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Que Onda? with Virginia Grise

Que Onda? (“What’s up?”) are interviews with comadres and compadres meant to shine a light on what small or large companies; independent artists or ensembles are doing around the country. Café Onda is an evolving publication. Sit back, take a break, and catch up on what's up in the Latina/o theatre scene. This series focuses on the playwrights from the Latinx Theatre Commons Carnaval of New Latina/o Work.

Jennifer S. Ponce de León: Much of your work speaks to ways social structures persist in time and space and how their effects are manifest across generations. I’m thinking, for example, of the multigenerational story of rasgos asiaticos. Or, the way blu shows us the repeated social tragedy of masculine subjectivation and racialization through time: from father to son to younger brother, as well as through references to myth. I think your use of non-linear narrative forms and of poetic and non-naturalistic language is important to the way you tell these stories: in how you make connections through time and space, and also how you move us away from understanding these to be only the stories of individuals. First, I want to know why you choose to produce these types of narratives. Secondly, how did you develop formal strategies for telling stories in this way? (for example, your looping language or scenes that superimpose different moments in time)? And finally, have you found particular challenges to creating work that does this?

Virginia Grise: The first poem I ever read publicly was in the juvenile detention center in Austin, Texas. Over fifteen years later this has continued to have a lasting impact on my work: prisons, both literal and metaphorical, the boxes people try to put us in, and state violence are tropes that recur in my writing. Writing, in part, is my attempt to liberate myself from confinement, conventional rules, norms, and structures, an attempt to imagine freedom.

My first writing teacher, Sharon Bridgforth (who I call my Art Pa) focused her teaching on finding voice—telling stories that are authentic to who you are as a person. Stylistic elements that have become characteristic of my work, such as repetition and the collapsing of time and space, are reflections of how I move in the world. I have never arrived anywhere in a straight line so I don’t know how to tell a story in that way. I want to write plays that are in a constant state of motion: music playing, voices overlapping, and bodies that can’t stop dancing, which to me is the same as dreaming.

In South Texas, we dance in a circle counterclockwise. In the back of dark bars without windows, I learned how a community takes over space, how a people move, transcend the present moment; how a people dream. When I taught middle school, I watched students design their own dance-offs to cumbias and hip hop. At after school dances in the cafeteria when they formed a circle to dance colombianas, it made school security and administration very nervous (when a community takes over space, when we move, when we dream) and they actively worked to break up the circle every time it was created.

Theatre can be very conventional. The black box can be very suffocating. I try to create spaces where I can dance freely. So yes, I find a lot of challenges to creating work in this way. As an early career artist, I spent a lot of time both defending and translating my work. I think I am getting better at navigating different ways of working and creating the circumstances and spaces that allow for my artistic growth and development and collaborations/collaborators that serve the work. This means that I work both inside and outside of traditional theatre spaces. This year, in addition to writing plays, I have been fortunate enough to begin a theatrical adaptation of Helena Maria Viramontes’s novel Their Dogs Came with Them and have collaborated with visual artist Rafa Esparza and poet Joe Jimenez on site-specific work in San Antonio, Marie Incontrera and the Eco-Music Big Band on an opera about Sun-Ra, and in the community with local organizers and organizing campaigns.

an actress on stage
Keila Gonzalez in blu, directed by Victor Santos, Donna High School (qualified for the State of Texas UIL Drama Competition), 2015. Photo by Victor Santos.

Jennifer: I admire the way your work moves beautifully and meaningfully between public and private spaces and different social scales: from intimate relationships, the conflicted meanings of home, the social fabric of a neighborhood, to state institutions, processes of nation-building, histories of migration and war. How do you compose your stories across these different scales? How and when in your process do you decide upon their scope? And how do you approach the task of translating between the intimate spaces and relations with which a reader or audience might easily identify and those social institutions that are ever present, but faceless? 

Virginia: I was taught to read the world politically from my father. He read the paper every day and we spoke about current affairs and politics at the kitchen table. I was an activist before I was an artist. I started doing organizing work at age sixteen, and I also majored in history as an undergrad. So everything for me is filtered through a political and historical lens. My political training in Marxism, women of color feminism, and Texas Mexican anarchism taught me to examine the intersections of the material, economic, political, social, and cultural forces impacting a community. So I can’t really separate the private from the public. I just don’t know how, which means that I am constantly moving across those different social scales from the very beginning of my writing process. Some of the stylistic elements of my work that you identified earlier—the looping language, the overlapping narratives—are also meant to move us between those worlds.

My plays tend to be short. This can be deceiving because they are also very dense. I appreciate the way that you articulate the scope of my work because I do feel the writing requires a lot of unpacking. This can sometimes be challenging for actors and directors because it means that they too must also read the work and the world politically in order to fully engage the text.

