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. This series focuses on the playwrights from the Latina/o Theatre Commons Carnaval of New Latina/o Work.
Regina García: After the excerpt you shared with us at Carnaval, I was enthralled and curious about the story and process for your piece Appeal: The New American Musical of Mexican Descent. What informed and inspired you first—the history of the carpas and their role in Mexican popular culture, or the biography of Gus García? Was it perhaps the personalities within the Mexican civil rights cases that shaped the movement in Texas?
Amparo Garcia-Crow: I was introduced to Gus García when I was a NEA/TCG Director’s Fellow. For about six months, I had these incredible adventures, which afforded me access to someone that knew about Gus. When I heard about his arc as a human being—here’s a man that was a brilliant orator who won a landmark civil rights case not just for Latinos, but all minorities. Yet, he died homeless, penniless in a park in San Antonio. I thought, “What! That’s a big Greek tragic hero arc: going from riches to rags.” And he was tejano. It was 1991 and I was interested in all the stories that we were not hearing, or seeing on stage, television or film. I wasn’t even writing yet, Regina, but I thought: “Wow, that’s a story I would like to tell.” There was nothing in the history books, which was kind of shocking.
I wasn’t really doing research, but serendipity intervened. During a retreat for the NEA/TCG Fellows, we were housed where María Irene Fornés happened to be workshopping one of her operas. Because of our proximity, she was asked to offer a writing workshop for the TCG directors and designers. I mean, how lucky can you get? There were ten of us (five directors, five designers) so we got to sit with her as she guided us through some mind and body exercises which for me, challenged me to the core. I did it so badly with the writing prompts that I became totally smitten with the spontaneous writing process she induced—something just came alive in me. When I went back to Los Angeles where I was living at the time, I just started writing like I knew what I was doing! As a TCG Fellow, I had the great fortune of having been introduced to José Cruz González as one of my professional mentors when he was producing the Hispanic Play Festival at South Coast Rep. I sent him my first awkward play and he chose it for development and paired me up with Octavio Solis as my first dramaturg. So, that was the graceful and fortuitous beginning of my writing.
When I returned to Texas the following year, I was a single mom, desperately looking for the means to support the writing so I applied to the premier Michener Writer’s Program with my first play and they accepted me. Serendipity occurred again when I got to workshop one of my new works in progress and that’s when I wrote Gus’ story as a very dramatic “Brecht meets the Bread and Puppet Theatre” draft. I remember using masks—it was very Greek. This local critic wrote a piece about it, which caught the attention of a high school historian from Laredo, Texas. The historian wrote me: “I was born in Laredo just like Gus García. I heard you’re writing a play about him and I have years of research and recordings of his contemporaries. I have history that I would like to share with you because his story has to be told.” Is that awesome, or what?
If you look at historical photos of the carpa chorus girls, you see how eclectic they were dressed—Valkyries in the middle of South Texas. They borrowed from the popular culture they saw in the movies!
Regina: It’s amazing how things just lined up so carefully for you.
Amparo: While I know it takes will and attention to manifest anything, the story from the start, had a life of its own. I really think that Gus’ story adopted me from the start. The Michener Program requires that you have two areas of focus, the second one for me being screenwriting. To graduate I knew I would have to write a movie script as part of my thesis, so I used the research to write Gus as a movie character and to strategically have the widest audience possible for the telling of an important historic movement. That’s when I discovered that the screenplay structure was similar to the musical theatre structure because the scenes are short. So I started flirting with this idea and I realized that Gus should be a “freakin” musical! He was a big personality—with a huge calling so why not turn him into music?
Historically, musical theatre is a genre that doesn’t have a wide palette; its subjects have been very white. Thank God for Hamilton, (and In the Heights before that) for breaking down some of those doors! Before them, Zoot Suit got slaughtered when it moved to Broadway because it was too sophisticated and ahead of its time. The critics were condescendingly saying: “Don’t these people know that this is not a musical?” Actually, no one said it was a musical; it is a play with music! I don’t know if you’ve read those reviews, but they were a blatant reminder of the problem with musical theatre and its “ruling class approved theatrical storytelling!” So, that’s why I wrote this important civil rights story as a musical and subtitled it: “The New American Musical of Mexican Descent.” I figured that I could attempt to match Gus’ struggles of being Latino while working in a very oppressive political world with a genre that exemplifies the struggle non-white artists, especially those who want to reclaim and re-invent both history and musical theatre.
I wrote this important civil rights story as a musical and subtitled it: “The New American Musical of Mexican Descent.” I figured that I could attempt to match Gus [Garcia’s] struggles of being Latino while working in a very oppressive political world.
Regina: What about the idea of using popular music and the vaudevillian structure as a way of exploring Gus’ shortcomings as a man? When did that make sense in your research and/or writing process?
Amparo: I became aware about the Mexican-American carpas and was delighted to discover that that the most famous one was called La Carpa García. In addition, Gus was young when he left Laredo; his mother left his father and they moved to San Antonio where La Carpa Garcia was based. Gus as a traveling tent show was a great metaphor to embrace. Historically, La Carpa García was similar to Teatro Campesino in intention; performers took their offering to the rural people where they did skits of subjects vital to their community’s wellbeing and survival. They were vaudevillian, but political at the same time. They were funny, filled with jabbing criticism like “Chicano John Stewarts.” I think my piece is Cabaret-the-musical like, hopefully educating the audience about two very strong cultural icons that had roots in progressive politics. Why not marry them together? And that’s what I’ve done. I’ve tried to embrace the theatricality of all three in one.
