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A Lover’s Guide to American Playwrights

Octavio Solis

Geography can be, in the realm of our American theatre, unkind. Despite generations of talk about supporting local and regional artists, the spoils of our art—awards, productions, jobs—still go, in large part, to those who dwell in or are visible on stages in New York. This may in part explain why Octavio Solis, though widely produced (almost exclusively outside of New York) and deeply admired by his peers, is one of the unsung heroes of contemporary playwriting. What was he thinking, being born just this side of the Mexico/United States border in El Paso, Texas—literally carried in utero? What was he thinking, spending most of his writing life in the Bay Area? Why would he now live on a goat farm in Ashland, Oregon?

Let the unsung at last be sung! In May, Octavio received the Distinguished Achievement in the American Theater award from the William Inge Theater Festival in Independence, Kansas. His new memoir, Retablos, seems to be traveling more easily through the culture than his plays have. With it—and his latest play, Mother Road, which premiered this past spring at Oregon Shakespeare Festival—more people may now see what those who know and admire him have long seen: a writer of deep purpose and violent grace.

Reading or watching the plays of Octavio Solis is like riding shotgun across a desert alongside a guy hopped up on coke and sucking the worm from a pint of Mezcal. It’s like stepping into a river separating one state of being from another, one country from another; stepping into the river and getting sucked under, crosscurrented from all sides. Reading Octavio’s plays is like plunging into someone else’s dream, someone else’s nightmare, the mythological tangle of another life, a twisted history that’s your own and not your own.

actors onstage

Mother Road. Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Jenny Graham.

Listen to this from El Otro. El Charo Negro enters at the end of act one, a young girl’s peyote vision, a walking tattoo image. He’s “awesome, ominous, dressed in the glittering finery of the Mexican cowboy,” beneath a broad-brimmed sombrero, spurs clinking. “This is how your daddy and me met,” El Charro tells the girl. “I remember the day. Juarez in the spring. Birds singing. Flowers blooming. Dogs lapping up blood of a knife fight. He walked into my dementia.”

Octavio walks us into this dementia, too. He seduces us with memory, the specificity of place, the beauty of spring, and before we know it we’re watching loose dogs licking blood off the pavement. We’re standing in the aftermath of a knife fight, a grisly wreckage. There’s no waking up.

Octavio’s plays are full of such visions—religious revelations, floods of memory, drug dreams, mythic reenactments, hallucinatory sightings. It’s all part of the same dramatic dust storm: religion, memory, inebriation, myth, and a kind of existential madness.

Octavio seems to me a profoundly Christian writer—chasing down his characters’ salvation, tracking their need to confess, excavating their sins—especially, maybe, the sin of self-denial. This is, for Octavio, the immigrant’s sin, the desire to forget yourself, to turn your back on who you are, where you came from, your blood. Almost every play features a “white Mexican,” a victim of his own assimilation and, ultimately, a victim of his badly buried past.

Reading or watching the plays of Octavio Solis is like riding shotgun across a desert alongside a guy hopped up on coke and sucking the worm from a pint of Mezcal.

The past haunts nearly everyone in this body of work; they run but they can’t hide. Octavio’s creations often recall Oedipus, as they’re driven by, and driven toward, what they deny. Like El Charro Negro, the myths of a person’s history are tattooed into the skin, branded onto the body. “Carnal” is a word the playwright uses over and over. I understand it to mean both body or flesh and brother—the way in English you might call a brother “blood,” another word you can’t escape in Octavio’s corpus. Octavio’s plays are carnal and bloody, full of body and desire, sex and death. Family and character run through his people’s veins. Still, they dream a world of “grace”—a word so important to him that he gave it to his daughter.

I often think about Sam Shepard when I read Octavio: the wildness, the trippy hallucinations, the bold symbolism of early Shepard plays like La Turista and Red Cross—though Octavio writes in a language and cultural context all his own. And I think of the Greeks: the fates and furies, the destiny of blood and bloodshed; shared myths, violently enacted, deeply considered, and gorgeously written.

actors onstage

Mother Road. Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Jenny Graham.