I want to write plays that are in a constant state of motion: music playing, voices overlapping, and bodies that can’t stop dancing, which to me is the same as dreaming.

Jennifer: Ceremony and ritual appears throughout your work. Sometimes they appear at the performance of practices passed down over time that locate your characters in a community, in a genealogy, and sometimes they appear as practices that are questioned, altered, made new by your characters. Can you tell me more about how ritual and ceremony figure in your work?

Virginia: I am the daughter of a Chinese Mexican immigrant and a working class white father. Ceremony and ritual were really part of my everyday: ancestor worship, talk story, limpias, the incense, tirando cartas, and countless visits to the curandera (because my mother was convinced I had the badness inside of me). I thought all of it was magic, even when the curandera spit holy water in my face. Being brown was magic. When you go to a really good curandera, something inside of you shifts energetically. As an artist, I want to be able to have that type of impact on people.

Jennifer: Who and what has influenced your writing? Who are some of the artists working today whose work you admire? Whose work is in dialogue with your own?

Virginia: I’d like to start by naming my teachers because who I chose as teachers or the teachers that chose me says a lot about my work. As I mentioned earlier, Sharon Bridgforth was my first writing teacher. She approached me after she heard me read that poem in the juvenile detention system and invited me to take writing workshops with her. I would write poems on the back of bar napkins and scratch sheets of paper and argue with her for hours on end about whether or not I was an artist. Those workshops and The Austin Project produced by Omi Osun were a consistent space for me to develop my work and my voice over a period of time. Resistencia Bookstore, a small independent bookstore in Austin that poet and activist Raúl Salinas ran, was another important space for me as a young artist. I often say that the bulldagger dykes, the colored girls, and the cockroach poet held open the doors of the theatre for me. It wasn’t until I went to graduate school that I realized that queer women of color didn’t run American theatre. It was a rude awakening. In graduate school, I was mentored by Carl Hancock Rux and Erik Ehn. So I see myself in direct dialogue with all of those artists.

In addition to my teachers, I am greatly influenced by the work of Migdalia Cruz and Cherríe Moraga. I think they are two of our fiercest writers in theatre today. They both have a level of artistic and political integrity that I admire deeply. On a personal level, Migdalia has saved my life more than once. When I was in graduate school Sibyl O’Malley handed me a copy of Telling Tales. Migdalia’s play Sand was bookmarked for me to read. It was at a point where I felt that I didn’t know how to tell stories anymore and that play blew my mind. It kept me in graduate school and the truth of the matter is Migdalia is the reason I am still in New York today. I also work with an amazing group of directors—Elena Aaroz, Emily Mendelsohn, Maureen Huskey and Stephanie Nugent—who give me life. I love the way they tackle work and ideas. Those women have my esquina. And then there is my friend, dramaturge and comrade Ricardo A. Bracho. Amongst the many plays and essays I think everyone should read of his, I find his recent talk Anger and Love 2014 particularly relevant for the right here and right now.

Jennifer: What would you most like to see happen in Latino/a theatre in the coming years?

Virginia: I’d like to move beyond a conversation of inclusion and diversity, professionalism and careerism. In his Anger and Love speech Bracho lays down a clear and simple demand: “Every board, every staff, every grad art program, every department, every volunteer and fundraising committee, every internship and fellowship, that is nearly or all white must be reconstituted, disbanded, and/or abolished. The only social body in this country that should be 80 to 90 percent white cis male should be the Klan.” Punto. There is no need for any more focus groups, panel discussions, conferences, or studies about this issue because the solution really is simple: just do it. Institutions that are not diverse should not receive monies to diversify. In fact, they should be de-funded until they do. Maybe then we can begin to talk about how to create spaces that are truly supporting daring and dangerous work.

Someone recently sent me a speech that Toni Morrison gave in 1975 at Portland State University. It's another great document that I encourage everyone to read, but here's just one quote:

And I urge you to be careful for there is a deadly prison. A prison that is erected when one spends one’s life fighting phantoms, concentrating on myths, and explaining over and over to the conqueror your language, your lifestyle, your history, your habits. And you don’t have to do it anymore. You can go ahead and talk straight to me.

This summer, I was at a directing institute in Minneapolis hosted by Pangea Theatre and Art2Action. One of the most memorable moments of the institute didn’t happen in the theatre. We were at dinner when Meena Natarajan, the executive director at Pangea, told me that the owner of the restaurant had created an entire underground ecosystem in his basement. He was growing a tilapia farm, plants, vegetables, and spices, and across the street he had a roof top garden. He said to me, “The only way to fight the GMOs is to grow our own food,” and I thought: what a poetic way of thinking about the world. I don’t want a place at the table when the food that is being served is rotten. I want to create a thriving underground ecosystem that supports creative, new, radical possibilities outside of the black box.

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