ConeXión and Aesthetic Resistance at the 2018 Latinx Theatre Commons Carnaval

A woman stands at a podium on stage as people in the audience applaud.
Lisa Portes at the Opening Ceremonies. Photo by Joel Maisonet.

From 19 through 21 July 2018, a mix of 221 playwrights, producers, actors, directors, scholars, and theatremakers convened at the 2018 LTC Carnaval of New Latinx Work: ¡ConeXión! produced by the Latinx Theatre Commons (LTC) in association with Teatro Vista and the Alliance of Latinx Theater Artists (ALTA) Chicago, and hosted by the Theatre School at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois. The tone of this second Carnaval (the first was also at DePaul in 2015) was one of enthusiasm and urgency as returning and new participants viewed six new plays—selected from over 130 entries—and engaged in meaningful conversations on the state and future of Latinx theatre. The location of the convening in Chicago—considered by many to be a contemporary epicenter of new Latinx theatre—allowed for a deeper understanding of the powerful role of theatre in specific Latinx communities.

From the opening ceremony to closing remarks, a sense of urgency permeated the stage and sideline conversations as participants discussed the role of Latinx theatre in a dark, hostile America. Augusto Boal’s words “All theater is necessarily political” seemed to echo around us. During the opening ceremony, for example, Christopher Acebo, Associate Artistic Director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and curator of the Carnaval Designer Cohort, asked participants, “How do the politics of who we are inform the aesthetics of our work?” while Lisa Portes, Champion of the 2018 Carnaval, proclaimed, “We defy this administration with a spirit of celebration, abundance, and connection.” A later impromptu “circle of intention” led by Portes together with Richard Montoya and Herbert Siguenza of Culture Clash highlighted the current administration’s hatred of “brown bodies, brown families, and brown babies,” as Portes put it, and asked for political response and continued commitment to social justice on and beyond the stage. From my perspective, the Carnaval called participants to consider the role of theatrical aesthetics in resisting an administration that seeks to contain and control brown bodies and brown minds.

How do the politics of who we are inform the aesthetics of our work?

Connecting With The Plays
The Carnaval offered a rich line-up of six plays by Latinx playwrights on a variety of issues—gender, language, family, sexuality, death, dreams, and identity. After a staged reading of each play, participants enjoyed an artist talk in which the play’s dramaturg interviewed the playwright. This was followed by the director discussing potential design ideas with the design team. In this innovation of the convening, each designer offered their vision of future productions including sample soundscapes, lighting and costume inspirations, and mock-ups of set designs. The collaborative design-team process allowed for significant development of each work and underscored possibilities for producers seeking new plays. Lighting Designer Pablo Santiago commented, for example, that changing the production model by including designers at the beginning allowed for a more unified vision of each play. Design team members echoed Santiago by enthusiastically agreeing that they were able to develop a stronger production with less time wasted on trying to weave together their particular perspectives.

Two women embrace on stage in front of a music stand.
Shoe. Photo by Joel Maisonet.

Shoe by Marisela Treviño Orta. Director: Ricardo Gutierrez. Dramaturg: Olga Sanchez Saltveit. Design team: Raquel Barreto, Tom Ontiveros, Tara Houston, Luis Guerra.

The Carnaval opened Thursday afternoon with a brilliant reading of Shoe, a play that investigates the tension between supporting family and following one’s dreams. Young protagonist Marta finds herself trapped in a double-wide mobile home in Texas, giving up college to support her demanding mother, Renata, and siblings. Set in the context of a small town near San Antonio, Shoe abounds with clever code-switching and cultural references that resonated with Latinx spectators at the Carnaval. The primarily Latinx audience roared in laughter, for example, when Renata complained about Marta’s fideo and when Renata, captivated by her telenovelas, refused to acknowledge her addiction and cancel the upgraded TV subscription.

During the artist talk, Treviño Orta noted that in these moments the play engages with bilingual spectators while leaving cultural and linguistic outsiders “alienated but not entirely closed out.” In this way, Shoe affirms Latinx audiences and honors Latinx identity on stage. At the same time, the play calls into question traditional cultural views of gender, including the role of women and double standards of sexuality, and asks audiences to ponder the tension between family and realizing one’s potential beyond the home. Set Designer Tara Houston suggested developing this tension by dividing the stage into a demarcated inside/outside space with a threshold that Marta does not cross. In this way, spectators recognize the degree of Marta’s physical and psychological entrapment, until one day Marta gains the strength to step through the door and walk out of the theatre into her new life.

