In shouts and whispers:
Two Chicano theater groups send their message to the people
"I didn't come to theater as an actor, I came to theater through politics." The actors of Teatro Familia Aztlán are hard at work. Their performance has just ended and they are already busy loading the few props they have into the truck. These actors don't need complex sets and stage equipment for their play. The front of a church or the Laborer's Hall in San José is enough of a stage for them. Theirs is a political statement, meant for both theater-goers and church-goers alike. The latest production of this ten-year-old institution, "Vote Aquí Raza Sí" is a shout of defiance at the political quagmire of blame and anti-immigrant scapegoating we find ourselves in. It is also a hilarious physical comedy, spoofing governor Pete Wilson and his political bed partner, Big Business. The piece has origins in an acto titled "La Migra" performed in the 1970's by San José's now defunct Teatro De La Gente. This updated version was written and directed by Familia Aztlán veterans Arturo Gómez and artistic director Adrian Vargas."We get a lot of personal response with this play," explains Smiley Rogelio Rojas, founder of Teatro Familia Aztlán. "When we've performed at different churches in San José, women start talking about their experiences going across the border. Palateros ask to distribute our fliers."Teatro Familia Aztlán"s goal has always been to reach as many people as possible, which means continuing the Teatro Campesino tradition of bringing theater to the fields or churches or high schools with no admission fee. But Familia Aztlán does not shy away from playing at more conventional venues. "Wherever it is we're performing," explains Rojas, "what we want is an open discussion with the audience."The players in this theater troupe have a strong commitment to theater as a political tool to educate and inform. Cristal González de Rojas, who has a principal role in "Vote Aquí Raza Sí," wrote and directed the troupe's last production, "Not Guilty, Not Punishable," a play about women's choices and church ideology. González makes it clear that she wrote the play because of her political beliefs. "I wrote that play for the human rights of women."I didn't come to theater as an actor," emphasizes Rojas, "I came to theater through politics."
"This is not a shout, not a political diatribe...it's more of a whisper."Meanwhile, in one of the classrooms of the new Barrios Unidos building, Chicano Theatreworks (CTW) director Leonard Maestas discusses mood and motivation with his actors."You really need to yell that line out," says Maestas as he reads that section again in the script. He then bellows, "Don't hide behind the bushes and watch the men pee!"
Maestas has chosen to direct "The Tricycle" by Spanish playwright Fernando Arrabál, for his part in CTW's upcoming three-play production "Criaturas y Abortos." According to Maestas, "The Tricycle" deals with issues of homelessness and why we ignore homeless people.
In another classroom, directors Manuel Montez and Trinidad Castro discuss their work. "My piece is addressing sacred icons, specifically the figure of la virgen in Latin American culture," Montez says. "I want to explore what she represents, especially as far as involves virginity and sexuality." Trinidad Castro's piece "Dios en el Playgirl de Noviembre," written by the Puerto Rican author Abniel Marat, consists of five monologues. One character goes into the priesthood to conceal his homosexuality from his mother. "Now that she is dying," explains Castro, "he wants to let out, to vomit out, all the anger and resentment he feels toward her for supressing his life. He says, "This is 15 years of a life that never was."
Chicano Theatreworks began in 1992 when three Cabrillo College students, Leonard Maestas, Tlaloc Rivas and Manuel Montez, formed a theater group that would give people a voice through theater to address social situations. From 1993 to 1995, CTW's productions have touched on both political and personal themes."It is a whisper...in the metaphorical sense." Montez pauses as he searches for the words to describe the production. "It's not a shout, it's not a political diatribe, it's more of a whisper."
"But," Castro is quick to add, "it is a very revealing whisper. Although there's that element of intimacy, this production will really shake up who you are and what you think."
"Chicano theater is like a weed."
Comparing Teatro Familia Aztlán and Chicano Theatreworks is like comparing The Clash with Beethoven, like looking for similarities between a political rally and a poetry reading. The members of CTW cover controversial issues such as homosexuality that have, for the most part, been ignored by Chicano theater. Familia Aztlán is one of the few theater troupes that has directly responded to Proposition 187 and immigrant scape-goating.
These groups have different messages and methods, true. One gives us a political statement, a shout to be heard by palateros and politicians alike. The other leans over with a whisper, telling us to look for the demons that attack from within. But both groups have a mission: to educate, to reach people. Theater, whether Greek tragedy, Shakespearean comedy, or a modern Broadway play, has always been about this. Chicano theater, whether performed on the bed of flat-bed truck or in an auditorium in front of hundreds of people, is no different.
As Familia Aztlán and Teatro Campesino veteran Ben Cadena says with a laugh, "Chicano theater is like a weed, we keep sprouting up in different places. You can't get rid of us."