Regina: What are some similarities between your piece and Cabaret?
Amparo: The Gus story is told as a show within a show, similar to how the carpa skits tell a narrative. Cabarets in Europe were strikingly similar in intention to carpas in Texas and Mexico. The carpas had a lifespan from the 1915 to the 1950s, the same period as cabarets. I recently had a conversation with Jorge Huerta recently and he said: “You know why the carpas had to stop? It’s because the city shut them down. They thought it was a fire hazard because they were tent shows.” I thought that’s a perfect “complication” for all the similar challenges Gus constantly ran up against. He had to deal with an unjust system that posted “No Dogs, Mexicans allowed” in all kinds of public and community settings. He was a bona fide genius with a gifted photographic memory, both eloquent and confrontational. He wasn’t always liked for the hard truths he spoke about, but that didn’t stop him from “telling it like it is.” Also, if you look at historical photos of the carpa chorus girls, you see how eclectic they were dressed—Valkyries in the middle of South Texas. They borrowed from the popular culture they saw in the movies! In other words, they adapted and expressed what they understood about the duality of being American and being Latino in a predominantly “white” culture.
Regina: What moments in the overall story demanded a song?
Amparo: There is a scene called “Red, White & Blue,” which is about Gus in the Army. The “blue” in this case is the black and blue bruises for being front line target practice, which was always the case for non-white soldiers. Gus, however, went in as one of the first Latino judge advocates, which was unheard of for a Latino in the ’40s. He ended up in Yokohama, Japan after the atomic bomb dropped. I wrote a song called “Banzai” to capture Gus’ awareness of cultural difference when he witnesses the execution of Japanese generals when they would cry out: “Banzai!” He asks the translator for the meaning of the word, which has two paradoxical meanings—triumph and sorrow. For someone as intelligent and soulful as Gus, I took this moment to say: “How can one little word mean so many things?” Ultimately, these two songs are a combination of a marching, hip-hop song within the constraints of a traditional musical theatre “drinking song.” These songs also foreshadow the tragic end of Gus’ life and effort.
Regina: What does the editing process look like for this piece? Do you reach out to composer Arthur Shane and say, “We need a different song”? Or do you present your checklist of concerns and explore potential edits together in front of a piano?
Amparo: First of all, I have so many versions of this piece. Starting from the “screenplay-for- hire” version, which ended up being the “Spielberg” version. I thought, “Why hold back? A story about a people needs to have its own Star Wars trilogy, que no? There should be many stories told about Gus, not just one. He was such a complex character and his story can be told differently several times and hopefully by many generations. For example, there are three scenes that are not in the current script that I’ve shared with my composer and are pending, depending on how our producing collaborators feel about what we should focus on. The heartbreaking ending has historical footage of Walter Cronkite announcing the death of John F. Kennedy. This footage introduces a requiem piece, The Unknown Soldier, for Gus’ tragic and premature passing. Because JFK needed the Latino vote in Texas, he came down to do an “On the Road” journey by car with Gus into nowhere, South Texas. Tejanos were impressed with JFK because he was charming, sincere, and spoke a little Spanish. Nobody before him made any effort to include them in the political system until this point. So, we might just need “one more song” about the young Bostonian coming to South Texas for what eventually becomes the “Viva Kennedy” campaign, which won him the presidential election. I can write something like that pretty quickly, but I need a collaborator to “nip and tuck.”
The carpas were Brecht-like, incorporating what was popular with political theatre. From the start, I told the composer Arthur Shane: “ Let’s try to match the style of music for each decade that Gus’ story spans: ragtime, swing, big band and even early rock—if we can.” I have a song about stereotypes, which is a duet sung by Gus and one of his lawyers before they go to the Supreme Court. They say goodbye to “Carmen Miranda, the sanchos, and Panchos”—it is done in this MGM musical style.
Regina: What do you feel is most urgent about sharing this story with the theatre community? Why is it important for the community at large to learn more about Gus?
Amparo: If you turn on the TV right now, we again see the ongoing challenges of racial tension complicated by the lack of historical wisdom. It especially happens before each presidential election; we are looking at the same issues over and over. Gus was a visionary who did the math in his lifetime. He predicted that by 2010, Latinos would begin to become the majority of the voting population and they would have to deal with us. He has an important story in American history. We are doomed to repeat some costly mistakes if we don’t know our history.
When I was paid to write my screenplay, I could not find the transcripts for the Supreme Court. Maybe its because I’m not a historian and do not research properly, but what I discovered is that these records do not exist, or they are not easy to access if they do. And this is for a Supreme Court landmark case! If I want to find the transcript of Brown vs. Board, I can find it. Yet, I cannot find Gus’ case, which tells me that maybe they found it to be too subversive. He dealt with immigration issues way ahead of his time. He had everything to do with the Bracero program and he was invited to the first United Nations meeting. He was doing work that laid the foundation for civil rights for Latinos. And at the same time, Castro was rising into power and I believe the powers that be feared a revolution. Thankfully, with all the Mexican American Studies programs now, some of this information is being dug up. That is why Gus Garcia’s story is so important: it is foundational.