“We’re thrilled to develop this new play that dramatizes the crusade of such a Los Angeles treasure,” beamed Fountain Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs. “This project has been in the works for some time. We thank the LA County Arts Commission for granting us the support it needed to get underway.”
The two-year project is the creation, development and public presentation of the world premiere of a new play dramatizing the life and work of Los Angeles icon Father Gregory Boyle and his nationally-recognized crusade to change the lives of young people in gangs. In 2001, Boyle founded Homeboy Industries, now one of the largest and most successful gang intervention programs in the nation. Acclaimed Latino playwright Luis Alfaro will be commissioned to write the new work. Alfaro will spend several months interviewing Father Boyle and gang members in the program. He will write a new script based on the material he gathers, culminating in the public presentation of the play performed by professional actors and Homeboy members.
The Fountain Theatre is dedicated to producing new plays that reflect the cultural diversity of Los Angeles and the the nation. To serve Latino/a audiences, we launched our 2012-13 season earlier this year with the West Coast Premiere of El Nogalar by Latina playwright Tanya Saracho.
“El Nogalar” (2012, Fountain Theatre)
Playwright Anne Garcia-Romero reports on the current state of Latino/a theater and the dream of creating a Latino/a Theatre Commons:
by Anne Garcia-Romero
In May 2012, Karen Zacarías, a playwright in residence at Arena Stage asked the Center for the Theater Commons to host an intimate conversation about the state of theater for U.S. Latino/a artists. A group of us met in D.C. It was a small gathering of theater artists from across the country representing diverse voices, but in no way intended to be representative of the breadth of the Latino/a theater scene. In the twenty-four stretch of the gathering, we talked about community, history, and action. We dreamed up a plan.
Celebrating Contemporary Latino/a Theater Theater can function as a reflection of our contemporary national narrative. The character journeys on a stage often help us better understand the complexities of our society. U.S. culture in the twenty-first century continues to move from a mono-cultural to a multi-cultural experience. However, U.S. theater currently does not always reflect this reality and therefore can perpetuate an outdated narrative. Contemporary Latino/a theater updates the U.S. narrative through presenting diverse cultural worlds that allow theater audiences to more fully understand the U.S. experience in the twenty-first century.
In 2012, Latino/a is a heterogeneous term that includes the diversity of all Spanish-speaking and indigenous cultures existing in the U.S. from Mexico, the Caribbean, Spain, Central and Latin America, in addition to the complexities which arise from the intersections of these cultures with non-Latino/a cultures. This definition highlights the globalization of the U.S. Latino/a community and mirrors the fact that life in the U.S. is now an intercultural reality. According to the 2010 U.S. census, 308.7 million people resided in the United States, of which 50.5 million (or 16 percent) were Latino/a. The Latino/a population hails from over twenty-two Latino/a cultural groups and was the fastest growing population from 2000 to 2010. U.S. theater production historically has only reflected a fraction of this diversity. Twenty-first century Latino/a theater artists are creating works that amply reflect this complexity. By embracing the current landscape of Latino/a theater, U.S. theaters not only present a view of contemporary Latino/a culture, they also provide their audiences with ways in which to more fully understand our multi-cultural U.S. experience.
Playwright Tanya Saracho
Creating a Commons A Latino/a Theater Commons acknowledges the gifts that Latino/a theater artists can share with each other by connecting Latino/a theater artists from across the U.S. to create a platform and promote the latest developments in the field of Latino/a theater. From artists who began their professional careers in the 1970s to those who recently completed their MFA training, a commons facilitates a vibrant, intergenerational conversation that reflects contemporary U.S. Latino/a theater. Building upon the foundation of the past and highlighting the realities of the present, a Latino/a Theater Commons creates new models of engagement and presentation of Latino/a theater that will not only illuminate the wide expanse of the field but will allow audiences to update the U.S. narrative by experiencing multi-cultural worlds on stage that reflect an ever-diversifying national reality.
Highlighting our History From the success of Luis Valdez’ 1978 production of Zoot Suit in Los Angeles to Maria Irene Fornes’ Obie-Award winning New York City production of Fefu and Her Friends in 1977, U.S. Latino/a theater continues to grow and thrive from coast to coast. Through the support of organizations such as the Ford Foundation and the Lila Wallace–Reader’s Digest Fund, several U.S. regional theaters have provided platforms for the continued development of Latino/a theater artists. The INTAR Playwrights Workshop in New York City, South Coast Repertory’s Hispanic Playwrights Project in Costa Mesa, California and The Mark Taper Forum’s Latino Theatre Initiative in Los Angeles became centers of training, collaboration and conversation from 1978 to 2005. These programs helped launch the careers of a generation of Latino/a theater artists including Pulitzer prize winners Nilo Cruz and Quiara Alegría Hudes, Academy-Award nominee José Rivera, Obie award winners Caridad Svich and Kristoffer Diaz and MacArthur Genius grant winner Luis Alfaro.