I also think about incest, because Octavio’s plays are rife with it: brothers and sisters or sisters-in-law, fathers and sons, fathers and daughters or daughters-in-law. But there is nothing sensational about his use of this difficult subject, this taboo. He mines it the way he mines place and culture. Incest is, for Octavio, a bloody border crossing, a transgression, sanguinary sin that dissolves lines of separation and blurs identity. It’s also a mythic subject that binds him to the ancient dramatic tradition out of which he writes. It’s the way he ties together his obsession with love and his deep insights about culture and identity.

Octavio writes journeys: road trips, escapes, crossings, vision quests, water voyages. Pick your play: El Paso Blue, Bethlehem, El Otro, Prospect, Gibralter, Lydia, Quixote—you’re on a journey across time, land, and culture. A teenager drags through the Rio Grande with two of the three men who might be her father. An unsuspecting computer programmer hurtles through a hellish night among the deadly and dying. The good-guy lawyer of a Mexican American success story gets tangled up in his brothers’ gangland business. A journalist gets overtaken by the details of a murderer’s life until it merges with his own. Whose life is it? Whose family? Whose victim? Even stories travel and metamorphose, contradicting each other, as in the lush and dreamlike Gibraltar, where a mysterious figure—like the trickster Coyote or Lorca’s duende—appears to a woman in mourning and they tell and retell, explain and revise, their narrative of love and loss.

I often think about Sam Shepard when I read Octavio: the wildness, the trippy hallucinations, the bold symbolism of early Shepard plays like La Turista and Red Cross—though Octavio writes in a language and cultural context all his own.

His newest play, Mother Road, retraces the famous westward migration of the Joad family in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, this time from California to Oklahoma, a retrograde return to recapture a legacy of land; this time by Martín Tomás Jodes, a half-Mexican heir to Tom Joad. Octavio took the trip himself, following the Dust Bowl journey, noting the ways demography has changed—present-day Joads coming from Central America, from Asia—marking the land’s toxic devastation, tracing the shock and awe of capitalist greed. It’s a fucked-up family reunion, bringing together Joads and Jodes, generations of the possessed and dispossessed, native-born and migrant, gay and straight, white men and people of color. “Family new-made of so many,” as the chorus says. This tough and restless road trip culminates somewhere like home, but a home transformed—lost, regained, remade, and always to be found.

Mother Road charts the tortuous road to a whole new kind of repatriation, and at journey’s end the arrival is weary, elegiac, and full of a hope that can only come with facing the real-real. The following lines—the playwright’s poetic visions of “the new land ahead”—are each spoken by different characters; I’ve removed the character names:

The musk of cows, horses
New-mown hay
The good smell of life
Wildflowers of the plateau
Oklahoma sun on our faces
And mayflies too
Like seraphim from another sun
Swarming the farm
His farm
Your farm
Newly minted on old disasters
Old troubles, old crimes forgot
Old loves, old desmadres
Old mother sky, old mother clay

Octavio locates us, time and again, in a specific place—here in Oklahoma, but usually somewhere in Texas, bordering Mexico. Then he strip-mines the land for its mythology. He unsettles us. Borders dissolve, identity crumbles, and what’s hidden and denied gushes forth, devastating the native lands. Everything is el otro—other, the other side—and we wind up where we started, thinking we’ve made the crossing.

actors onstage

Mother Road. Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Jenny Graham.

This past year, he made another dive into place, another temporal return, with the publication of his fractal memoir, Retablos. The book is to the Texas borderland of El Paso—what Dubliners is to James Joyce’s Ireland patria. It’s a place where the Border Patrol, la migra, slow-drives by each day in green and white cruisers, peering at the skinny boys through aviator sunglasses, unconcerned that Octavio and his friends are, in fact, citizens.

All the mojaditos that we generally scowl at when we spy them tramping restlessly past our house, [the border cop is] consciously connecting them to us. We’re nothing like them, we’ve conditioned ourselves to say. We’re legal, born on this side. But the border copy with his steady gaze is telling us with his look that the distinction is very thin. Thin as the lenses on his Aviators. Thin as a line on a map.

