Cafecito (Coffee and chat) are interviews with comadres and compadres meant to shine a light on what small or large companies; independent artists or ensembles are doing around the country. Café Onda is an evolving publication. Sit back, take a sip, and enjoy our monthly Cafecito.
Su Teatro is the third oldest Chicano theater in the U.S. and in their forty plus year existence they have produced over twenty original plays that have toured widely to venues such as The Public Theater in NY, The Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in San Antonio TX, Plaza de la Raza in Los Angeles, as well as places in Mexico City, and the frontera (border).
In 2011 Su Teatro produced the world premiere of Artistic Director Tony Garcia’s play Enrique’s Journey, an adaptation of a Sonia Nazario’s Pulitzer Prize winning book of the same name. Enrique’s Journey recounts the real-life odyssey of a young Honduran boy who undertakes the perilous journey to reunite with his mother who is working in the United States.
Su Teatro is taking Enrique’s Journey to L.A. for the 2014 Encuentro. I asked Tony to answer a few questions about his own journey writing and producing the play.
Marisela Treviño Orta: Su Teatro has a long tradition of producing work that resonates deeply with our cultural community. You first encountered this real-life story in book form—what was it about the book that made you feel it could be translated to the stage?
Tony Garcia: The book told a real-life coming of age story; one under very difficult circumstances. It is about the journey that so many of us take to adulthood—where we think we are on the path for that we feel we truly desire, but end up finding that when we get it, it is very different than what we imagined. The story really moved from one impossible obstacle to the next. Each time Enrique is defeated or succeeds, there is a twist or turn that changes the dynamics. There is a very gentle story at heart about a boy who wants his mother. We all feel that separation; we all want to return to that place in our lives where our mother’s voice, scent, and presence can solve everything. That makes it pretty universal. Inside all of this is a geopolitical nightmare that our (U.S.) policies of the 1980s created. The Reagan administration’s support for right wing Central American dictators destroyed those economies and their infra-structures, which resulted in mass exodus. Plus Sonia Nazario is a great writer. There is a lot of trust that comes from that type of research and foundation. I made up very little. Truth was much more exciting than fantasy.
Marisela: Enrique’s Journey is an epic story. When transposing novels into theater playwrights often have to make dramaturgical choices. What kinds of choices did you make to this narrative so it could “fit” on stage? What were the challenges?
Tony: We started out with more than one hundred characters, we cut it down to fifty, and now we are at about thirty. Sonia and I had an exchange after she saw the play. She complimented me on the work. Daniel Valdez’s musical soundscape is haunting. We utilize Sones de Mejico (Mexico’s Sones), and a Spanish language version of the Woodie Guthrie song, “This Land is Your Land.”
Through design choices, were able to theatricalize the story. Sonia’s job as a reporter was to give us the information objectively, whereas we could interpret immigration from our own perspective. Also, because the story is a journey, we had to make the story mobile, which lent itself to our Chicano teatro (theater) roots: Not only did the story need to move forward continuously but the action on stage did as well— migrants are not allowed to rest even when they are waiting, also when they are on the trains, the trains are shaking. There is constant movement on the journey that we replicated on stage. The characters are migrants who never have a sense of place. They are always moving and the actors on stage had to do the same. Actors seldom left the stage, they changed costumes, props, and characters as they moved.
Marisela: I understand that as part of your production, Su Teatro collaborated with several Denver schools. What were those experiences like for you and the actors?
Tony: More than half of the cast is made up of children of immigrants; they each have had at least one parent from another country (mostly Mexico) so their personal connection to the story was strong. I had an experience in one of the early workshop productions in Durango when we were presenting the first staged reading of the play sponsored by Fort Lewis College. As always, I was pushing to get the college to hook me in to the local Latina/o community.
After a rehearsal, I attended an ESL class. The teachers were excited to see me and they let me talk to the class. In Spanish, I told them about the show and told them I wanted them to get involved, that I wanted them to come and I would make sure that they had tickets.
I also suggested that they could audition or maybe get us into contact with people who could give us insight into the experience of making the dangerous and challenging trek into the U.S. by riding on the tops of trains. I told the students some of the story lines in the play and at one point I was relating a specific experience: migrants on the trains had been so used to being abused by the locals that when they saw a group of women and children running toward them, they assumed that they were going to pelt them with rocks.
I asked if anyone knew what the locals were throwing. A young woman raised her hand and answered, "Si, eran milagros." Milagros are food packages thrown to people on the train by sympathetic people along the route, they are known as miracles. She continued, "I know because this is my story." She proceeded to explain to us that she was from Nicaragua, and she had ridden on the tops of the trains. She recounted to us the abuse and the horrible experiences that she had on that trip.
It was clear from the tears that, for many, the scars remained. The woman’s name is Jemilet. I asked her to come to out rehearsal and I hired her as a consultant. Since the college could not pay someone who did not have proper documentation, I paid her out of my fee. She came and spoke to the students and they also cried—she told the actors, “You have to work hard and do a good job, because I am relying on you to tell our story.”
Marisela: Your play had its world premiere in 2011 and it was reprised as the opener for your 2014-15 season. It sounds like it was a big success the first time around. How did your audiences in Denver respond to the play?
Tony: With the increased conversation about the children stranded on the border, there has been more attention. It would have been interesting if I had scheduled this show because it is such a topical issue, but that is not true. We had planned on reprising Enrique’s Journey because these are stories that we want to tell. It seems that if your work is relevant you don’t have to search for superficial connections for your work.
Our audiences were extremely supportive, and we had a very successful run. We had 300 middle-schoolers who managed to sit through a long play with sometime difficult subject matter hand enthusiastically embrace Enrique’s character. They understood what he was going through with all his difficulties. My grandson Isaac whom you know, wrote,” my title for this book would be, “In the Shadows” because the children and families that do this have to hide”. So I am encouraged when it resonates with that age group.
Marisela: You’re about to open Enrique’s Journey in Los Angeles at the Encuentro. What’s it like to return to this play for a third time? (Enrique’s Journey had its world premiere in 2011, then was reprised in Su Teatro’s 2014-15 Season.) What nuances are you and the cast discovering in the story and the characters?
Tony: Every time we have approached the project there are changes. We will be adding two new cast members in Los Angeles, in smaller roles, but they will change the dynamics of the play. There is a chemistry that happens in any production, as you add one thing, you take away another. You would hope that the recipe stays consistent, but it’s always different. Daniel will be even more engaged with the music this time. In addition we will be adding the accordion-playing of Nicolas Valdez, who has been a cast member but will now be able to add nuance to what we had in Denver. I also think that in LA we will have more of a Central American audience, as we have had mostly Mexican audiences in Denver.