Beneath the Shadow of the Freeway
Virginia Grise’s Stage Adaptation of Helena Maria Viramontes’s Their Dogs Came with Them
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 ran 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 United States American theatre.
If you quiz any scholar of Helena María Viramontes’s novel Their Dogs Came with Them about the lines most emblematic of its richest themes, chances are many would cite the final defiant words of Tranquilina, an earnest missionary apprehended by the advancing Quarantine Authority: “We’re not dogs!” Or some might cite the private wishes of any of the teenage girls who make up the F Troop, who cherish the stories they repeatedly tell each other because they know “the world … only gave them one to tell.” Still others might cite Ben, the young student suffering from a mental breakdown but who still has the capacity to observe that empathy is rooted in our willingness to change our language: “One would need metaphor to love her,” he says, observing a homeless woman and trying to create a fuller account of her presence in the world. All of these moments have their roots in the besieged East Los Angeles community of the late 1960s and 1970s, where Viramontes set her novel, at a crisis point of environmental degradation and displacement: it is a bygone Los Angeles anticipating the arrival of the freeways.
Following a years-long development process that included community readings and workshops in sites across Arizona and at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Virginia Grise’s Their Dogs Came with Them offers a theatrical adaptation of Viramontes’s acclaimed work. This new play was commissioned by Tucson’s Borderlands Theatre, a project meaningful to artistic director Marc Pinate not only for its recognition of neighborhoods as centers of history, but also for the opportunity to bring together two leading Chicana artists.
The official world premiere was performed by incarcerated actors from Perryville Women’s Prison Santa Cruz Unit in Goodyear, Arizona in February 2019. This singular developmental and performance opportunity served as a crucial site for Grise’s work. With support from the Latinx Theatre Commons’ El Fuego Initiative, Borderlands and A Todo Dar Productions offered the play’s public premiere, directed by Kendra Ware, in October 2019 at a unique outdoor performance space: the open but dark recesses under the colossal concrete freeway ramps of the I-10 freeway that dissect South Tucson from the edge of the Sonoran Desert.
In thinking of her adaptation as a kind of moving installation from city to city, Grise prioritizes how local actors in each new community might privilege what is most pressing to be heard in their community.
For those familiar with the novel, this intersection of desert park, public bike path, and interstate infrastructure only underscored the story’s concern with gentrification and displacement. Grise’s stage adaptation, alert to the novel’s urgent pleas to memorialize the lives of the disenfranchised, embraces the multifocal narrative and provides the audience with a bevy of characters as potential entry points to understanding its action, drama, and consequence.
Grise also modifies the novel’s complex and interweaving timelines and narrows the character focus. While the novel boasts over twenty major characters, it is often described, read, and understood as the intersecting tale of four different women: Ermila, a teenage girl stifled by the confines of her grandparents’ house but buoyed by her circle of friends, the F Troop; Turtle, a gang member seeking the solace of her war-lost brother in the streets; Tranquilina, a young woman whose faith and empathy is tested by the injustice of her surroundings; and Ana, a woman whose professional façade cracks under the strain of trying to manage the care of her younger brother, Ben. All of these lives are disrupted not only by the massive construction (and destruction) caused by the freeway’s arrival, but also by a militarized force, the Quarantine Authority, which seals off the community at night and establishes militarized checkpoints for coming and going.
From the beginning, Grise understood the novel as “stories of the F Troop” and noted that “everything else spiraled out of that.” This is in keeping with her most celebrated works, blu and The Panza Monologues, co-written with Irma Mayorga, each spotlighting not only the lives of women but the empowerment inherent in women being able to narrate their own lives. Given the virtuosity of Viramontes’s novel and the need to streamline both time and character arcs for the stage, Grise said she “had to learn to love the story more than the words.” Grise narrowed the novel’s focal points to three key characters. The first is Ermila (Leilani Clark), a young woman navigating the city’s unwarranted lockdowns as she goes to and from work, school, and hanging out with friends in the F Troop. The second is Turtle (Manny Rivera), the younger sister of the ghostly Luis Lil Lizard (Mel “Melo” Dominguez), whose efforts to be accepted into the McBride Boys gang leads to dangerous consequences. Last is Ben (Luke Salcido), a student suffering from mental illness, who wanders the neighborhood’s streets, oblivious to the threat of the Quarantine Authority.
