Tag Archives: Goodman Theatre

Saracho’s “El Nogalar”: Chekhovian Mexicans Via Chicago

by Stephanie Jones

If Anton Chekhov were Latino, playwright Tanya Saracho would have him covered. El Nogalar, her Mexico-set spin on the Russian classic The Cherry Orchard, comes to the Fountain Theatre by way of Chicago.

Saracho wrote the play in 2004 while performing as an actor in Luis Alfaro’s Electricidad, at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. The LA-based Alfaro was then in the last year of his co-direction of Center Theatre Group’s Latino Theatre Initiative. At his urging, Saracho took the story she had in mind and went to work.

“I feel like when I met Luis, that’s when everything happened,” says Saracho. “He actually took me aside and said, ‘If you’re going to do this, you need to get serious about this writing thing.’ Because it’s not that I wasn’t serious. I had my own company [Teatro Luna] and we devised work, so we did ensemble-built performance. But as a playwright, I hadn’t written any plays by myself. But he was like, ‘You can do this.’”

Tanya Saracho

With Alfaro on her side, Saracho told herself:  “If El Maestro can do it, let me try it.” Alfaro has continued his guidance on the play, serving as the dramaturg for the Fountain production.

As an actor, director, and playwright, Saracho was able to remain hands-on throughout the development of her play. “All my three passions – they let me do all three things, which is very Chicago” — where theater artists tend to be hyphenates, she says. “They’re not one thing or another and it’s respected. It [prevents] pigeonholing yourself.”

The small Chicago company Teatro Vista commissioned El Nogalarin 2005. But Teatro Vista and the Goodman have a history of collaborations, and soon the Goodman expressed interest in it.

Saracho felt somewhat intimidated by the Goodman label. “I was like, ‘No, no. It’s the Goodman. The Goodman should not read my play.’” But at the same time, “it was really more than encouraging. It was like the seal. ‘Here you go.’ I mean people read plays and that doesn’t happen. Nice things like that keep happening. It just opened a lot of doors.”

Diana Romo

The Goodman, which produces Latino Theatre Festivals every two or three years,  “totally watched me and let me kind of do anything and just provided a stage. [That] was the biggest thing.”

Despite the encouragement Saracho received, she originally held back some of the play’s content. That was made clear at a reading of the first draft.

“I thought it was terrible. In the first version, I was really afraid of the crime element. I just adjusted it. It wasn’t as overt as it is now,” says Saracho. “I was like – when I first heard it – ‘What am I doing? Why am I a coward right now? I’m being a coward.’ ”

After some much needed character development and a little soul searching, El Nogalar was on its way. It received a staged reading at the 2010 Latino Theatre Festival, with the premiere following in spring 2011, produced by Teatro Vista and presented by the Goodman, at the Goodman.

“When I started Teatro Luna in 2000, our [Latino] audience was not used to going to the theater. We went to concerts, we went to dance, but theater was not where we put our disposable income as Latinos and the Mexican community,” says Saracho. “They would go see comedy but not theater. So, it took us a while to kind of nurture [them], and now they follow me to stuff and they also watch out for other [playwrights]. The movement took about 10 years and now we’ve trained the audience, [saying] ‘Look, this could be awesome.’”

Sabina Zuniga Varela, Justin Huen

Saracho was born in Sinaloa, Mexico, but moved with her family to McAllen, Texas — near the Rio Grande — in 1989. She majored in theater studies at Boston University. El Nogalar traces its roots to Chekhov, whom Saracho named as one of the few writers she identified with while in college.

“I’ve always talked about at cocktail parties and to anyone who would listen – ‘You know, Chekhov is basically Latino.’ In college, he was the most Latino playwright I came across, which is a bad thing — that I didn’t get exposed to Latino playwrights in college, because I was just identifying with any old Russian,” says Saracho. “The women, I identified [with them]. They resonated. They seemed familiar. They seemed Latin American. They’re full, rich, passionate, confident, flawed, complicated and they’re highly emotional. Highly flawed but really deep.”

El Nogalar tells the story of the Galvan family in northern Mexico, who have come home to claim their pecan orchard (“el nogalar”) after 15 years. Maite, the family’s matriarch, and her daughters return after squandering the family’s savings only to find the orchard overgrown, only two servants, and the land taken over by local drug cartels.