Two women stand at music stands and two sit on a stage, all with scripts in hand.
Our Dear Dead Drug Lord. Photo by Joel Maisonet.

Our Dear Dead Drug Lord by Alexis ScheerDirector: Rebecca Martínez. Dramaturg: Hannah Greenspan. Design team: Carolyn Mazuca, Mextly Almeda, Efren Delgadillo, Jr, Corinne Carrillo. 

Think Narcos meets Mean Girls; this is how playwright Alexis Scheer describes her dramatic work Our Dear Dead Drug Lord. Four teenage girls in Miami—Pipe, Zoom, Squeeze, and Kit—make up the Dead Leaders Club, which celebrates Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, among other historical figures. The play addresses issues of politics, fatherless youth, violence in society, and the rage of young women and brings them directly to the feet of spectators who must come to terms (or not) with them.

During the talk-back session, Scheer commented on the uniqueness of theatre in allowing an audience to experience something together—in this case, issues facing Latinx young women today. There is a sense that the theatre will cause people to think, to be influenced as individuals, and this in turn will impact the masses. In the words of the playwright, “Revolution starts in these tiny black boxes.” In another way, Scheer brings about this revolution by writing diverse Latinx female characters into being (Pipe: Cuban American, Zoom: Jewish American, Squeeze: Cuban/unknown-American, Kit: Colombian American). An actress as well, she joked that this may be toward selfish ends—“I try to write myself parts so I always have a job”—while genuinely noting that it is invaluable to Latinx spectators that see themselves represented on stage.

Six actors on stage at music stands.
Richard & Jane & Dick & Sally. Photo by Joel Maisonet.

Richard & Jane & Dick & Sally by Noah DiazDirector: Denise Yvette Serna. Dramaturg: Liza Ann Acosta. Design team: Courtney Flores, Pablo Santiago, Mariana Sanches, David R. Molina.

With ties to the classic Dick and Jane 1950s children’s series, the life of adult Dick (now Richard) is far from perfect. Newly widowed, Richard struggles to raise son Dick Jr., who delights in dressing in his late mother’s clothes, and daughter Sally, who is Deaf, all while dealing with a terminal illness. Tensions mount when Richard’s estranged sister, Jane, arrives and helps Sally learn to sign.

Richard & Jane & Dick & Sally succeeds in offering an engaging experience to Deaf and hearing spectators. This particular reading of the play featured a brilliant performance by Deaf actor Julissa Contreras (Sally) and a team of three American Sign Language interpreters, ensuring accessibility to all audience members. In the design talk, the team highlighted additional ways the production might offer an equally rich experience to Deaf spectators. For example, Sound Artist/Designer David Molina presented an inventive soundscape that could be heard by hearing spectators and felt by Deaf spectators through vibrations.

In another way, when presented in the context of a primarily Latinx audience, the play cannot help but to evoke weighty issues including language and translation. While not dealing directly with Spanish language, we see the dynamics of translation in Sally’s frustration with speaking a language chosen for her by others rather than her preferred language (ASL). For a Latinx audience, this begs the question, echoed in other Carnaval plays: How do Latinx folks on and off the stage feel obligated to (and/or potentially resist) translating Spanish language and translating culture to non-Latinx people?

Three actors on stage at music stands
Milton, MI. Photo by Joel Maisonet.

Milton, MI by Paz PardoDirector: Diane Rodriguez. Dramaturg: Lucas Garcia. Design team: Raquel Barreto, Tom Ontiveros, Tara Houston, Luis Guerra

The most experimental play of the line-up, Milton, MI features an ever-present slug that observes frustrated young couple Jake and Leah as they take on a new romantic partner, Amber. This conventional narrative is interspersed with poetic lines by the sexy-voiced slug, “It’s not a net that catches. It’s a knotted net of holes,” and spoken word poet Chantal, “Sometimes a chance to break the mold comes by. You can't just rock on the same old porch.” The ubiquitous slugs evoke all of the dark, slimy things the characters need to face but continue to avoid; the little annoyances that become enormous and never go away.

In this vein, playwright Pardo suggested in her artist talk that the play gets at the pain that surfaces when people realize they are not where they thought they would be at a certain stage in life. The design team presented some intriguing ideas to showcase the play’s tension between stability and boredom as well as the beauty of the slug’s destruction, which ultimately leads to the characters’ new lives. Of special note, Costume Designer Raquel Barreto suggested drawing on popular singer Chavela Vargas, with her gorgeous rough and haunting voice, as inspiration for the slug.

