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A Snapshot of Latina/o Theatre in Chicago

The Café Onda Editorial Board asked Chicago theatremakers to think on the Windy City’s landscape of Latina/o theatre on the eve of the Latinx Theatre Commons’ Carnaval of New Latina/o Work. What follows is a snapshot of the scene as experienced by Kristiana Rae Colón (poet, playwright, actor, educator, activist), Henry Godinez (director, actor, teacher), Isaac Gomez (playwright, dramaturg, producer, curator), Ricardo Gutierrez (director, actor, producer), Sandra Marquez (actor, director, longtime Teatro Vista ensemble member, educator), and Alexandra Meda (ensemble member, director, deviser, producer, activist).

a word bubble
The issues. Photo courtesy of Kristiana Colón, Henry Godinez, Isaac Gomez, Ricardo Gutierrez, Sandra Marquez, and Alexandra Meda. 

What are five words that describe your experience in Chicago Latina/o theatre?

Kristiana: Challenging race and gender taboos.

Henry: Blessed, eclectic, community, sustained, and Latino!

Isaac: Fresh, familial, nurturing, unapologetic, provocative.

Ricardo: Growing, discovery, family, challenging, inspiring.

Sandra: Rewarding, challenging, fun, heartbreaking, joyful.

Alexandra: Resilient, spiritual, entrepreneurial, segregated, isolated.

What about Chicago and the communities who live here make Latina/o theatre in Chicago different than other communities and regions?

Kristiana: Chicago benefits both from diversity within Latinidad in representation of the Caribbean, Chicana, and South American diaspora, as well as diversity within theatre aesthetic and scale.

Henry: As Latinos in Chicago, we come from many parts of Latin America and the Caribbean, and we have a strong theatrical tradition here, a tradition that honors and appreciates ensemble.

Isaac: Chicago is such an interesting place for theatremakers in general because of its commitment to new work, diverse storytelling, and the storefront theatre model. With more than two hundred companies representing the Chicago theatre landscape, Chicago audiences are bred to invest in new plays that are pushing the boundaries of what is expected from the American theatre landscape. Rather than seeing classical, Shakespearean, or preexisting text as the norm (though those plays are definitely produced), there is a commitment from this city, its patrons and its practitioners to treasure and support new plays and the playwrights who write them. When you add Latinas/os into the mix, that familial and supportive energy is even more palpable because of who we are as la raza, as a race. Cross-culturally, the diverse experiences of Latinas/os in Chicago (Mexican, Cuban, Dominican, Puerto Rican, Colombian, and many others) are bridged through our art and our storytelling. And through regional alliances like ALTA Chicago (the Alliance of Latino Theater Artists), there are a plethora of opportunities to not only meet and network with other Latinas/os working in Chicago, but to form lifelong friendships as well.

Ricardo: The Chicago Latina/o theatre community, as well as the entire Chicago theatre community, is incredibly close-knit and supportive. Individuals and companies are never alone, there is always someone available to assist, support, and mentor. The community does not have a raw “cutthroat” competitive nature but, rather, exists with a “let’s do this together” mentality.

Sandra: I think that in general Chicago’s theatre scene tends to be more community oriented which is also true of Latino/a theatre. It’s usually the first thing that people mention when they come from other places to work here, and it’s been my personal experience. It was definitely what stood out to me when I first worked with Teatro Vista in the mid-to-late 90s and it’s why I’m still here, though the lower cost of living and higher quality of life ratio doesn’t hurt either. At the same time I think that it can be difficult for newcomers to break into currently existing ensembles. In the last several years I have often thought how great it would be to produce enough shows every season to showcase all the young talent coming up. The irony of this being a city known for it’s ensemble theatre is that most of the Equity companies in town cannot afford to hire many of their own ensemble members. Still, we figure out ways to keep on going.

Alexandra: A major difference in the Chicago Latina/o community is the really vibrant ecology of companies and the vast range of organizational levels that artists and allies are actually able to navigate between fluidly year-round. It is also important to note that Chicago is often the first or second city young graduates flock to temporarily to improve their skills, stack the resume quickly, and still enjoy a relatively great quality of life. It is a literal safe-haven and seen as the ultimate theatre dream destination for Midwesterners near and far. In many ways today’s Chicago based Latina/o theatre is a reflection of the city itself: deeply vocal in its pride in it’s own and yet deeply segregated in form, neighborhood, and aesthetics.

How are Latinas/os represented in the "mainstream" theatres in Chicago? How does Latina/o-identified theatre help or hinder this?