Laurie Woolery

Director Laurie Woolery, who is also associate artistic director of Cornerstone Theater,  speaks up. “How easy the land can be taken from people in Mexico and Central America is really, for me, what resonated because I know my tia and mother as immigrants – when they came her to the United States – it was all about [buying] land. Buy land. Own land here. Because in Mexico [and] Central America, it can be taken away from you. Even if you own it, it can be taken away. For me, what resonated about this piece is investment in the land, in the earth, where you plan yourself, where your family can grow up out of.”

The play also has present-day implications, especially in light of current conditions in Mexico and the large Latino population in Southern California. According to Saracho, characters like Dunia, the female servant desperately trying to help the Galvan women, represent people currently surviving in Mexico.

But the play as a whole makes a political statement, she adds. “It is always a political act to put brown bodies on stage. And we don’t think about it because we [Latino playwrights] are used to putting brown bodies on stage. I’m so excited that we’re putting five brown bodies on the stage.”

“I’m going to call the Fountain a mainstream theater because it’s not a Latino space or a [African-American] space,” Saracho says. “To have us here, I feel like it’s representing more than just these people. It’s representing a community, obviously not speaking for, but to have those actors. And Latina females – Latina director, Latina writer, a Latina stage manager. There’s something political about that, without seeing the play, but because of that I think it’s important.”

The all-Latino cast consists of Sabina Suniga Varela (Dunia), Yetta Gottesman (Maite Galvan), Isabelle Ortega (Valeria Galvan), Diana Romo (Anita Galvan), and Justin Huen (Lopez) with Frederica Nascimento designing sets and Lonnie Rafael Alcarez designing lighting.

Diana Romo, Yeyya Gottesman, Isabelle Ortega

“I think our Latino community here in Los Angeles is really diverse,” says Woolery, “and one thing that I really applaud the Fountain for is wanting to expand the diversity of their season by putting El Nogalarin. I’m excited for the Fountain audience to be able to experience something different. Even within that Latino cast there’s diversity in it. I know that the play is very specifically placed in Mexico, but I love that the casting was inclusive and I’m just hopeful that people are going to come out and see it and support it. I think it’s an incredibly beautiful play.”

Woolery adds that “what’s exciting about playwriting specifically right now is the new voices that are coming out. I mean, who would have ever thought wrestling would make it onto the stages of the theater world [in Kristoffer Diaz’sThe Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity] and be up for one of the top prizes in the country? And I think that gives me great hope for theater in general because so much of what you hear [is] it’s such a struggle to keep a theater open and running and people coming because movie tickets are $15. So, you’ll spend that but will you spend $15 on a play?…How do we encourage people to keep coming back and having that experience?”

Yetta Gottesman

In LA, more than in many cities, notes Woolery, “Geography is a challenge, because “for us to go out and support each other’s work…sometimes just getting across town will take an hour. But I think there is a spirit of people wanting Latino theater to be successful. So, I’m hoping not the just the regular Latino audience but others who don’t necessarily feel that theater is for them will come and see El Nogalar and that there’s an accessibility for audiences to be able to come and feel like their story’s on stage. That there is a place for them in the theater world, that their stories can exist and have value.”

Saracho points out the growing struggle between the theater experience and the virtual experience.

“We just don’t sit and witness and experience the full experience [outside theaters],” she says.  “The person coughing – that is part of the experience. The person unwrapping the [wrapper], the actor that kind of flubbed a line. All that is live theater. [Film] is so perfect for you on the screens. It’s all cut up for you – cut, paste, and done for you, all the thinking. But in this, you’re going to see some cellulite, you’re going see some split ends. Do you know what I mean? It’s real people up there.”

El Nogalar Jan 28 – March 11 (323) 663-1525  More Info

Stephanie Jones writes for LA Stage Times.

Tanya Saracho’s “El Nogalar”: Chekhov Set in the Mexican Drug Wars

by Steven Leigh Morris

Tanya Saracho

Though Tanya Saracho is 35 and has lived in the United States since she was 12, she still isn’t a citizen, holding only a green card. Deeply grateful to the United States for the life she’s lived here so far, she finds the citizenship process now administered by the Department of Homeland Security a bit daunting.