INTAR, founded in 1972 by Max Ferrá, is one of the longest-running companies producing Latino/a theater in the United States. Maria Irene Fornes created the INTAR Hispanic Playwrights-in-Residence Laboratory (1978-1991) and trained some of the most widely produced Latino/a playwrights in the U.S. including Cruz, Svich, Alfaro, Cherrie Moraga, Migdalia Cruz and Octavio Solis. Svich states,
Fornes, leading by example, did not require that the playwrights in the Lab address any ethnically specific subject matter or theme. Through daily visualization exercises, the writers were asked to discover the work within them, to create the forms that suited their visions, and under Fornes’ rigorous, watchful eye, to speak the truth about their worlds.
Under the current leadership of Lou Moreno, INTAR continues to produce new work by Latino/a playwrights.
José Cruz Gonzalez
Hispanic Playwrights Project (HPP), 1985-2004, created by José Cruz Gonzalez and later directed by Juliette Carrillo, featured a yearly summer festival of new works at South Coast Repertory bringing together new plays written by Latino/a playwrights. For many playwrights, HPP provided a first professional theater development opportunity. The annual gathering launched the careers of many Latino/a theater artists including Octavio Solis, Rogelio Martinez, Karen Zacarías, Kristoffer Diaz, Quiara Alegría Hudes and Anne García-Romero.
The Latino Theatre Initiative (LTI), 1992-2005, at the Mark Taper Forum, was designed to diversify the Taper’s audience base by offering theatrical programming relevant to the Latino/a community while also providing access to emerging Latino/a artists who reflected the diversity of the city of Los Angeles. Founded by José Luis Valenzuela and later co-directed by Luis Alfaro and Diane Rodriguez, LTI developed new works through in-house readings, festivals and yearly writers’ retreats.
Playwright Luis Alfaro
An Action Plan: Generating New Models In our dream for a Latino/a Theater Commons, we build upon the foundation of the past and the momentum of the present to create four initiatives that will continue to advance the field of U.S. Latino/a theater.
1. The Los Angeles Theatre Center, under the direction of José Luis Valenzuela, will produce a festival of ten Latino/a plays over the course of the 2014-15 season. This festival seeks to present ten diverse plays that will mirror the complexity of the U.S. Latino/a community.
2. Latino/a Theater Commons will pilot a bi-annual conference of new Latino/a work hosted by the Theatre School at DePaul University in Chicago. The Festival will honor and be inspired by previous programs such as the Hispanic Playwrights Project, but be reconceived for the twenty-first century to allow for live and online participation and new methods of collaboration through workshops and focus groups on specific theatrical disciplines.
3. Latino/a Theater Commons will launch an online platform, Cafe Onda(Wave Cafe). This platform will be created as an online community and conversation about the current state of the Latino/a theater in the twenty-first century. Cafe Onda will contain articles, blogs and live streaming of theater events and will be linked to HowlRound, an online journal of the Theater Commons.
4. Latino/a Theater Commons will broaden the conversation by working with an expanded national cohort of Latino/a theater artists to convene in 2013 and solidify our efforts in implementing these plans that will generate a new national narrative for U.S. theater. Members of the Steering Committee who will be involved in planning this meeting include as of this publication:
Kinan Valdez (Stage Director; Producing Artistic Director, El Teatro Campesino, San Juan Bautista, CA)
José Luis Valenzuela (Stage Director; Artistic Director, Los Angeles Theater Center, Professor of Theater, University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles CA)
Patricia Ybarra (Theatre Studies Scholar; Assistant Professor of Theatre, Brown University, Providence RI)
Karen Zacarías (Playwright; Resident Playwright–Arena Stage, Washington DC)
These projects will provide a multifaceted view of contemporary Latino/a theater. Through exploring, developing and advocating for new Latino/a plays, all four initiatives generate necessary conversations about the diverse make-up of U.S. society. We respectfully share this plan in the hopes that a Latino/a Theater Commons will advance the state of Latino/a theater while also allowing audiences to update the U.S. narrative at the start of the twenty-first century.
