Houston, We Have a Problem! Excluding Latina/o Stories in Tejas
In 2013, Smithsonian Magazine heralded Houston as the “Next Great American City,” citing its ethnic and cultural transformation over the last few decades as well as its reputation as a city where people can achieve the so-called “American Dream.” The Kinder Institute for Urban Research and the Hobby Center for the Study of Texas at Rice University released a study that showed how Houston holds the nation’s most equitable distribution of the country’s major racial and ethnic groups: Asian, Latina/o, black, and white people. In Harris County, the demographics reveal that white people comprise only 33 percent of the population whereas Latina/os are 41 percent and African Americans 18.4 percent. In fact, of the population under 30-years-old, only 22 percent are white. The same year, an NPR feature celebrated this rich diversity. Still, in 2012 Pew Research Center ranks Houston as the most economically segregated city in the nation.
In a city with over 2.1 million people (over 5 million in the metro area) at least 40 percent of which are Latina/o, there were only two Latina/o plays produced during the entire professional theatre season.
Houston is growing at an astronomical pace and there is no evidence that this is slowing down. Luckily, the arts are along for this ride. In 2015 and 2016 alone, the city has seen an unprecedented boom in the arts. The Alley Theatre just completed a $46.5 million makeover. The $25 million MATCH (Midtown Arts and Theater Center Houston) opened with four theatres, an art gallery, rehearsal space, and office space. Main Street Theatre unveiled a $2 million overhaul of their space. AD Players Theater broke ground on a $49 million facility in the Galleria area that will house three theatres, a scenic shop, classrooms, and offices. Queensbury Theatre (formerly the Country Playhouse) opened its new $6.5 million theatre. And the Museum of Fine Arts Houston broke ground on its $450 million expansion (including a theatre).
Despite what the demographics and influx of cultural arts activity reveals, Latina/o representation on stage in Houston is few and far between. In the 2015–2016 theatre season, out of all the full productions at the city’s leading professional theatres such as the Alley, Stages Repertory Theatre, and Main Street Theatre, only two were by a Latina/o author: The Danube by Maríe Irene Fornés at Catastrophic Theatre and The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity by Kristoffer Diaz at Stages. To repeat, in a city with over 2.1 million people (over 5 million in the metro area) at least 40 percent of which are Latina/o, there were only two Latina/o plays produced during the entire professional theatre season. To me, these numbers are startling and reveal that Houston is wildly behind other places with similar demographic diversity across the country such as New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago where Latina/o stories are frequently seen on a variety of stages: big, small, Latina/o, LORT, university, high school—you name it.
Whenever I leave the city and speak about the Houston theatre scene, people are quick to mention Talento Bilingüe de Houston (TBH). From the outside, it appears that TBH is still thriving as it did in the 1980s and 90s under the artistic leadership of Richard Reyes (“Pancho Claus”). As Reyes details in a 2011 piece for Houston History Magazine, the company was at the forefront of Latina/o theatre across the country from its origins through the early part of the 2000s. TBH produced landmark Latina/o plays by Teatro de la Esperanza (La Víctima), Josefina López (Real Women Have Curves), and Alicia Mena (Las Nuevas Tamaleras), while also dedicating itself to telling the stories of Houston’s Latina/o population such as From Second Ward to Ben Taub in Thirty Days, Pancho Claus, No Where to Be, and Color-Blind. This included the very successful Latino Youth Theater which drew praise from the city as a cutting-edge gang prevention program that used theatre arts to provide local residents with a positive outlet to direct their energy rather than fall victim to gang violence.
It is incomprehensible that there is less Latina/o theatre in Houston in 2016 than there was in 1986 or 1996. Houston currently does not have a Latina/o theatre company.
Notably, these programs were successful and filled a major gap in the city. Still, as Richard Reyes notes, in 2002–03, the board of directors adopted a plan by the city to situate TBH as a Latina/o Cultural Arts Center. This led to the board cutting all youth programming (classes and productions) and adult theater productions. Reyes’s “services were no longer required” at this point as the city encouraged TBH to be used as a rental pace to Latina/o and non-Latina/o groups alike. The space has seen high turnover of leadership in recent years and only serves as a touring house and a pseudo community center. There are frequent acting and theatre workshops in English and Spanish, which is a step in the right direction, but the failure to continue its legacy as a leading national player in the Latina/o theatre scene is indeed demoralizing for local Latina/o artists who long for a space of their own. Indeed, it is incomprehensible that there is less Latina/o theatre in Houston in 2016 than there was in 1986 or 1996. To reiterate, Houston currently does not have a Latina/o theatre company.