​Born in the northwestern Mexican state of Sinaloa, she grew up in the adjoining border towns of Reynoso, Mexico, and McAllen, Texas; her father still works on the Mexican side. Saracho has been tentatively crossing borders ever since, including literary borders — among contemporary Latino literature, classical Spanish plays and even Russian classics.

Hollywood’s Fountain Theatre is presenting her play El Nogalar (The Pecan Orchard), based on Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, starting this week. (The play premiered last year in a joint production between Teatro Vista and the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.)

“When I was in school, I didn’t get exposed to Latino playwrights,” Saracho explains. “I got exposed to [Spanish classical author] Lope de Vega, but not the modern ones. When they introduced Chekhov, we read The Cherry Orchard. I kept saying, ‘Oh my God, this guy is Latino. The women, the way they lamented, the way they whined, it seemed very Latino to me.”

Saracho moved to Chicago because of its reputation as a serious theater town, and there she formed her own company, Teatro Luna, where she mostly performed solo shows. At one point, she says, “I said, ‘In this company, we’re going to adapt The Cherry Orchard to Latino.’ ” Eventually the more established Teatro Vista company got involved and helped make it happen.

Diana Romo, Yetta Gottesman, Isabelle Ortega in "El Nogalar"

In her adaptation, she says, “I got rid of the dudes. I never understood what the dudes did. The first version was all women. Lopahkin can’t touch the women because of the class thing,” referring to the grandson of a serf kept at a distance by the play’s aristocrats as “vulgar.” “So I consigned him to monologues.”

But it was the maid, Dunyasha, who became the playwright’s obsession — “how she became a survivor,” Saracho says, after having been jilted by the servant Yasha, who doesn’t appear in Saracho’s version. “Yasha could have been a coke-head, I guess, but I cut out all the men.”

The play is in English, but peppered with Spanish and Spanglish. “Nobody’s going to miss a thing,” she says.

The bank doesn’t foreclose on the orchard, as it does in Chekhov’s play. Rather, a drug cartel causes the family to part with the property.

Saracho plans to stay in L.A. for a while, thanks to a literary agent and the hope of another border crossing — from theater to TV and film.

El Nogalar opens Sat., Jan. 28, at the Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hlywd.; through March 11. (323) 662-1525, fountaintheatre.com.

Steven Leigh Morris is the Theatre Editor for LA Weekly

Tanya Saracho and “El Nogalar”: Mexican? American? Call Her Writer

By ROB WEINERT-KENDT

IN reviewing the ebullient play “Kita y Fernanda” in 2008, a Chicago critic called its young author, Tanya Saracho, “the Chicana Chekhov” for her deft blend of comedy and drama. It’s hardly surprising, then, that her loose adaptation of Chekhov’s “Cherry Orchard,” titled “El Nogalar,” is set against the bloody backdrop of Mexico’s drug wars.

But the story behind Ms. Saracho’s rise from scrappy storefront theaters to national stature is, like the playwright herself, more complicated than that clever, alliterative epithet would suggest.

Tanya Saracho

For starters, though Ms. Saracho happily accepted the Chekhov comparison, she doesn’t identify as Chicana — a self-assigned term associated with a particular West Coast Mexican-American sensibility. She doesn’t even consider herself Mexican-American. A native of the northwestern Mexican state of Sinaloa and raised mostly in the border towns of Reynosa, Mexico, and McAllen, Tex., Ms. Saracho, 34, is a green-card-carrying Mexican citizen living in the United States still torn about joining the country she’s called home since 1989.

Her long-standing ambivalence isn’t just a matter of paperwork; literal and figurative borders fire Ms. Saracho’s best writing. The title characters of the autobiographical “Kita y Fernanda” are the daughters of the live-in maid and the woman of the house, respectively, who grow up together over treacherous fault lines of class and language. In 2009’s “Our Lady of the Underpass” Ms. Saracho turned a series of interviews with a diverse group of Chicagoans into a suite of monologues about an image of the Virgin Mary allegedly sighted on a concrete wall under the Kennedy Expressway.

And in “El Nogalar,” which translates as “The Pecan Orchard,” Ms. Saracho has set Chekhov’s final play amid the violence that has enveloped Mexico’s northern states.