Anne Garcia-Romero’s plays have been developed and produced most notably at the NYSF/Public Theater, Summer Play Festival (Off-Broadway), The Mark Taper Forum, Hartford Stage, Borderlands Theater, and South Coast Repertory. Her newest play, Provenance, was part of the 2012 Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference. She is currently writing a book on contemporary Latina playwrights. She’s an Assistant Professor of Theater at the University of Notre Dame and an alumna of New Dramatists.
Have you ever watched a film and been deeply and profoundly moved, or read a book that changed your perspective? That is the type of impact that the play El Nogalar, written by Tanya Saracho, is having upon audiences everywhere.
El Nogalardelves into the complexities that Mexico is facing due to the drug war. “It is topical and what is happening right now. If you take a glass and you put it on that area and look inside, everyone is being affected by that,” said Saracho.
The play artfully weaves through the intricacies of the Mexican caste system and how the drug war is affecting each person’s role within the societal unit. Saracho does this in such a poignant way that the viewer is able to see and feel each character’s point of view in a personal way. The pain and sorrow that is felt by the characters becomes universal where everyone, Latino or Non-Latino, can relate.
The play was inspired by Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. The name “El Nogalar” reflects what is grown in Mexico – Pecans. Saracho said,”My mom picked the name…, she said, ’Look it up on your internet. It can’t be cherries. We don’t grow cherries!’”
The name wasn’t the only twist that Saracho added; she made the cast mostly females. She likes to expose, “Life from the point of view of women. “ She continued with, “Talking about Latina women and Mexican women and complicating their image is important to me. It is also important to me to change their stereotype.”
Her vision of bringing light to the woman’s perspective began before being commissioned by Chicago’s Teatro Vista to write El Nogalar. Twelve years ago Saracho formed an all-women’s company entitled Teatro Luna. “When we formed Teatro Luna, we were called man haters in the press… My writing has been criticized for that. There are enough plays for men,” said Saracho. She contests claims of being exclusive by saying, “It is not exclusive. It is inclusive. I am including the female voice.”
The female voice is not the only theme expressed in her writing. Saracho passionately explains, “I’m obsessed with class– if we are speaking thematically. I’m obsessed by how we (Latinos) are seen as the immigrant in the U.S., and I’m obsessed with gender.” This would not seem surprising as she was born in Sinaloa, Mexico, but grew up in the adjoining border towns of Reynoso, Mexico and McAllen, Texas. She was entrenched in both cultures learning both languages. She was educated in the U.S. She attended high school in Texas and went on to Boston University to graduate in theater studies.
At Boston University her writing skills flourished. She put up three plays for the student festival. This, however, was not the beginning of her story telling. “I was the one who entertained the sisters and I was always a story teller. I liked to terrify them with “La Llorona”, a legend of a wailing women,” she laughs contagiously, and continues, “I used to tell jokes. Now I don’t even know one joke… My grandparents would put me on the table and you would either dance or tell a poem or a joke.”
There seems to be no limit to her storytelling and incredible talent. In fact, El Nogalar is actually the first in a trilogy that Saracho has written. Song of the Disappeared is the next play in the series. It takes place on the Texas side of the border where the crime element has now infiltrated. The last installment of the trilogy is entitled Nights. The characters have been kidnapped and stay alive by telling stories like in the book: Thousand Nights and One Night.
El Nogalar is so moving that it truly is a must see. Saracho’s soulful writing leaves a profound impact on viewers. This play has put her on the radar, and is only the beginning to a brilliant career. Saracho is definitely someone to watch for in the future.
When I walked into the backyard of a house in East LA it was a classic fish out of water scenario. Everybody there seemed to have a great passion for Latino theatre, a passion (by the simple nature of my ethnicity) my heart does not possess. As a white male born in the mid-eighties, racial prejudice is not something that has heavily impacted my life. However, the more food shared and the more conversations that developed, the more I felt connected with their spirit.
Luis Alfaro and Tanya Saracho
The reason people were gathered at a house in East Los Angeles was to hear from feminist, Latina playwright Tanya Saracho. Born in Sinaloa, Mexico, Saracho moved to Texas in 1989. But it was in Chicago where she really made her mark. Fresh out of college, the young actress soon became frustrated with the limited potential of acting roles she was able to play. It seemed that her “type” was confined to play Latina stereotypes, such as the Mexican housemaid. Armed with her outgoing, infectious personality combined with her desire to play more substantial characters, Ms. Saracho co-founded Teatro Luna, a Chicago-based, Latina theatre ensemble. And it was with this company of women that she started writing.