Kristiana: Mainstream theatre, like mainstream media, is making strides with representing Latinos as multifaceted human beings, but still has a ways to go. The gangster’s girlfriend and the pregnant teen are still likely to appear on our major regional theatre stages, but Latino-identified theatres are boldly leading the charge in adding depth and breadth to Latino representation.

Henry: For twenty-five years we have been fighting for representation in Chicago’s “mainstream” theatres, and through a spirit of collaboration with Latina/o theatres, we have, I think, something to be proud of.

Isaac: This is a tricky question. I guess it depends on how you define “mainstream.” If you’re referring to the larger theatres in the city, it varies because it’s different for each of them. For example, I know that the Goodman Theater not only has an active commitment to producing works by and for Latinas/os, they are also pushing traditional Latina/o narratives by not just producing plays centering on the immigrant experience or the drug cartel. There are definitely other theatres, however, which do solely center on these “standard” ideas of what it means to be Latina/o and that’s something the Chicago Latina/o community and some culturally specific theatres are actively pushing against: how do we reclaim our stories? What stories haven’t been told? What does it mean to be Latina/o in the world today?

Ricardo: The landscape is improving dramatically. More of the established theatres are producing scripts with more diverse, positive, and productive Latina/o characters. More needs to be done, but there is a positive movement. And certainly, scripts with more opportunities for Latina/o actors need to be produced.

Sandra: In a city with so many theatres every one needs to find their niche—it’s simply a necessity for survival, marketing, grant writing, etc. The challenge, then, is that some from the “mainstream” see us as concentrating on stories that would only appeal to Latinas/os. My sense is that in an abstract way we are considered an important thread in the fabric of the Chicago theatre community—I’ve definitely felt that kind of support and respect for our work. Still, I wonder if our thread in that fabric is still considered more as “other.” I feel it changing, I’ve seen it change over the years—I want to believe it’s picking up momentum.

Alexandra: I think this is a complicated question to answer because the reality changes from season to season and with every new batch of actors, artists, and leaders that roll through and the current leadership at any one institution. Goodman Theatre, for example, has been leading the charge for change in their own way for years and only showing increasing commitment to positively reflecting on its stages what the city looks like. With Chay Yew at the helm of Victory Gardens, we have seen immense changes. But we have a long way to go to reach any kind of equity, any kind of expansion of aesthetics or values in the mainstream to fully transition out of a city committed to traditional structures of narrative and form and a kitchen sink addiction that seriously needs a long trip to rehab. Change is happening though, both in our culturally specific theatres (which are starting to break down walls and starting to activate across discipline and color lines) and in the few original content generating and alternatively sustainable ensemble or artist driven collectives.

The landscape is improving dramatically. More of the established theatres are producing scripts with more diverse, positive, and productive Latina/o characters.

Chicago has long been known as a hotbed of new plays and new play development. Does this hold true in the Latina/o theatre community? What are some ways this has been improved?

Kristiana: Because dominant culture has not yet created a wide variety of roles for Latinos, the theatre community has filled the gap in the creation and cultivation of new works. Teatro Luna has long held the niche of producing original and ensemble-devised works.

Henry: Absolutely! Teatro Vista started with the English language premiere of El Viaje De Los Cantores (The Crossing). At Goodman, we have done the world premiere of plays by Luis Alfaro, José Rivera, Charise Castro Smith, and Karen Zacarías.

Isaac: Even in a city like Chicago with a strong commitment to sustaining playwrights creating new work, Latina/o theatremakers aren’t always given the chance or opportunity to work with an institution to cultivate their voice, develop new work, or build new relationships—this is especially true for early career Latina/o playwrights. On the other hand, Latina/o theatremakers have never really waited around for opportunities to come to them—they create opportunities for themselves. And the presence of these self-producing efforts says, “yes there are Latinos creating new work and yes it’s actually pretty good.” It reminds the Chicago theatre community as a whole of the breadth of talent this community holds.

There have been some fantastic initiatives that have surfaced in response to lack of opportunities over the years, the most recent includes the creation of El Semillero: ALTA Chicago’s Inaugural Playwrights Group. El Semillero is a Chicago-based playwriting circle dedicated to fostering emerging Latino playwrights and their work. Sponsored by ALTA Chicago and in-residency at Victory Gardens Theater, El Semillero fosters eight early-career playwrights as they meet twice a month to develop brand new work, culminating in public readings at the end of every nine-month cycle.

Ricardo: Teatro Vista continues to foster new work and new playwrights and produce world premieres. Teatro Vista has also begun to commission playwrights to develop new scripts for their ensemble. Other theatres, like Victory Gardens, The 16th Street Theater, Chicago Dramatists, and Goodman Theatre have recently started to produce new works by Latina/o playwrights. The bed gets hotter every season.

