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Why Comedy? Why Now?: On the 2022 Latinx Theatre Commons Comedy Carnaval

I wanted to start this essay with a joke. I had a whole bit about a hippo, a psychedelic mushroom, and a stand-up comic walking into a bar, but I’ll spare you the details. I’m no comic. Sure, I can try to spin a joke out of a theatre festival and convening, but I think that’s better left to the experts. Adrienne Dawes, Franky D. Gonzalez, Milta Ortiz, Erlina Ortiz—those folks know how to tell a joke or two or twenty. As I learned at the 2022 Latinx Theatre Commons Comedy Carnaval from 9-11 June 2022 in Denver, Colorado, Latinx artists are no strangers to comedy. If the Comedy Carnaval is any indication, Latinx comedy is alive and well. We’re in good hands, folks.

As theatre communities continue to learn how to readjust to life in the present moment, we are not post-pandemic. Rather, we are learning to live with COVID-19 and learning how to make theatre in this new reality. What are audiences willing to see right now? What do audiences need out of theatre? How can Latinx artists respond to these needs? Where does culturally-specific comedy fit into this equation? And what does a weekend in Denver have to do with any of this?

…Y Entonces la Pandemia
Since its first convening in Boston in 2013, the Latinx Theatre Commons (LTC) has meticulously begun building a renewed Latinx theatre movement throughout the Américas, creating momentum around nuanced ways to update the narrative of the American theatre to be more inclusive of Latinx communities. What began as a set of ideas and dreams soon crystalized into reality due to the volunteer labor of the Steering Committee and the energy of the concentric circles of participants enabled by the commons-based approach. If you have attended any LTC convening or engaged with Latinx-focused work on HowlRound—to name a few ways—you are part of the commons. There is no formal membership. Rather, the commons is about sharing values, space, resources, and energy. With this commons-based approach, the LTC moved the needle of the American theatre.

When the LTC met in Miami in July 2019, the movement was beginning to see tangible results of this work. By the end of 2019, the LTC had produced eleven public-facing convenings; steering committee members had incubated critical initiatives such as The Fornés Institute; scholars began publishing books and documenting the movement; plays from the Encuentros and Carnavals were regularly being produced across the country; and, of course, Latinx theatremakers were increasing their power within the theatre industry.

And then 2020 happened.

The COVID-19 pandemic may have derailed the the LTC’s momentum. The movement may have been stalled. Wheels may have spun. But the LTC did not disappear. Rather, just like individual theatremakers, we have all had to readjust and reimagine what we want our communities to look like.

If you have attended any LTC convening or engaged with Latinx-focused work on HowlRound—to name a few ways—you are part of the commons.

When Amelia Acosta Powell pitched the idea to the LTC Steering Committee in 2018, there was no way to predict how our world would change. The Comedy Carnaval was already being planned before the insurrection at the United States Capitol on 6 January 2021 or the massacre at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. Comedy was the chosen genre long before George Floyd and COVID-19 were part of our everyday vernacular. Put simply, our lives have been forever altered by the events of the last few years. Do we not all need to take a collective movement of laughter together after the tumultuous past few years we have had? Is comedy really the best medicine?

Nuestro Teatro Es Su Teatro
As a hybrid event, the Comedy Carnaval married the successes of the Carnaval of New Latinx Work (2015, 2018) with something Latinx theatremakers do quite well—comedy. Celebrating its fiftieth anniversary of making Chicanx theatre in Denver, Su Teatro hosted the event and welcomed conveners to their space just as their name signals. “Your Theatre” soon became “Our Theatre.”

The convening featured a wide variety of content and form. There were readings of new full-length plays by Franky D. Gonzalez (Escobar’s Hippo), W. Fran Astorga (Exhaustion: Dancin’ Trees in the Ravine, a Psychedelic Comedia), and Erlina Ortiz (La Egoista). Other sessions highlighted short work such as Darrel Alejandro Holnes’ short film Marimacha, CARPA San Diego’s La Carpa de la frontera, and Tus Tías’ The Invocation of Selena. A Friday night solo performance evening was hosted at Raices Brewery featuring work by Cristina Fernandez, Jess Martínez, Milta Ortiz, Donelle Prado, R. Réal Vargas Alanis, and Katie Ventura. The weekend also featured two full productions: Octavio Solis’ Quixote Nuevo at Denver Center for the Performing Arts (DCPA) and Chicanos Sing the Blues at Su Teatro. And, of course, there were numerous other opportunities to connect with like-minded artists and unpack the power that comedy holds to transform communities.