While the majority of the play’s twelve-actor cast play multiple characters, these three roles are portrayed by single actors, emphasizing how pivotal these characters are to Viramontes’s most potent themes. Grise gives each of these three primary characters’ sustained soliloquies, and each speaks at length to the audience about the perils and frustration of living in occupied streets. At other times, they narrate moments of coincidence and happenstance, showing the audience how the disparate lives in such a large neighborhood intersect and interchange. In Borderlands’ production, these three performances emphasized a physicality, a proximity of touch, and an amplification of voice that had not been possible in Perryville’s staging because of strict rules for the incarcerated actors. This type of shift underscores Grise’s commitment to have each iteration of the play respond anew to its community: the actors themselves determine, in her words, “the needs of the play.”
Staged under the I-10 overpass, Tucson audiences recognized not only the pain of neighborhood demolitions that they, too, have experienced, but the role of art in honoring those lost.
Musical director Martha Gonzalez, with fellow musicians Tylana Enomoto, Juan Perez, and Bob Robles, provided accompaniment to signal both simple scene transitions as well as significant memories and flashbacks. Invited to collaborate by Grise to reflect a musical “ethos of East LA,” the music blends Mexican rhythms with jazz, rock, and gospel inflections appropriate to the multicultural and multiracial neighborhood. (The score will soon become a standalone concept album and concert, tentatively titled “Riding the Currents of the Wilding Wind.”) The music also provided cues for the audience about where to focus their attention in this nontraditional theatrical space: on the sloping concrete of the ramps, the public bike path threading through the area, or the shadows and peripheries of the playing space itself. Crucially, music was integral to the play’s finale, which replicated the novel’s celebrated and much-discussed depiction of a character literally taking flight above the despair of the cityscape. It was accomplished here as a literal lifting up of one of the characters by the entire cast, a gesture that served as a final statement of Grise’s vision of the play as a community effort.
The South Tucson freeway underpass site reflected the play’s transmutability to its chosen audience; South Tucson, like East Los Angeles and many other communities, has lived the story of gentrification and its stark environmental disasters, and the play gave witness to the individual lives that had been affected by these forces. In Grise’s developmental work with Perryville Women’s Prison, the incarcerated actors imagined Viramontes’s Los Angeles geography as the Arizona cities where they had once lived and still had family. This alerted Grise to the possibility that the play could be “in a constant state of transformation, where how the play is made is as important as the play itself.” Borderlands’ production was, to a degree, a rethinking of the staging Grise developed in Perryville Prison, and she has plans for yet another iteration, this time in Los Angeles itself.
Grise has stated that the production has been “a journey of development” and that her approach has been less invested in the idea of a single, triumphant production and more about developing a model of flexible, adaptable programming for the community being served. In thinking of her adaptation as a kind of moving installation from city to city, Grise prioritizes how local actors in each new community might privilege what is most pressing to be heard in their community. For some, it may be the special prescience of a role like Turtle. In the novel, Turtle is not a non-binary or trans character, but on stage, Turtle’s rejection of gender expectations and norms are especially powerful in their visibility, making the role particularly resonant for non-binary and trans performers. Other communities may find that Ben’s struggle with mental health access is the play’s sharpest connection to their concerns. Still others may find that Chavela (Annabelle V. Nuñez), an elderly woman who opens both the play and the novel—in the midst of packing up her life as she loses her home to the coming of the freeways—is the core of their story.
Staged under the I-10 overpass, Tucson audiences recognized not only the pain of neighborhood demolitions that they, too, have experienced, but the role of art in honoring those lost. By allowing future productions to respond to the specificities of their communities, Grise encourages the play to serve as ceremonies of healing and promotes a deeply held Latinx artistic adage—“el teatro está en la calle”—the theatre is in the streets. In the same way Viramontes’s novel forever memorializes a lost East Los Angeles, Grise’s play asks us to think of a fluid, ever-changing production as a shaping of what—and who—can be part of any community, even in the midst of being torn apart.