Sandra: I think it is especially true in Chicago’s Latino theatre community. We have concentrated primarily on new works at Teatro Vista and Latino Chicago Theater Company did that before us. After us came Teatro Luna and their incredibly successful ensemble generated pieces showcasing Latinas. I actually would like to see Teatro Vista do one classic Latina/o piece, one new play, and one “company creation” each season. We’ve got people like Juan Villa and Sandra Delgado who are working on their own pieces, and I have been eager to help Marvin Quijada develop some of his terrific physical theatre work.

Alexandra: It is absolutely true. We generate an amazing amount of new productions both through workshops and mainstage productions on a yearly basis for playwrights and through ensemble bodies alike. Size of budget and diversity of the content is significantly lower, but, just like its mainstream cousin, Latina/o theatre in Chicago is most definitely dedicated to new work. There are always major opportunities for improvement however, right?

Why is Latina/o theatre needed in Chicago? Who is the audience?

Kristiana: Chicago’s rich Latino communities need platforms for their voices and experiences and an avenue to move their stories from the margins to the center, and Latino theatre both succeeds in injecting dominant culture with multidimensional Latino characters and serving the communities who might not otherwise attend the theatre.

Henry: Because our Latino community is over a million strong, and because we believe all Chicago theatregoers like great theatre period.

Isaac: Chicago has such a vibrant Latina/o community. It’s imperative that the artwork this city is creating, supporting, and fostering is reflective of the communities it serves. The many stories written by and for Latinas/os carry universal themes, so it’s unfair and untrue to say these stories are reserved solely for Latinas/os. In the Carnaval alone, with themes ranging from the journey home, to feminism and family, each of the twelve plays presented at this festival hold access points for many communities; I’m excited to see how they will resonate over the weekend.

Ricardo: Aside form the fact that the Latina/o population in Chicago is growing and theatres need to speak to this audience, theatres need to take advantage of the culturally rich Latina/o stories that exist.

Sandra: Latina/o theatre is a necessary component on the theatre landscape period. In a vibrant theatre town like Chicago this holds especially true. We are Americans.  We need to add to the greater repository of stories being told or it would not be complete, would it?

Alexandra: Because Chicago isn’t a majority-white city; we don’t talk about that enough. Because history. Because progress. Our audiences are new immigrants, generations-old Chicago families, completely bilingual, monolingual, multilingual, poly-cultural, multi-ethnic, young, old, progressive, conservative, and coming from every little corner and pocket of this city. Because all audiences—Latino or not—deserve access to our cultural celebrations and spaces of healing.

Latina/o theatre is a necessary component on the theatre landscape period, and so it holds true that in a vibrant theatre town like Chicago the same is true. We are Americans.  

Who are some companies and/or individual artists the national community should be paying attention to, or be aware of?

Kristiana: Brian Quijada! He’s one of the most exciting individual performers working in interdisciplinary theater media that I have ever seen onstage.

Henry: Aguijón Theater Company, Albany Park Theater Project, Charin Alvarez, Sandra Delgado, and many more.

Sandra: Wow, there are so many young artists on the scene now. We see so many coming through every time we hold auditions at Teatro Vista—I wish we could hire all of them. In the company we have a couple of very young and very talented new ensemble members, Aysette Munoz and Tommy Rivera-Vega, and we are so happy to have them onboard. We also have some more experienced talents like Gabe Ruiz and Christina Nieves who have been with us longer and I trust will be working for a long time.

Isaac: Of course we have our Latina/o staple companies who are doing incredible work, but I would love to draw attention to some of the smaller bilingual theater companies producing groundbreaking content such as Colectivo el Pozo. As for playwrights, we are so fortunate to see such an array of new voices breaking into the scene over the last few years. Some of them include Charise Castro Smith, Paola Lázaro-Muñoz, and Hilary Bettis.

Alexandra: I am a little biased here, I will admit it, but the ridiculous number of Latina and/or women of color talent in Chicago would make you drop to your knees. And it would break your heart to see how challenging it still is for that segment to work year-round. Melissa DuPrey is quite possibly one of the funniest and hardest working Latinas here right now. Elaine Romero we have adopted and boy are we lucky she let us. Emilio Williams, a playwright and director who has made a name for himself internationally is really starting to build a reputation in Chicago and DC and is a force of farce and tragi-comedy realness that we haven’t encountered the likes of in a long time. The list is truly endless.

Ricardo: Excluding present company and those referenced already, UrbanTheater Company, Dominizuelan, Salsation Theatre Company, Carlo Lorenzo Garcia, Tanya Saracho, and Martin Zimmerman.

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