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Best Medicine: Why We Need the 2022 LTC Comedy Carnaval

My instinct in a fucked-up situation is to make a joke. Little did I know when I pitched the Comedy Carnaval to the Latinx Theatre Commons Steering Committee in 2018 just how fucked-up the situation would be by the time the event came to fruition.

I joined the Latinx Theatre Commons (LTC) in summer 2015. At the time, I was the casting director and artistic associate at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., where I had the pleasure to work with LTC co-founder Karen Zacarías who was a playwright in residence. I had spoken with Karen about my frustration at the lack of Latine representation on “mainstream” stages. She shared that she and several other leaders in the field had started a movement whose purpose was to tackle that very issue by raising awareness of the incredible talent pool of Latine theatre artists nationally, advocating for inclusion of our stories, and documenting the impact of Latine theatre through rigorous scholarship.

The movement has been wildly successful in so many ways. The writers, actors, directors, and designers that have been featured at the encuentros hosted by the Latino Theatre Company in Los Angeles and the carnavals hosted by DePaul University in Chicago have gone on to high profile gigs Off-Broadway and on television. The relationships formed at the regional convenings in New York and Seattle and Miami have led to jobs and paychecks and funding and collective advocacy. The national awareness of culturally specific Latine companies, as well as the prevalence of Latine stories on stage at predominantly white institutions (PWIs) has significantly increased in ways that can be directly traced back to the efforts of the Latinx Theatre Commons, and I am immensely grateful to the founders and everyone who has worked so hard to make the work possible.

When the opportunity arose in 2018 to make a pitch to the LTC Steering Committee for new programming, I was primarily inspired to pitch the Comedy Carnaval due to frustration with the dominant culture of the American theatre. I had been heartened and excited to see more Latine stories on stage at predominantly white institutions (PWIs), however my enthusiasm had waned as I noticed how disproportionately these PWIs favor Latine “trauma porn” that exploits the suffering of marginalized people to console or entertain the privileged and powerful. So much of the time that Latine stories are programmed, those stories feature narratives about immigration, narcotics trafficking, imprisonment, family separation, or gang violence. At best, this over-emphasis on narratives of Latine oppression is a well-intentioned desire to foster dialogue about relevant issues. At worst, it is a calculated and deeply rooted strategy to propagate harmful stereotypes in order to justify and reinforce the status quo of white supremacy.

Yes, our communities are facing injustice and tragedy. Yes, we should address those problems. But one of the most powerful and versatile tools that our communities use to tackle oppression is the power of humor.

Ten artists pose for a picture.

2018 LTC Carnaval of New Latinx Work. Photo by Joel Maisonet.

To explore Latine oppression within the affinity space of our own community is certainly different than to do so for the benefit of the white gaze. Still, even our own programming at the LTC has featured more dramas than comedies. Having witnessed the power of our platform over the previous three-year programming cycle, I pitched the Comedy Carnaval with the hope that our movement can take our advocacy a step beyond calling for more Latine stories—a step towards propagating a dialogue about what kinds of stories we want to tell in this moment and what impact those stories might have for our own community and beyond.

To be clear, I’m not against dramatic Latine plays. I don’t want fewer of them programmed. I want more comedic performance on stage for a sense of balance. Yes, our communities are facing injustice and tragedy. Yes, we should address those problems. But one of the most powerful and versatile tools that our communities use to tackle oppression is the power of humor. Laughter can soothe a broken heart, unite coalitions across differences, and even scare the shit out of a bully.

So, I pitched an event centering Latine comedic theatre that would serve as an intervention. With the programming of the Comedy Carnaval, we have aimed to explode historically confined definitions of “latinidad,” “comedy,” and “theatre.” Our request for proposals invited submissions of not only plays but any form of comedic performance, and I am thrilled that the final line-up includes carpas, sketch comedy, stand-up, solo performance, and a short film in addition to three staged readings of plays which themselves range widely from absurdism to clown to puppetry to family dramedy.

One reason for this expansive programming is to uplift traditional Latine forms such as the carpa (a populist form of itinerant tent theatre often political in nature) with an important and under-represented role in forming the foundation of Latine performance. Another reason is that humor is subjective, with different forms and content appealing to different individuals, and we hope to have something for everyone. A third reason—much more pressing now than I could have realized at the time of my proposal—is that our theatres must be flexible and innovative, finding ways to share stories and community when we cannot produce plays in the traditional ways or when our audiences cannot gather in our buildings. The inclusion of a variety of methods and mediums offers greater accessibility and opportunity to more folx to experience joy and laughter.

While the impulse in these challenging times is to merely divert and distract, I challenge us to select stories that provide a pathway towards imagining a better future. Escape can be nice, but it is temporary.

We’ve all heard some version of “laughter is the best medicine”—the phrase has become a cliché. But not at Comedy Carnaval. At Comedy Carnaval, we are in the business of dispensing that medicine for the benefit of individual and communal wellness and healing. I used to think that my aforementioned instinct to make a joke in a fucked-up situation was a sign of immaturity, conflict-aversion, or bad manners. I have since come to believe that it is a fundamental and important survival instinct. Should I perhaps be mindful of what kind of joke in what moment and in what company? Probably. But should we avoid making jokes and instead take everything seriously all the time? No. Unequivocally no.

Latine people are joyful, witty, clever, and funny. We must take pride in our long history of laughing in the face of oppression. We must hone the tool of the pen or the microphone that we know can be mightier than the sword. We must work in jubilant coalition with our Black, Indigenous, Brown, Queer, and Disabled siblings to remind ourselves and each other that doing good feels good. We must make the revolution irresistibly fun. The planning and execution of this event has been a bright spot over a bleak couple of years and leaning into that light has been an act of pleasure activism. My deepest hope is that attendance, too, will be such an act.

Since my original pitch was accepted in 2018, the need for humor has only become more urgent as our societies have navigated foundational catastrophes. When the news is bitter, we turn to Trevor Noah or John Oliver to deliver it with a spoonful of sugar. Likewise, when ticket sales drag at our box offices, we start brainstorming what comedies we can program. While the impulse in these challenging times is to merely divert and distract, I challenge us to select stories that provide a pathway towards imagining a better future. Escape can be nice, but it is temporary.

In the short term, I hope Comedy Carnaval provides attendees with some much-needed relief. However, the larger goal is to tap into the full potential of comedy to offer sustainable strategies for resilience, resistance, and revolution. I implore the American theatre not to let fear guide us to fall back on classic Eurocentric farces full of racism and sexual harassment but instead to use the populist vehicle of comedy to deliver complex and nuanced stories of systematically marginalized people surviving and thriving. Don’t know of any good ones? No problem. That’s what the Comedy Carnaval is for.

Watch the 2022 LTC Comedy Carnaval.