“Every time we go home, it’s all we talk about, because it’s all there is,” Ms. Saracho said. “Right now we’re held hostage by this thing. It’s so complicated that it has no name, but we all know what we’re talking about.”

The adaptation came about in part because the Latino theater company Teatro Vista was looking for classics to adapt with a Latino spin — and partly because Ms. Saracho has a big mouth.

She was talking at a cocktail party, “and I was like, ‘The most Latino playwright I encountered in college was Chekhov,’ and then someone took me up on it,” said Ms. Saracho, whose conversation spills out in digressive torrents that might brand her as a fresa, the Mexican version of a Valley Girl, but for the heady subject matter.

According to Cecilie Keenan, who is directed the world premiere at The Goodman Theatre in Chicago, what links “The Cherry Orchard” to “El Nogalar” is the jarring spectacle of reverse migration.

“I asked Tanya: ‘What about the fact that our economy’s kind of tanking now? Aren’t rich Mexicans going back home because there’s nothing to do here?’ ” Ms. Keenan said. “And she was like, ‘You know, they are.’ ” So the return of Chekhov’s debt-ridden Madame Ranevsky from Paris to her soon-to-be-auctioned Russian estate becomes, in Ms. Saracho’s play, the story of Señora Maite, alighting obliviously at her family home in northeastern Mexico, where nothing so gentle as an auction threatens the property.

In Ms. Saracho’s compressed time frame the local drug mafia steadily tightens its grip over a few urgent days, compared with the fateful ebbing summer of “The Cherry Orchard.” And, in a marked departure from Chekhov’s famous dictum that a gun shown in a play’s first act must be fired in the second, “El Nogalar” features this sassy stage direction: “Lopez goes for his piece. Yes, old boy is packing, O.K.? But just don’t make a big deal out of it ever. This is just what the men do now.”

Like many young theater artists Ms. Saracho moved to Chicago for its reputation as a no-nonsense stage town and helped form a small company, Teatro Luna, to create work — in her case, frank, funny monologues inspired by her own experiences. But her ambition and achievement quickly outpaced the solo format. The way she tells it, she was plucked from a happy fringe career by the city’s larger institutions; the way others tell it, her potential practically forced them to act.

“She’s the first really viable local Latino playwright we’ve had,” said Henry Godinez, a co-founder of Teatro Vista, who joined the Goodman’s artistic staff in 1996 and has remained a bridge between the two companies. In 2008, with the encouragement of mentors like Mr. Godinez, Ms. Saracho had assignments from Chicago’s two biggest theaters: “Our Lady of the Underpass,” which the Goodman commissioned and Teatro Vista produced, and an adaptation of Sandra Cisneros’s “House on Mango Street” for Steppenwolf TheaterCompany.

With these gains in profile came some wrenching transitions. She quit Teatro Luna a year ago, a decision that still clearly pains her. And she’s now working on plays that will feature no Latino characters: a commission from About Face, Chicago’s gay-oriented theater, for a play about the transgender Civil War soldier Albert Cashier, for which Ms. Saracho received a $20,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a commission from Steppenwolf to write a play for its mostly white acting ensemble.

Tanya Saracho and playwright Luis Alfaro, serving as dramaturg on the Fountain production.

“Tanya is now facing the idea that she’s going to have a national role,” said Polly Carl, Steppenwolf’s director of artistic development. “She realizes the unfortunate, in a way, responsibility she is taking on. No playwright should have to take on the voice of a people. What we’re telling her is that she can write about anything.”

What Ms. Saracho seems destined to write about, no matter the place, is socioeconomic class. Raised comfortably in an upper-middle-class family, she said she didn’t confront prejudice against Mexicans — or the troubling notion that she was exempt because of her privilege and her fair skin — until she moved to Chicago. In part that’s why Ms. Saracho has beefed up the role of the social-climbing character of Dunyasha in “Cherry Orchard,” renamed Dunia in her play.

“Dunyasha became my obsession,” Ms. Saracho confessed. “Dunyasha wants to be white, and we have that whole race shame in Mexico. You don’t even say it. It just is. When you see who’s serving who, who’s in power, it’s evident. I don’t look at it when I’m down there, but when I look at it with binoculars from up here, I do.”

El Nogalar  Fountain Theatre Jan 21-March 11  (323)  663-1525 More Info