Houston, We Have a Problem! Excluding Latina/o Stories in Tejas

Two performers on stage
The Danube by María Irene Fornés at Catastrophic Theatre. Photo by George Hixson.

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).

a man sitting on a boxing ring
The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity by Kristoffer Diaz at Stages Rep. Photo by Amitava Sarkar.

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.

Two men wrestling
The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity by Kristoffer Diaz at Stages Rep. Photo by Amitava Sarkar.

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.” 

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Thoughts from the curator

A series of articles detailing different Latinx companies in Texas.

The State of Latina/o Theatre in Texas

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Houstonian here. Thank you for this article. It is both good business sense and excellent artistic sense to reflect the diversity of the community. As much as minority representation lags in current productions, the roots are much, much deeper than one season’s casting and play selection. The process of ensuring diverse artists and audiences starts with children’s access to arts education and professional partnerships with arts organizations, both during school and in out-of-school time.

Houston ISD, the largest district in Texas, is about 92% non-white, 76% economically disadvantaged, and more than 50% learning English as a second, third, or fourth language. HISD also lags behind the surrounding districts (17 total in Houston city limits) in children’s access to arts education, and has done so for many years—almost certainly contributing to the real and perceived barriers that keep our adult audiences and arts practitioners relatively segregated.

However, access to the arts for students in Houston ISD is now changing due to the Arts Access Initiative (AAI). Led by Young Audiences of Houston as the backbone organization, the AAI is a partnership among Houston arts and cultural organizations, Houston ISD, and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. This collective impact effort by about 40 organizations citywide (including many of the ones you mention) is a long-term commitment to ensuring that these children, no matter their background, neighborhood, or income level, feel welcome in Houston’s great cultural institutions as artists and audience members. Imagine if something similar had been around at the beginning of the upswing of Houston’s diversity—how many more people today could feel equipped to create art on their own terms (as my friend Alvaro says in another comment), or to go to a performance to see their lives reflected there without the use of [non-white] face!

As a freelance director and teaching artist and part of the Arts Access Initiative management team at Young Audiences of Houston, I know this isn’t an immediate fix (and we shouldn’t wait for these kids to grow up to start making the “us” of our community more inclusive). My hope is that because of Houston organizations’ commitment to equity of arts access, all of Houston’s students will feel welcome as our audience members now AND when they are adults—and as our colleagues and board members when they are grown up.

(You should take a look at the professional productions AAI arts partners are doing for young people as well! Increasing diversity is a priority there too, of course, but those groups should be among any survey of Houston's professional theatre scene.)

Thanks for this informative response, @troyscheid:disqus! I am well aware of the powerful work that Young Audiences of Houston and the AAI are doing in the city. We need more of this. Due to space limitations, this essay is just a snapshot at the Houston theatre scene. My larger project will absolutely include the work you describe above. Thanks for reading!

Understood! However, I think if you included Houston's professional theatres for young people in the survey, you would find that the audiences at least are more reflective of our city's diversity overall. (It would be interesting to break that down by who sees public performances vs who attends with their school.)