Actors on stage with music stands.
My Father's Keeper. Photo by Joel Maisonet.

My Father’s Keeper by Guadalís Del Carmen. Director: David Mendizábal. Dramaturg: Rinska Carrasco-Prestinary. Design team: Carolyn Mazuca, Mextly Almeda, Efren Delgadillo, Jr., Corinne Carrillo.

My Father’s Keeper foregrounds the struggles of intersectional identity in the life of closeted-gay Dominican Tirsio Armado Gonzalez, a well-respected member of the Dominican community in Chicago. The play moves between Tirsio’s funeral in the present where the family learns of his and other’s secrets and flashback scenes of Tirsio and Danny, his African American lover, in clandestine hotel rooms as they dance, dream, and love.

In all of this, the play points to fragmentation, secrets, and sacrifices that emerge, in many cases, from intersectional questions. The inter-ethnic relationships between Danny and Tirsio and Mondo and Ann (Tirso’s son and white daughter-in-law) serve as a catalyst for exploring these issues. For example, Tirsio explains to Danny that he is Dominican and not black while Danny insists on his blackness in the context of Chicago. In another moment, when Tirsio and Danny discuss the diversity of Spanish language dialects in the US, Danny responds to Tirsio (but looks directly at the Latinx Carnaval audience) and states, “Meh, you’re all Mexicans here.” In this the play asks audience members to grapple with intersections, context, and secrets of life.

Four actors on stage at music stands.
Killing of a Gentleman Defender. Photo by Joel Maisonet.

Killing of a Gentleman Defender by Carlos MurilloDirector: Michael John Garcés. Dramaturg Lydia G. Garcia. Design team: Courtney Flores, Pablo Santiago, Mariana Sanchez, David R. Molina.

In the final play of the Carnaval, theatre teacher Martín, or as he is known to others, Martin, creates a play (within the play) with underserved Southside Chicago youth about violence in their neighborhoods. The play is commissioned by a well-funded Northside theatre company as a social outreach program. Knowing that the teens will find a play on Chicago violence literally too close to home, Martín works with the ensemble to develop a play around the story of the 1994 murder of soccer star Andres Escobar in Medellín, Colombia.

This brilliantly written and acted play leaves spectators with much to think about including the complexities of violence as well as ethical responsibilities when engaging with art institutions and the community. The play leaves no one (not even Oprah) without critique; it also interrogates the role of “helpful savior” teachers like Martín who want to make a difference. The design team offered fascinating ideas on how to clarify the different layers of this complex play. Of special note, David Molina suggested creating a sound collage of vintage spliced tape with abrupt cuts for movements between scenes.

Together, we witnessed the power of Latinx theatre in its various forms.

Connecting With Each Other
In addition to the collaborative process of the staged readings and design teams, Carnaval organizers facilitated meaningful opportunities for creative exchange between participants. On their name badges, participants received the name of a bankrupt Latin American airline, such Panair do Brasil, Eastern Airlines, or Cairibair; this effectively served to sort them into small groups of ten to twelve. Together with fellow “passengers” on that “flight,” Carnaval participants met for a lunchtime networking session, exchanging ideas as well as contact information with an “All Pass” (anti-passport style book) created by Carnaval organizers. The conversations at my table quickly went deep as participants dialogued on issues of race and representation, Title IX violations in drama departments, and the lack of mainstream theatres producing Latinx work.

These relationships continued to develop as each group reunited on the final day for a special ConeXión Creative Session. Groups received a surprise challenge held within a mystery suitcase, such as portraying Peter Pan through Tiger Lily’s eyes or, in my team’s case, producing The Three Little Pigs as told by Brecht. We worked together within a limited amount of time to design a poster offering a treatment of our production concept using only items provided within the suitcase (markers, pipe cleaners, random magazines, scissors, glue, and a mystery item—such as the hamster ball we received). This intense, fun challenge allowed us to see the power of the collective and of collaboration, since rarely do theatremakers, producers, actors, and scholars work together in this way.

People sit at a table and look at magazines together
Photo by Joel Maisonet.