During the opening ceremony, LTC producer Jacqueline Flores noted, “The commons is for everyone.” Event champion Amelia Acosta Powell reiterated this feeling, noting how welcomed she felt at the 2015 Carnaval, which spurred her to become involved in the movement. By the time Su Teatro artistic director Tony Garcia took the stage to welcome us to Denver and to Su Teatro, it was clear that sharing space together was going to be the driving force behind the convening. Oh, and comedy. Lots of comedy.

Now, let me tell you, Amelia Acosta Powell is funny. Like really funny. And, as she told us, there is power in making a joke. Likewise, there is power in comedic Latinx theatre. Noting how stereotypes of Latinx oppression abound when Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs) produce Latinx work, Acosta Powell adamantly declared, “I am over it.” I couldn’t agree more. It’s time to laugh. It’s time to see the humanity in Latine communities. It’s time to see the stories that have systematically been left off stages across the United States.

A panel of playwrights sitting on a stage answering questions.

Moderator: Amelia Acosta Powell; Panelists: Evelina Fernandez, Herbert Siguenza, Donelle Prado, Adrienne Dawes at the "Latine Comedy in Conversation" panel. Photo by Jean Carlo Yunen.

Comedy, ¿y qué?
During her opening remarks, Acosta Powell admitted, “My instinct in a fucked-up situation is to make a joke. Little did I know when I pitched the Comedy Carnaval to the Latinx Theatre Commons Steering Committee in 2018 just how fucked-up the situation would be by the time the event came to fruition.” Acosta Powell was far from the only artists to express these same sentiments. One thing was very clear throughout the convening: laughter really is the best medicine.

Latinx comedy serves many critical roles. At times, it’s puro chisme. At other times, it’s making sense of a difficult situation. It’s flipping stereotypes on their heads, shedding new light on something old, making us see something through a new lens. And, of course, there is the power to laugh in the face of oppression (let’s not forget, the United States has done some fucked up shit to the Latine community). Take, for instance, the Pachuco-esque Papa Calaca (masterfully played by Raúl Cardona) in Quixote Nuevo. In one scene, Papa Calaca goes undercover as la migra—or United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). While the audience collectively holds its breath as we fear for the safety of our Chicano Quixote, Papa Calaca soon uncovers himself, laughing at the joke and conveying the power this key figure in Chicano history has to subvert the State—something that is not necessarily done though drama, but through comedy. Papa Calaca reveals a more nuanced depiction of Latinx humanity. He shows what is always seen but never highlighted by those outside the community.

It’s time to laugh. It’s time to see the humanity in Latine communities. It’s time to see the stories that have systematically been left off stages across the United States.

Or, take for instance how Franky Gonzalez’s Escobar’s Hippo comments on fascism by turning an entire town of Colombians into… well, hippos! Or La Egoista, in which Erlina Ortiz beautifully uses comedy to comment on troubled sister-sister relations, religion, and healthcare. Audiences laughed even as we were forced to think about our own troubled relationships with family members, some of whom may have become hippos themselves (family is tough!).

One of the highlights of the convening was “Latine Comedy in Conversation,” a panel moderated by Amelia Acosta Powell featuring Adrienne Dawes, Evelina Fernandez, Donelle Prado, and Herbert Siguenza. If anyone was wondering the “why?” or “¿y qué?” of Latinx comedy, these pillars of the field deftly answered any questions. As Fernandez recognized, comedy is how her community deals with trauma, struggles, and oppression. The work that Fernandez does with the Latino Theater Company uses comedy to allow their Los Angeles audiences to enjoy stories without having to revisit trauma. Although Fernandez is influenced by carpas, Cantinflas, and the Chicano theatre movement, other panelists revealed different influences that demonstrate the dexterity and transnational character of Latinx comedy. Herbert Siguenza grew up with comedy sitcoms like The Munsters and Monty Python and, as such, the work of Culture Clash features this confluence of Chicanismo with American popular culture. Donelle Prado and Adrienne Dawes spoke to the power of their comedy to represent communities that have historically been left out of the Latinx performance narrative, namely Asian Latines and Afro-Latines.