Not sure how I can respond to this without being longwinded. But I’m going try. In 2004, along with Lupe Mendez, Chris Rivera, and Michelle Lopez-Rios, we co-founded The Royal Mexican Players in Houston. It was our attempt to create work for ourselves. It was also an effort to make theatre that reflected our lives, our experiences, our voice. We never set out to be a Latino theatre company. We just happened to be Latinos who wanted to make theater on our own terms. From the beginning, we made the decision to focus on creating original work. Even if we produced one play a year, we felt this was more important than making a full season of plays that have been rehashed over the years by other theaters with bigger budgets. We also made the conscious effort to be a performance troupe. We had no desire to have our own space. We took inspiration from Culture Clash and Teatro Campesino to name a few. We set out to create portable theatre. We felt it was more important to create work that could be performed anywhere. In a bar, in a church, in a classroom, in a community center. Why try to emulate other theaters when we could make theatre that wasn’t binded by a specific performance space? In two years, we created The Crazy Mexican Show(2004) and A Trip Through The Mind of a ‘Crazy’ Mexican(2006). Two shows might not seem like a lot of but to us it was better than nothing. Most importantly, we were creating theatre on our own terms. And we learned a lot.—how to(and how not to) self-produce, how to get people to come see your show, how to be better artists. In 2006, Michelle and I relocated the troupe when we moved to take university jobs in Milwaukee. Starting from the ground up in a new city seemed a bit daunting but, by relying on what we learned in Houston, it wasn’t impossible. We continued focusing on original work and created plays with Milwaukee’s Latino community as well as about them. Knowing that we still had a following in Houston, we felt it was important to take our Milwaukee-created work back to Texas. In 2011, we took my one-person show One Hot Texican Summer(or the summer I found out I was Mexican) and performed it at 14 Pews. We actually were supposed to take our play Mexicans in Milwaukee back to Houston in 2008, but Hurricane Ike shut down the whole city during our scheduled performance dates.Even today, we still consider Houston a place where we can bring our work. We may not have the same following we had over ten years ago but we have strong relationships with various Houston organizations, including Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say, The Landing Theatre Company, Mildred’s Umbrella, UH, Houston Community College, just to name a few. As much as I love Houston, I am not surprised about its continued lack of Latino theatre. I feel there are so many factors. If you look at the professional theaters, most of them have the same leadership as when I left. Also, the missions of those same professional theaters haven’t changed. What is their incentive to put on Latino theatre when they continue to thrive without producing Latino work? It’s a shame that some of these organizations are supported by public dollars and yet they make no effort to create work that reflects Houston’s diversity. Then again, why should they if a majority of the population(and/or season ticket holders) aren’t demanding it? Or are they and I’m just mistaken?In all honesty, I don’t think the solution to having Latino theatre in Houston is for these professional theaters to produce it. Especially since the ticket prices for some of these professional theaters definitely limit who is able to attend a production.If Latino theatre is going to thrive in Houston, I believe it has to be homegrown. It has to be made by people who are committed to telling stories that Houston’s Latino community and the theatre community are actually interested in. It doesn’t even need to be in a traditional theater. And it doesn’t have to be a full season. It can one show a year. That’s another lesson we learned as a performance troupe—less is more. I also think in order for Latino theatre to thrive in Houston it also needs to be original and meaningful. This is not easy but it’s still possible.And the exciting thing is that the people who can make it happen are already there.

Thanks for the startling revelation, Trevor! When one reads Hispanic theater history books, such as the many authored by UH's well-known Nicolas Kanellos, Houston always pops up as an important geographic spot. If we are speaking about Texas, let's take stalk: Marci McMahon can illuminate us about the Rio Grande Valley, San Antonio has Mari Barrera and who else? (gone are the good old days of the Guadalupe Arts Center as a Teatro hub, where the last TENAZ festival took place in 1992, and where I saw one of the first productions of Josefina Lopez's Real Women Have Curves). In Austin, well, Roxanne tells us about that, where Teatro Vivo has been alive and thriving for years thanks to the dedication of Rupert and JoAnn Reyes.

Moving north to Dallas, we are luckier now. When I arrived here in 1992 after grad school in Southern California, there was only ONE company, Cora Cardona's Teatro Dallas. That felt to me like a dessert, coming from LA and the thriving Hispanics Playwrights Project at South Coast Rep, a stone's throw from my alma matter, UC Irvine. Now we have 4 Latinx-Hispanic companies, as most of you know: Teatro Dallas, Cara Mía Theater Company (David Lozano), Cambalache Teatro en Español (Beatriz Mariel) and Teatro Flor Candela (Patricia Urbina). The last two work only in Spanish. Teatro Dallas broke ground in the 1980s and has been chipping away at the white establishment since then, moslty through alliances with the Black community. Cora Cardona, the founder and artistic director, may be about to retire. Will see what happens next. Cara Mía Theater Company, under the leadership of David Lozano since early the 2000s and a very energetic board of directors has made huge strides in the city and has become the most visible entity of Chicanx-Latinx theater in the city. David can speak for the challenges and opportunities of working with mainstream white theater, as was the landmark case of their co-production of their recent DREAMERS piece at the Dallas Theater Center. DTC produced last year Luis Alfaro's EDIPO EL REY. Kevin Moriarity's leadership at the DTC is responsible for that. Kitchen Dog theater also produces Latinx plays now and then. There I saw an incredible production of Midgalia Cruz's FUR a few years back.

In Dallas's sister city, Fort Worth, Artes de la Rosa's Adam Adolfo produces Latinx musicals. They just did Kristoffer Diaz's WELCOME TO ARROYO'S. I still remember their lively production of IN THE HEIGHTS few years ago. Also in Fort Worth, sometimes Amphibian Theater (Kathleen Culebro, founder and artistic director) produces Latinx pieces to great success. Not to toot my own horn, but for those interested in reviews of Latinx plays in the DFW area, go to www.theaterjones.com (search my name and they come up). Someone else did a review of Vicky Grisse's BLUE, a recent production by Cara Mía, but that is a good place to get an idea of the overall theater scene in DFW.