This sense of the power of a collective to support one another and to make change could be felt viscerally in the "Morning Cafecito: Voice and Dialect Aesthetics of Latinx Plays" led by Professors Cynthia DeCure and Michelle Lopez-Rios. The session offered practical advice in this understudied area of speech and voice training with the hopes of improving Latinx dialects and accents in plays. DeCure and Lopez-Rios stressed that voice and speech constitute significant facets of identity. By representing a character’s cultural identity with honor on stage, actors affirm spectators of that same identity. As many in the room testified with strong emotion, this has not always been the case. Accents have been deployed incorrectly, or worse, as a form of exoticization, inappropriate humor, or mockery. In the words of DeCure, “Voice and accents are political.”

During the convening, Carnaval participants also celebrated together informally. The convening included an Opening Noche Victoria party hosted by the Alliance of Latinx Theatre Artists of Chicago (ATLA) featuring Chicago Latinx comedians, musicians, and actors. Many also gathered during the first-time conveners session, the mixed-race affinity space lunch, and a Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (SDC) lunch. Twelve stunning lobby displays showcased the broader work of each convening designer in their respective areas of costume, lighting, set design, and sound. These became popular topics of conversation as well. The convening ended with a lively closing night party at the Boathouse Cafe with music by all-female bomba y plena group, Las Bompleneras.

Rebecca Martínez and Kevin Becerra lead the first-time conveners session. Photo by Joel Maisonet.

Connecting With Latinx Chicago
Carnaval participants also engaged with Latinx plays, theatre companies, and communities throughout the city of Chicago over the course of the festival. In addition to the optional Thursday night performance of Tilikum by Kristiana Rae Colón at Victory Gardens Theatre, on Friday evening, “Las Sandras” performance night, participants could choose between one of two plays featuring a fabulous Chicago Sandra—Sandra Marquez or Sandra Delgado. Sandra Marquez starred in The Roommate by Jen Silverman and directed by Phylicia Rashad at the Steppenwolf Theatre. Participants also could choose a workshop performance of Felons and Familias by Sandra Delgado and directed by Marcela Muñoz at the Hamlin Park Auditorium as part of the 2018 Theater on the Lake Summer Theater Festival.

I attended Sandra Marquez’s brilliant performance of Sharon, a retired Iowan housewife, who finds herself with a new roommate from the Bronx. Many Carnaval participants agreed Marquez’s strong acting proved useful in representing the significant, dramatic arc her character undergoes. Following the play, Marquez joined Carnaval participants for an impromptu question and answer session in the lobby.

Spectators sit and look at two people on stage
Attendees at UrbanTheater Company. Photo by Joel Maisonet.

On Saturday, participants loaded onto buses to visit various Latinx neighborhoods and theatre companies, including Teatro Vista, UrbanTheater Company, Chicago Latino Theater Alliance, and Aguijón Theater. I visited the UrbanTheater Company in the vibrant Puerto Rican neighborhood of Humboldt Park. Co-founder and Executive Director Ivan Vega and Artistic Director Miranda Gonzalez shared the company’s noteworthy history and mission “from the streets to the stage and from the stage to the streets.” The significance of UrbanTheater to the community became more apparent as Eduardo Arocho, Executive Director of the Division Street Business Development Association (DSBDA), led us on a walking tour of the Paseo Boricua, highlighting its murals and the dissidents’ plaza where plays are staged. Arocho pointed out strategic ways the community resists gentrification and builds forward with art and action. Following the visits, each group shared lunch at a local establishment, such as Nellie’s Puerto Rican Restaurant where we dined, for further conversations.

These experiences beyond the conference space at DePaul encouraged participants to see the range of Latinx theatre in Chicago—from the mainstream Steppenwolf to Latinx community-based theatres committed to staging plays by local playwrights. Together, we witnessed the power of Latinx theatre in its various forms.

A woman dances in a circle of people as other women play drums
Photo by Joel Maisonet.

The Connections Don’t Stop Here
As the Carnaval concluded on Saturday evening with the closing night party at Humboldt Park Boathouse, it was apparent that the connections made at the 2018 LTC Carnaval of New Latinx Work would not end there. Theatremakers left the Carnaval excited with the possibilities of staging plays at their venues around the country. Playwrights, actors, and design teams found affirmation in their good work and hope for the possibilities to come. Participants shared hugs and asked each other if they would attend the next convening. In all, as we departed the Carnaval there was a powerful sense of moving forward, strengthened by the connections we made and inspired by the possibilities of aesthetic resistance in new Latinx theatre.

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