The memoir reveals itself through a series of short, devotional portraits—a retablo, he tells us, is “a devotional painting, usually laid on a small, thin plate of cheap, repurposed metal, in which a dire event is depicted—an accident, a crime, an illness, a calamity, some terrible rift in a person’s life, which they survive thanks to the intercession of the Divine.” They are “disconnected (and yet thoroughly interconnected)…” The book is published by City Lights in San Francisco, just the right heritage for precise prose (which could easily be read as poetry), redolent of youthful dreams, almost-serene retrospection, and the kind of beat poetics that City Lights—founded by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and famous for championing the likes of Joyce, Eliot, and the original Howl-rounder, Allen Ginsberg—has pulsing in its blood. It’s a portrait of an artist as a “skinny brown kid doesn’t know shit.” I could pick a hundred examples from this short, distilled memory book, sentences or brief descriptions that stop your heart in its usual churn.

His prose voice is wry and loving at the same time, a little godlike, if god were a guy drinking Tecate on the porch of the house down the block that everyone passes but never enters.

Here the author’s self as a boy pilfers the tokens of his father’s manhood and makes himself over:

Recalling how he applies the pomada on his fryer grease burns, I rub some on my hands and I douse my neck and face with his cologne, which burns into my raw pimples. I slick my hair back with his hair cream. Then I put the cross that he keeps on a gold chain around my neck, unbuttoning my paisley shirt down to my sternum so it shows, then try on one of his dead watches. Finally, I look at the structure of my new self in the mirror. El merro mero. The real-real.

El mero mero slinks out of the house and goes around to that derelict field where the cotton used to grow to shoulder height. He leans against the wall by the sere clumps of tumbleweed and breathes in his newfound musk. He looks down at the cross catching the sundown light. He rattles the bracelet around his skinny wrist as he raises a cigarette to his lips and lights it with his beautiful lighter. Oh, the sound of that lighter. Suppressing a cough, he looks out toward the blue-grey silhouette of the mountains in Ciudad Juárez where he images all the real men of the world are nodding their someber heads in unison at the spectacle of his arrival. El mero mero.

actors onstage

Mother Road. Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Jenny Graham.

One story in Retablos is personally dear to me, the story of the boy being called to the theatre and his future vocation. A miserable, grudging sophomore finds himself somehow duped into showing up for the first rehearsal of a play about Jews in Nazi Europe, not sure what he’s doing there or even what his part is. He plots his immediate exit from the project. Then the group begins to read the play.

Some impulse takes over and I’m not me anymore but Peter Van Daan aching for sunlight […] and the love of a young girl. The words go in my eyes and come out my mouth with more heart than I thought I had, and in that moment, the school and the impossible classloads and the gangs that chase me on the way home and the Border Patrol and the tensions of home and my personal anxieties about who the fuck I am and all the lived experience that make my town this unspectacular, sporadically dangerous place simply go away. I am somewhere in the mind of a teenage girl who disappeared into the death camps….

The chapter is called “World Goes Away” but it may as well be called “My Life in Art Begins.”

There’s a sweetness in Octavio’s later works—Mother Road and Retablos—that speak to me of an integration I didn’t see in his earlier work, which always confused me with its profound violence and blood hate. It always confused me because the writer himself is one of the kindest, most gentle people I know, one of those writers who couldn’t be more different than his work. He is humble and curious, friendly and kind. He never struts what he is: erudite, devotedly literary, a writer’s writer.

Now I see it, as though he has—all these thirty-ish years of his career—been writing that feudal violence out of his own being, which is a deeply loving one. Retablos, with its detached, discerning vision even of his own (maybe especially of his own) youthful ignorance and idiocy, illuminates the dramatic work. His prose voice is wry and loving at the same time, a little godlike, if god were a guy drinking Tecate on the porch of the house down the block that everyone passes but never enters. Octavio’s eye for the violence of power—in the family, in the town, across the border that defines so much of his life and work—never mists over, even as his heart fills to bursting, like Eliot’s “infinitely gentle/infinitely suffering thing,” but more real. Real real.

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An ongoing series of tributes to contemporary playwrights.

A Lover's Guide to American Playwrights


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