Respected Chicano playwright and recipient of the 1997 MacArthur Genius Grant, Luis Alfaro conducted an informal (yet informative) interview with Saracho. What was compelling was how unpretentious and friendly the entire event was. The concept of interviewing somebody naturally puts that person on a pedestal. Yet the guest of honor was so down-to-Earth, it was much more conversational and relaxed than any ‘Q & A’ I had ever attended. Both humble and confident, Alfaro and Saracho sitting on a sofa and talking candidly about their beliefs and experiences was a rare pleasure.
Responsible for putting on this wonderful event was Individual Artist Collective. IAC is a new arts group dedicated to ensuring that any conversation about theatre is not a practice excluding certain groups. In other words, they stand for diversity in discussion of theatre. The collective was formed for similar reasons that Tanya Saracho started writing; there was an immediate need for it. Living in the City of Angels, there is not a day that goes by I am not somehow influenced by Latino culture. But when I turn on the TV or go to the movies or see a play, their presence is lacking, to say the least. When considering race, it’s strange that these mediums are often the first to mention an issue, but the last to build a significant foundation for progress.
"El Nogalar" at the Fountain Theatre
El Nogalar (“The Pecan Orchard”), Tanya Saracho’s loose adaptation of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, premiered on the West Coast January 28th at The Fountain Theatre. “When I was in school, I felt that Chekhov was the most Latino playwright I came across” said Saracho before talking about her hesitations in moving to Los Angeles. She described herself as “too much of a Chicago girl.” While she’s not completely committed to transplanting herself to the West Coast, it’s nice to have her here for now. On behalf of Southern California, I would like to welcome Tanya Saracho and wish her all the fortunes she deserves. Salud!
El Nogalar Now Playing to March 11 (323) 663-1525 More Info
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.’”
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.”
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.
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?”
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
Luis Alfaro and "El Nogalar" playwright Tanya Saracho
Playwright Luis Alfaro has won a 2012 Joyce Award. The annual prizes, which carry a $50,000 cast grant, are given to commission artists of color to help them create new works with cultural institutions.
Luis is currently our dramaturg on El Nogalar, working at the Fountain Theatre with playwright Tanya Saracho and director Laurie Woolery.
Working with Enrique Adyanthaya and Marlina Gonzalez, Alfaro will write a season of plays based on the ideas behind the fusion of Latino and Asian cultures, that will be created in collaboration with two Minneapolis/St. Paul theater companies, Teatro del Pueblo and Pangea. The plays will range from love stories of interracial couples exploring tensions between their two communities to a children’s story adapted from a fable.
Alfaro’s plays include Electricidad, Downtown, No Holds Barrio, Body of Faith, Straight As A Line, Bitter Homes and Gardens, Ladybird, and Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner.
Other 2012 Joyce Award winners include visual/multimedia artists William Pope.L and Rafael Lozano-Hammer, and choreographer Reggie Wilson.
Our love and congratulations to Luis! Bravo, Maestro!
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.
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.”
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
Tanya Saracho’s tale of humor and heartache in a changing Mexico
Director Laurie Wooleryand dramaturg Luis Alfaro team up on an explosive tale of humor and heartache in a changing Mexico. The West Coast premiereof El Nogalar (“The Pecan Orchard”) by Tanya Saracho opens at The Fountain Theatre on January 28, with low-priced previews beginning January 21.
When the Galvan family returns home to Mexico after years in the U.S., they must come to terms with encroaching drug cartels, economic upheaval and a new class order. Inspired by The Cherry Orchard, Saracho makes Chekhov’s classic story her own, instilling it with a thrilling sense of immediacy. The deeply felt story of changing times and class divide is vividly portrayed using a mix of English, Spanish, Spanglish and Espanglés – but audiences will have no trouble understanding Saracho’s funny and complex characters.
Dunia (Sabina Zuniga Varela), the Galvan family’s housekeeper, watches Maité Galvan (Yetta Gottesman) and her daughters Valeria (Isabelle Ortega) and Anita (Diana Romo) spend their wealth and risk losing their home and beloved pecan orchard to a drug cartel. Despite warnings from Lopez (Justin Huen), Maité disregards her declining fortune as stubbornly as she ignores the sinister capos simmering at her doorstep.
“When I was in school, I felt that Chekhov was the most Latino playwright I came across.” explained Saracho in an interview. “I thought, ‘I know this dude, his characters. These women are my aunts, my cousins.’ ”
“This play humanizes what we’re reading in the news everyday,” says Woolery. “These women are from an old family, wealthy landowners with political connections. But in this new Mexico, class is turned on its ear.”
