The Mighty Vandals

Historical Region-Specific Theater

Our history is not just in the past—it informs our present. Watching three adult actors with gray dyed-hair in high school basketball uniforms tends to make that evident. On October 6, I saw the matinee of New Carpa Theater Company’s The Mighty Vandals at the Peoria Center for the Performing Arts. The play is an underdog story about the Vandals—a basketball team from dinky mining town Miami, Arizona, (population 4,000) who won the state championship and broke nine national records in 1951. The players were a bunch of lower-class Latino boys with a new-to-town coach. The historical summary practically begs, “dramatize me!”

I’ve previously written about Phoenix, Arizona, and how it doesn’t always appear to know exactly what its culture is. The Mighty Vandals conquers this problem by simply delving deep into one grain of Arizona culture and history. And delve playwright James Garcia did!

Garcia has been working on this play for five years. He has certainly done his research. During the performance, a giant screen projected real-life front page articles about the Vandals. Garcia also went to Miami and got in touch with as many people as he could to tell firsthand stories about the famed team.

 

Garcia also went to Miami and got in touch with as many people as he could to tell firsthand stories about the famed team.

 

Much of this information is inserted into the play via scenes featuring a journalist who is taking interviews from and about the Vandals. I suspect many of the fictional journalist’s lines were the questions the playwright asked his subjects (key players, an opposing team’s coach, and even the neighbors of Coach Ernie Kivisto) during interviews. Said interviews were introduced early on in the play, and they slowly shifted into acted-out narration and scenes. Hence, the high school boys all start as old men with gray hair and as the play goes on, they transform back to youth.

The history of the Vandals makes for great characters, setting, and themes although the true events surrounding the Vandals don’t leave much opportunity for as clear-cut a plot as in the play. The history of the Vandals isn’t about a newbie coach whipping guys into shape and finding himself along the way. The play is very clear about showing how talented the players were before Kivisto came to town. The play is no one player’s story more than others, and there are two clear scenes of direct dramatic conflict in the play.

One source of conflict comes from Kivisto’s wife Jane Ann who doesn’t want to move to Miami in the first place and threatens to leave her husband the day of the big state championship game. Kivisto is therefore inexplicably glum despite a huge victory, until Jane Ann comes back post-game explaining she was there the whole time. The couple embrace and all seems well. But why did Jane Ann come back? Kivisto, described as “obsessive” and featured with a temper doesn’t have a strong learning moment. In the talkback Garcia explained that Kivisto appeared to never break out of his overbearing ways. In fact, he and his wife later did get a divorce. Obviously no one can revise history, but the truth did sour the sweetness from the reunion scene between husband and wife.

In another scene, a school administrator meets with Kivisto regarding the team losing funding basically because of racism. The conflict was deflected because the administrator was merely a mouthpiece for a school board decision. In the talkback, an audience member commented on the lack of villains in the play. Garcia nodded. He noted the big unseen villain: racism. It’s difficult (in terms of dramatic analysis) for a play’s biggest antagonist to be a passive invisible one. It appeared to undercut the dramatic tension, but the looming (instead of overt) racism probably was more true-to-life for the townsfolk. There often isn’t an “evil racist person” in our lives—just evil racist thoughts which permeate culture. Even Kivisto, a defender of his Latino team, initially wondered how his boys would play basketball at all. He thought their kind played only played soccer.

four actors on stage
The Mighty Vandals, Peoria Center for the Performing Arts. Photo by Phil Soto.

Of course, an underdog team still won State, but no particular rally to success made it so. They were good players, then they were assigned an intense and good coach. They won. There were small improvements for certain characters. For example, key player Fito went from shrimpy second-string to starter. But that appeared mainly a result of growing up, and it was a very small part of the plot.

 

The Mighty Vandals is successful from a different standpoint—one of cultural celebration and education.

 

The Mighty Vandals is successful from a different standpoint—one of cultural celebration and education. New Carpa Theater Company was founded in 2002, dedicated to creating Latino and multi-cultural work. Vandals certainly brought light to Latino and Arizona lore—two cultures underrepresented in theater—in an interesting way. Since New Carpa doesn’t have a fixed space, the show has been bouncing around Arizona to various venues including the high school in Miami, Arizona, itself. The social progress New Carpa is working toward is tangible. Performances are often made free to those who are needy, from at-risk groups, or in foster homes. Maybe I didn’t see obvious character development, but I did learn about what it was like to be Latino, restricted to a separate YMCA, told you would make less money doing the same mining jobs as white folks.

History doesn’t naturally fit into a perfect play mold, but the play frame makes history more exciting to digest and serves as a jumping off point for more learning and exploration. The talkback was proof; all the questions were about the actual historical figures. “What happened to the coach?” someone asked. Another audience member regaled everyone with a story about one of the main players’ college career. One woman commented on how the costumes engaged her memories of forties Arizona. It was as if people forgot they were watching a play and instead were engulfed in thinking about all the cultural elements shot at them faster than a basketball handled by the Vandals themselves. Perhaps the show doesn’t fit into a satisfying literary mold, but neither does history.

 

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