Ignited is an occasional series that delivers on-the-ground communiques from the Latinx Theatre Commons’ (LTC) El Fuego initiative. El Fuego emerged from Carnaval 2015, a festival of new Latinx plays held at DePaul University in Chicago. Beginning in September 2016, eighteen theatre companies committed to producing the work of Carnaval playwrights, in a series of productions that will run through 2020. In step with the LTC’s mission to champion equity through scholarship, the Fuego initiative has also matched new work with scholars of Latinx theatre and performance. Through Ignited, these critical witnesses offer reflections that both chronicle and critically position new Latinx theatremaking in the public discourse of US American theatre. 

What do you do when you’re faced with the task to write a play about a real-life hero, for a production that’s going to tour US schools throughout the year, and then find yourself staring at a blank page, stumped? Playwright Emilio Rodriguez, who writes from a commitment to address current, real world concerns, found the story of a scientist-activist-artist who transformed a small community in Nicaragua somewhat distant. Fortunately, an answer arrived by letting real world issues engage with history.

As part of the El Fuego initiative, Rodriguez was commissioned by Milagro, the Pacific Northwest’s premier Latino arts and culture organization, to write El Payaso, a new play based on the life of engineer Ben Linder. After its run at El Centro Milagro in January, the production will tour around the country through November 2017. Raised in Portland, Oregon, Milagro’s home base, Linder graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in Mechanical Engineering in 1983, then soon after moved to Nicaragua, inspired by the Sandinistas’ struggles to improve the living conditions of the country’s poorest. Wanting to support their work, he brought his skills as an engineer and built a hydroelectric plant with locals to provide power to El Cuá, a rural village in the heart of Nicaragua’s Sandinista-Contra war zone. He empowered local people to run the plant on their own, helped with immunization campaigns and, in his spare time, entertained children with his clowning, juggling, and unicyclist tricks. He was a beloved figure. In 1987, while scouting a location for a new dam, he and two Nicaraguans were wounded by a grenade, then fatally shot point blank by Contra troops. Linder’s horrific murder fueled the controversy over the US government’s secret support of the Contras, or what we know today as the Iran-Contra scandal.

On the thirtieth anniversary of Linder’s death, Teatro Milagro, the touring arm of Milagro, wanted to honor and share his story. As the only touring program in the country that provides bilingual theatre to a nationwide audience, Teatro Milagro focuses on improving the visibility of Latinx heroes to young audiences in underserved communities. Traditionally, these communities not only experience a dearth of theatre and other cultural programming, but that which arrives most often does not reflect nor reinforce students’ own cultural heritage. While Linder was not Latino, his work to promote environmentalism and social justice in Nicaragua—at the risk of his personal safety—merited attention. Rodriguez appreciated the sacrifices Linder had made to fulfill his vision, but was still looking for a way to make this US-Nicaraguan history meaningful to contemporary audiences, as was Teatro Milagro’s program founder and director Dañel Malán.

L-R: Ajai Terrazas Tripathi, Danielle Pecoff, Emile Dultra, Marlon Jiménez Oviedo. Photo by Russell J. Young.

The initial idea for the play was to create a contemporary character who travels to Nicaragua to encounter the legacy and spirit of Ben Linder. The Ben Linder Scholarship Fund of Oregon awards funding to students for international travel through a competition that asks them to pen an essay that describes how issues of environmental and social justice influence their own engineering career goals. This was the device Rodríguez and Malán could use to justify the presence of a US college student in Nicaragua, especially one attuned to the same concerns as Ben Linder, while also providing information about the scholarship to students around the country. But what then?

Rodriguez did not have to search far for the answer. Living barely an hour away from Flint, Michigan, he knew quite well the story of a city betrayed by its leadership. Earlier last year, poisonous, lead-contaminated water was selected as the primary water source for residents because of its cost-efficiency, despite the serious health risks it posed to the community. Flint’s residents are outraged, trapped, and at the mercy of the same leadership who refused to admit wrongdoing or rectify the situation and forestall the potential harms. What if, proposed Rodriguez, the character of the young college student who wins the Linder Scholarship is a resident of Flint, looking for a way to solve his community’s problems? With that plotline, the writing began to flow.

L-R: Emile Dultra, Marlon Jiménez Oviedo, Ajai Terrazas Tripathi, Danielle Pecoff. Photo by Russell J. Young.

The connection between Flint’s fight for clean water and justice and El Cuá’s battles to create a source of hydroelectric power amid war inspired Rodriguez to create characters who are willing to risk their lives for water. The shared concern for water also informed director Georgina Escobar’s vocabulary of movement in the production. A writer as well as a director, Escobar is one of the LTC’s El Fuego initiative’s cohort of playwrights. Working together in the rehearsal room since early December, Escobar and Rodriguez have experimented and negotiated how the story is told, sometimes by text but oftentimes through highly physical movement. Escobar has worked for years with actors with strong physical performance and clowning skills, and this experience has been put to use in the production’s development. For touring reasons, the show can only be an hour long; with gesture and clowning, Escobar’s direction delivers information quickly and profoundly. One striking moment in the play occurs at Linder’s death and points at its political stakes. An actor turns a small replica of the Statue of Liberty on its side to resemble a toy airplane. The statuette is then passed from one actor’s hands to another, as if in flight, until it stops in front of the actor who portrays Linder, Ajai Terrazas Tripathi. As the tip of Lady Liberty’s torch touches his chest, he collapses to the floor in slow motion. The insinuation is clear: through its imperialist intervention in conflicts such as the Nicaraguan civil war, the US has killed its own citizen.

The script has gone through numerous drafts, often reorganizing the narrative so that events are positioned for greater dramatic resonance than chronology would permit. To interweave the present with the past, the production jumps time and locations, traveling from Seattle to Flint to El Cuá in the 1980s and 2017. “I stopped counting the versions,” says Rodriguez. “Now they’re renamed by date.” Rehearsal has also been used to fine tune El Payaso’s bilingualism. Deciding which lines are said in Spanish and which in English is critical, as the creative team seeks clarity for their audiences regardless of full literacy in either. As the play shifts in rehearsal, actors have found their roles redistributed. In addition to Terrazas Tripathi as Linder, the ensemble features Emile Dultra, Danielle Pecoff, and Marlon Jiménez Oviedo who enact multiple roles such as Linder’s fiancé, who breaks off their engagement after waiting long for his return; a young man of Flint who fills his sister’s water bottles from his university’s drinking fountain; the locals of El Cuá who learn to manage the hydroelectric plant; and Linder’s good friend and fellow activist, Don Macleay. Non-naturalistic in its storytelling, costumes, props, and musical instruments are arranged around the stage before a brightly painted mural.

L-R: Emile Dultra, Marlon Jiménez Oviedo, Danielle Pecoff, Ajai Terrazas Tripathi. Photo by Russell J. Young.

This spirit of experimentation and revision in the rehearsal process is nothing new for Milagro. Since its inception in 1985, Milagro has commissioned sixty-nine new works, developed thirty-nine original theatrical and multi-disciplinary performance programs, and taken forty-nine productions on tour, notes co-founder and Executive Director José González. Committed to producing new work by Latinx playwrights for decades, Milagro is delighted to participate in the LTC’s El Fuego initiative, nurturing and launching into the world Emilio Rodriguez’ El Payaso, a history play resonant with current issues of environmental and social justice.