At the University level things can improve. Dallas's premier private university SMU does anything Latinx? Hmmm, don't know of any even though Clyde Valentin is leading a new program at SMU's Meadows School of the Arts called Ignite Arts Dallas, a community arts engagement program. Hope to hear more from that program in the years to come. Continuing down the list of area universities.... does UT Dallas produce Latinx works? No idea. Forth's TCU? Same. University of Dallas? UT Dallas? UT Arlington? Texas Womens University? We are not lacking universities around here, that's for sure. My institution, the University of North Texas, is making headway under the leadership of Dr. Lorenzo Garcia, a TYA specialist. Our upcoming season has David Lozano guest directing Miguel de Cervantes's THE SEIGE OF NUMANCIA (a production with masks). This past year they produced Fornes' FEFU AND HER FRIENDS, in the 2011-12 season I guest directed Nilo Cruz's LORCA IN A GREEN DRESS. We need at least ONE Latinx production per year in our universities. Our huge Hispanic student populations hunger to see stories other than the mainstream represented on stage.

In the area of TYA, both Cara Mía and Teatro Dallas have thriving summer programs. The Dallas Children's Theater has gotten on board, specially through the strong connection between Roxanne Shroeder-Arce and the DCT's founder and artistic director, Robin Flatt. They did a beautiful production of MARIACHI GIRL not long ago.

So, the Dallas- Fort Worth area is doing better than the rest of the state, yes. Thanks goes to the teatristas, actors, directors, designers, producers who work hard, often with minimal budgets, to make it so!

Yes, there is talent drain. I am surprised at how many Texas artists just within the LTC that have left the state and gone to greener pastures to flourish elsewhere (Chicago, NYC come are strong contenders). What really surprised me about the comments by Marisela and Courtney below is that San Francisco is mentioned as a parallel situation. Octavio Solis left Dallas to the Bay Area years ago and has done very well. Is he the exception? I was under the impression that the Bay Area has a thriving Latinx theater scene, although I cannot think of a single Latinx company by name. Just as we learned of the tremendous Latinx theater history in the Pacific Northwest during the Seattle convening, histories that I never even imagined, there seems to be a need for creating regional Latinx theater histories to truly update the narrative. All we have to work with right now in our classrooms are fragments and gaps.

This reminds me of a panel stream from the ATHE Latino-o Focus Group called Reports from the Field, which was done away with recently. For those of us going to Chicago in August, this might be worth reinserting into the conversation...

Thanks for stating the conversation, Trevor, and to our colegas Marisela and Courtney for contributing to this very important conversation. Love to hear from other regions... I know Miami, where I am right now, has a vibrant theater and performance scene. Their International Hispanic Theater Festival is coming up in July, Mario Ernesto Sánchez head the artistic component there, while scholar Beatriz Rizk curates the educational component. They are in their 31st year and they bring incredibly excellent companies from Latin American and the world, as long as the play is by a Latinx or Hispanic playwright. They are unique in the United states. Another history worth recording...

Thank you, Teresa for your response and of course to Trevor for chronicling and discussing this! Teresa, I agree about ATHE. I will see you there. I think the representation at such conference echoes the inequities of representation in the theatres, certainly. This is all part of the wave of change we are pushing for. YES!

I could identify with this piece a lot. Living in the Bay Area, hardly ever do the Regional Theaters do a Latina/o play, its mostly the smaller theaters and even then, its few and far between. I see a lot of similarities in Houston as well as Texas as a whole in relation to the Bay Area. It's very interesting. It surprises me, considering there was a wealth of Latina/o theaters in the Bay Area, especially in SF in the 1990s. I'm trying to wrap my head around and figure out what happened from the 1990's to now in Latina/o theater to create this scarcity nationwide or maybe from the Southwest to the West of Latina/o plays being produced? I'm also curious, along with Marisela to know if their is a talent drain in Houston as well?

Thanks for sharing your thoughts (@mariselatrevioorta:disqus, too). I think Houston and the Bay Area are comparable in terms of the talent drain. I have only been here for 4 years so I can't really speak to this historically.... In the last year or so I have noticed that young Latin@ and POC artists are coming back to Houston after finishing college and are looking to get involved in the arts scene and even create opportunities for themselves if need be. While the Latin@ theatre scene is lacking in every regard, the arts scene is actually quite robust. And the economy is booming here (they don't call Houston "Boomtown" for nothing!)... It will be interesting to check back in after a few years to see if these young people stay, but for now I remain optimistic.

I lived many years in the Bay Area. And while there is a large Latinx population, there was a dearth of Latinx plays on theatre stages. As a result I saw many talented actors move to other cities where they could find work (a larger conversation on casting). I wonder if Houston has a similar talent drain as a result of the lack of Latinx plays being produced or if Latinx actors there are able to find work in non-Latinx specific roles.