This exclusion extends to higher education, as well. The University of Houston (UH) has long proclaimed its position as a Hispanic-serving institution and one of the nation’s most diverse campuses (second only to Rutgers University-Newark). Yet, the theatre department has systematically left Latina/o stories off of their mainstage season (UH did produce Lisa Loomer’s Bocón for young audiences in 2015). Typically, when theatre departments do this, they don’t have the student body to faithfully produce these works. This is not the case at UH. In the last ten seasons (See UH production history), there have been eighty-one plays (Arcadia twice!). During this time, the university has produced one Latina/o play—The Danube by Fornés—and three Spanish plays—Blood Wedding, Yerma, and Fuenteovejuna. While this is certainly a step in the right direction, canonical Spanish plays by Federico García Lorca and Lope de Vega are not Latina/o plays and do not speak to the lived experiences of Latina/os in this country. Notably, all of these productions even included spoken dialogue in Spanish and Latina/o actors in many roles. Rice University offers a similar lack of representation, although the university’s demographics are not overwhelmingly comprised of students of color such as UH.
The landscape for middle and high school educational theatre paints a similar story if we look at the selection of UIL (University Interscholastic League) plays for the annual forty-minute one-act play competition that takes place all across the state and culminates with the state finals at the University of Texas at Austin. Even predominately Latina/o high schools are choosing Shakespeare, Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, and Sam Shepard over Luis Valdez, Josefina López, Octavio Solis, and Karen Zacarías. Yes, a Latina/o play sneaks in every so often—Houston area schools Sam Houston High school did Eduardo Machado’s Broken Eggs and Milby High School did Nilo Cruz’s Anna in the Tropics in 2016—but these examples are few and far between (See Roxanne Schroeder-Arce for more on the lack of Latina/o representation in Texas educational theatre).
Despite the lack of Latina/o plays over the last year (and beyond), The Danube and The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity were two of the highlights of my Houston theatre-going season. Even though Fornés’s work uses a Latina/o aesthetic, audiences potentially will not recognize it as a Latina/o play (to me, it is). I left Catastrophic’s warehouse theatre inspired, reinvigorated, and excited about what heights theatre in Houston could reach. My excitement only increased when I stepped into the wrestling ring a few weeks later to see the main event: The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity.
Kristoffer Diaz’s hip-hop play about Macedonio “Mace” Guerra and the world of professional wrestling is precisely the kind of theatre that Houston needs at this moment. Diaz’s work speaks to the New American Theatre that Luis Valdez so often talks about. As I sat in the audience hooting, hollering, cheering, and laughing, I couldn’t help but see how well Chad Deity reflects Houston in the twenty-first century. Here is a play that uses professional wrestling as a playground to make sharp commentary about race, ethnicity, capitalism, consumer culture, and the entertainment industry: themes that readily apply to Houston’s booming economy and increasingly segregated city.
Telling this story was an Indian, a Latino, a black, and a white man. These are the faces of Houston. This is the diversity that everyone recognizes in Houston. These are my students. The people drinking coffee next to me at Campesino Coffee House. The people I see and interact with every day. This isn’t just the future. It’s the present. It’s the current reality in Houston and in many cities across the nation. Yet, plays such as this are rarely produced here. In fact, after seeing Chad Deity, I quickly decided to make a list of all the Latina/o plays being produced in Houston during the 2015–2016 season. I was going to attend each one and keep a journal with my thoughts. My research was surprisingly cut short when I realized that I had already seen the two Latina/o plays being produced in the city over the next year.
The artistic successes of The Danube and Chad Deity should inspire other Houston theatres to produce Latina/o work and more stories that reflect Houston’s diverse demographics. While I sat on the side of Stages’ Yeager Theater, I could see the faces in the crowd. The middle section of the theatre (the most expensive tickets) was almost entirely comprised of middle- and upper-class white people who were actively engaging (cheering, laughing, etc.) with the play from the pre-show wrestling entertainment until the very end. These people didn’t seem to mind that the play wasn’t about their lived experiences or that they couldn’t necessarily “relate” to the characters on stage. In fact, one older woman on the first row provided as much entertainment for me as the play itself. At one point, when Vigneshwar “VP” Paduar made his elaborate entrance, he stopped, gyrated directly in front of her, which she and the audience thoroughly appreciated, and continued his spectacle. Chad Deity proves that white audiences are more than willing to support plays by and about people of color, but they will never support these works if they are never given the opportunity to do so.
One thing remains certain. As Houston continues to grow, it needs more diversity in theatre representation if it will truly live up to becoming the “Next Great American City.”