El Nogalar was developed in a staged reading during the Goodman Theatre’s Latino Theatre Festival, and premiered at the Goodman in 2011, produced and commissioned by Chicago’s Teatro Vista where Saracho is a resident playwright. American Theatre Magazine published the script in the July/August 2011 issue along with an interview with Saracho, who has been dubbed “a major playwriting talent” by the Chicago Tribune and a playwright “of national stature” by The New York Times.
El NogalarPreviews Jan 21 – 27, Opens Jan 28 323 663-1525 More Info
The Fountain is thrilled to be producing the West Coast Premiere of El Nogalar by Tanya Saracho, directed by Laurie Woolery. Previews begin January 21.
El Nogalar (The Pecan Orchard) is inspired by Anton Chekhov’s classic The Cherry Orchard and charts a Mexican family’s experience as their way of life is threatened by encroaching drug cartels, violence and economic upheaval. Set in present-day Northern Mexico and infused with Spanish, Spanglish and Espanglés, it’s a comical and moving story about the choice between adapting to the changing world or being left behind.
Meet the Cast:
Yetta Gottesman is a member of the prestigious Actors Studio and LAByrinth Theater Company. She has appeared in numerous Off-Broadway plays including originating roles written by John Patrick Shanley and Stephen Adly Guirgis. She has performed extensively on stage, both in New York and regionally, with such luminary directors as Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joe Bonney and Lisa Peterson . In 2010, she received an Ovation Award Best Actress Nomination for her performance in Mariela in the Desert at The Denver Center Theater. Her TV work includes guest appearances on Nurse Jackie, Sex and the City and Law and Order: Criminal Intent.” Some of her film work includes Rabbit Hole, Lucky You, and 27 Dresses.
Justin Huen recently appeared as Oedipus in Luis Alfaro’s Oedipus el Rey at the Boston Court (Ovation Award nomination) and Hero, directed by Jon Rivera. Other: Zorro (TheatreWorks),Strike-Slip (Actors Theatre of Louisville),Stones (CTG/Kirk Douglas), Electricidad (CTG/Taper), References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot (Art/Works), Palm Feverand Bitter Homes and Gardens(Playwrights’ Arena), The Legend of Jane & Joe (Ricardo Montalbán Theater), My First Radical (Ojai Playwrights Festival). TV: Weeds, NYPD Blue.
Isabelle Ortega is thrilled to be part of this production and to be working with such a loving and talented cast and crew. Some of her favorite past credits include House of Spirits (Clara) at Mixed Blood Theater, Living Out (Ana Hernandez) at Theater Works and Mixed Blood Theater, Sonia Flew (Nina/Pilar) at LATW, Boleros for the Disenchanted (Petra/Monica) at the Pacific Playwrights Festival, Anna in the Tropics (Conchita) at PCPA, Anna in The Tropics (Marela) at Theatre Works, Displaced (Lili) at Marin Theatre, Charlie Cox Runs w/Scissors (Kiki) at Marin Theatre, Macbeth (Witch) at The California Shakespeare Festival, and Twelfth Night (Olivia) at Shakespeare at Stinson. She would like to give special thanks to Laurie Woolery for the opportunity to play.
Diana Romo began acting as a child as a member of the South Coast Repertory Young Conservatory Theater in Costa Mesa, California, where she made her stage debut in a production of Julia Edwards’ Lockdown and continued her studies there until the end of her high school career. Romo then decided to continue exploring the art of theater at the University of San Diego where she claims to have truly fallen in love and decided to pursue her career as an actress. She moved to Los Angeles in 2010 where she continues to work in the theater and where she is excited to begin her career in film.
Sabina Zuniga Varela is a founding member of Teatro Nuevo Mexico, a Latino theater company and current member of the theatre troupe Las Meganenas. Ms. Zuniga Varela won the 2007 New Mexico Hispano Entertainer’s Association: Female Performer of the Year for her roles in Magdalena Cantata and Still Life at the National Hispanic Cultural Center. A 2011 graduate of USC’s prestigious MFA program roles included Masha in Kate Burton’s production of Three Sisters and Feste/Antonio in Twelfth Night directed by Andrew J. Robinson. Other favorite roles include: the title role in Luis Alfaro’s Electricidad, Rosaura in Sueño, and Martirio in The House of Bernarda Alba. She recently worked on Dulce’s Ashes, a short film by Janine Salinas.www.sabinazunigavarela.com
El Nogalar runs Jan 21 – March 11 (323) 663-1525More Info