with social-service messages. Local professional companies would sometimes produce work by Spanish playwrights like Federico García Lorca, but rarely offered scripts by Latin American or U.S. Hispanics. And Latino actors had few opportunities.”

That began to change in 1979 when the Latino Chicago Theatre Company formed, later owning its own space (a refurbished firehouse in Wicker Park built around 1894) from 1987 to 1997, when the building caught fire and ended the city’s first Latino troupe. “Even today,” says former managing director Gregorio Gomez, “outside of Aguijón [Theatre Company of Chicago], there’s no other Latino theater company in the city that that owns its own place.”

Gomez calls that first company “the icebreaker” for Latino theater in town, and he speaks nostalgically about the social, political and artistic inroads that the group created. It’s fair to say that it was a beacon for Latino artists and artists of color. And it helped spark the conversations that led to Aguijón and Teatro Vista being founded around 1989.

Although sometimes some of these conversations led nowhere. Tanya Saracho remembers that when she first started shopping the idea of an all-Latina theatre troupe around town in late 1999, she “knocked on a lot of doors at first, and the Latino males that I talked to all scolded me — ‘Why women? We’re not there yet, the movement is not there yet.’ Â… I don’t know if they were threatened or what, but I was not encouraged to make it all women.”

Undeterred, she joined forces with Coya Paz to found Teatro Luna in 2000. There was, at first, the difficult task of collaborating with an ensemble of women who disagreed about their collective identity. “We could not define ourselves — were we Hispanic or were we Latina? Well, that took eight months to decide,” recalls Saracho. Differences in self-definition, from Cubana to Chicana, became the very substance of their art — ethnographic enactment of personal stories.

Beyond these initial challenges, the group had to operate with a tiny budget, like any small theatre company, and Saracho says that word-of-mouth publicity about their unique pan-Latina perspective brought immediate popular interest, audiences and invitations to festivals. Now celebrating its 10th anniversary, Teatro Luna is busier than ever. Even though Saracho stepped down as artistic director this year, Teatro Luna kick-started their Lunadas Series of staged readings with Brazilian playwright Petrucia Finkler’s “Brilliant Cut.”

Marcela Muñoz, co-artistic director of Aguijón, saw her mother Rosario Vargas create the company that just celebrated its 20th anniversary. Muñoz came aboard in 1991 and moved with the company to its current location in 1999. She says that their mission remains “to produce work in Spanish here in the United States — that’s already taking a social stance on the importance of culture,” referring to the company’s roots in stinging and agitating the conscience of audiences.

Muñoz points out that they have focused in their last couple of seasons on the identity of Latinos in the United States, even producing transposed and translated versions of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller plays.

“We’ve kept a lot of our core audiences,” says Muñoz. “We’re also getting younger and younger audiences. We’re seeing a sort of shift: where before it seemed that the younger generation didn’t speak Spanish as much, or were not as interested in learning Spanish, they’re now listening to more radio in Spanish, watching more TV in Spanish, and they’re coming to more Spanish language theater.”

Though Aguijón’s first three productions for the Goodman Latino Theater Festival were Lorca works, they’re moving in new directions, this time with “Las Soldaderas,” based on texts by author Elena Poniatowska.

Teatro Vista, likewise, will produce “El Nogalar,” a work by Tanya Saracho inspired by Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard.” Godinez, reflecting on Vista’s origins and how he co-founded the company with current Vista artistic director Eddie Torres (who he met while acting in a Goodman play), says the two were interested in Latino plays such as those being written by José Rivera and Octavio Solís. “We were also interested in collaborating and sharing audiences with mainstream theaters,” Godinez notes. “We were about bridging the gaps between non-Latino and Latino audiences.”

Teatro Vista did a production with the Goodman of José Rivera’s “Cloud Tectonics” shortly before Godinez was invited in 1996 to join the company as its first Latino artistic associate. With the birth of his first daughter and full-time teaching duties starting at Columbia College, Godinez left Teatro Vista for the Goodman. “I very much realized that by going on staff my job primarily would be to champion Latino works and to promote the building of a Latino audience,” he says.

After seeing an international theater festival in Miami, Godinez approached executive director Roche Schulfer and artistic director Robert Falls with the idea of doing exactly that kind of major event at the Goodman. “We had moved to a new building,” he remembers, “and it was after 9/11, and we were trying to jump-start our Latino initiatives.”

The Goodman hadn’t had Latino programming since 1999’s run of “Zoot Suit,” directed by Godinez, so they ran with the idea, and the first Latino Theatre Festival was born in 2003. Fast forward to this year, Godinez highlights Teatro Buendía of Cuba as one of the more exciting components of the festival. Also, an adaptation of Eduardo Galeano’s “Memory of Fire” directed by Godinez will be featured, with the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra providing a soundtrack for the production at Millennium Park.

“Over the last 10 years, everything has doubled: the audiences who come to see it, the amount of time we devote to the festival, the budget that we allocate for it and the amount of media attention we receive,” says Robert Falls of the Goodman.

Commenting generally on local Latino productions, Falls points out that “the success of some of the more established Latino companies and artists [in Chicago] has attracted more Latino artists to the city.”

That’s exactly why Dominizuelan decided five years ago to move here from Miami, citing good feedback from critics and support from Second City, Chicago Dramatists and Teatro Luna, who will be producing their work.

“We like to eat and we like to be funny, and so Chicago just seemed like the best choice,” says Wendy Mateo, who has also conspired with partner Lorena Diaz to create their own company, Tall Hispanic Short Hispanic Productions.

Mateo says the question for her is this: “Why would you ever leave Chicago? Â… Here, I can walk into iO [formerly Improv Olympic] Theatre, I order a shot of whisky and beer and I can sit down and chill out Â… that’s what we love about Chicago.”

Likewise, other groups of newcomers and locals have brainstormed to create the Urban Theatre Company (based mainly in the Humboldt Park neighborhood), Salsation Theatre Company (running sketch-comedy and improv-inspired shows out of The Second City and Gorilla Tango), Las Divas Productions and several other initiatives popping up.

Even the old Latino Chicago Theatre Company that started it all will get its second act, with plans by founder Juan Ramirez to open a full arts center on Chicago’s West Side. Looking back, Tanya Saracho remembers how she started in theater by interpreting poems in English that she didn’t fully understand. Now, she says, with demonstrative facial gestures and dramatic deep-breaths, Chicago is on the verge of having a real Latino theater movement. “Let’s hope we can meet here in five years and say the Tony winner is a Latino who came from Chicago,” she muses. “Or maybe a Latina.”

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