But who is Latinx comedy for? Well, it depends on who you ask. According to Evelina Fernandez, “I write for my community. I write for Los Angeles Chicanos.” Fernandez sees her role as a playwright as one of documenting and validating Latine life in the United States. And, while Fernandez may be targeting a specific audience, Donelle Prado “perform[s] for everybody. I want to offend everybody.” Prado attests to staying true to yourself and your comedy. For Adrienne Dawes, the answer is a bit more nuanced. Sometimes a joke is meant for one person; other times the joke is meant to make the entire room laugh. As Herbert Siguenza notes, “the truth and honesty makes it [humor] successful.”

Notably, the Comedy Carnaval featured an incredible variety of form. This was a full spectrum of how humor transpires in a Latinx performance context, at times fusing genres and playing against the rules. While Prado sees stand-up becoming more inclusive of Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) comedians and storytellers historically left out of stand-up comedy, Dawes sees the power in inviting sketch comedy, improv, and comic artists into theatre. This is how we build audiences, break form, and grow both fields. Although stand-up comedy and theatre may have been historically separated, they share the same goals, and we can grow Latinx comedy by working collaboratively.

And, of course, sometimes artists at Comedy Carnaval broke open any idea of form entirely. Enter Erlina Ortiz’s La Egoista. The play blends stand-up comedy within a traditional play structure. The protagonist Josefina isn’t simply a comic that the audience passively witnesses, but rather her stand-up includes call and response, audience interaction, and even an audience member who plays an important role in the play’s climax. La Egoista breaks down any divide and reveals how a play can be stand-up and stand-up can be a play. Ortiz troubles restrictive notions of what both forms are or can be. There can be harmony. And, at the end of the day, this is the power of Latinx theatre and performance—the ability to play with genre and push theatremaking into new styles, spaces, and conversations. Theatre is the platform and comedy is the weapon.

Attendees of LTC standing on stage in a line participating in facilitated activity.

Attendees at the 2022 LTC Comedy Carnaval. Photo by Montour Photography.

¿Qué más? What’s next?
As with any LTC convening, the Comedy Carnaval ended with resolutions. Who is going to produce this work? Who is going to bring these stories and artists to their communities to continue moving the needle and centering Latine communities? Prompted by Jacqueline Flores, theatres committed to developing and investing in Latine artists and, in some cases, companies committed to producing full productions of these plays (some of them very soon!). And, of course, this movement is far from something relegated to culturally specific Latinx theatres. For every commitment from a Su Teatro or a Latino Theater Company, there was a commitment from an Actors Theatre of Louisville or a Cleveland Playhouse.

Other resolutions were about honoring those pillars of the Latinx theatre community who have made this work possible. In typical LTC fashion, the closing ceremony highlighted two pillars: Diane Rodriguez and Su Teatro.

The LTC recognized la mera mera Diane Rodriguez. Beginning with El Teatro Campesino in the 1970s, Rodriguez had become an American theatre legend through her leadership of the famed Latino Theatre Initiative, her comedic writing with Latins Anonymous, and the countless young Latinx theatremakers she mentored. Her unexpected death in 2020 shook our community and, like much of life during the pandemic, the LTC was never able to come together to celebrate Rodriguez. Remarks by Evelina Fernandez, Norma Medina, Teresa Marrero, Anthony Rodriguez, and others conveyed just how far Rodriguez’s influence reached. To further honor her, the LTC gave its inaugural Diane Rodriguez Teatrista Award (“The Diane”) to Patricia Garza, who was mentored by Rodriguez and has continued her legacy. As the award is meant to honor an individual committed to increasing Latinx representation in theatre, Garza is a fitting honoree.

And, of course, the LTC honored Su Teatro, which was founded in 1972, with an award for fifty years of service to the Chicano community. While Tony Garcia has often been the face of the company, he fittingly handed the microphone to Micaela (Mica) Garcia de Benavidez, the company’s Managing Director who has been a driving force behind the teatro’s success since 2001. As Tony Garcia’s gesture shows, sharing space and acknowledging those that have put in the hard work is a critical aspect of driving this movement forward. Mica Garcia spoke about the supportive national network of Latinx theatres and how powerful it has been to spend a career in teatro: “To recognize the work that happens on a national level, the work that we've done, the teatro Chicano community that I've been lucky enough to always have for my whole life… to know that in any city we went in, in any place that we went, there was another teatro [and] we could go there... and we had familia and we were going to be supported. I am so grateful that you guys came to our home."

Su Teatro is planning to pay their final mortgage payments on their theatre building this summer, which will make them one of the only Latinx theatre companies in the country to own their own space outright. Since 2013, the LTC has continued to build its relationship with Su Teatro, including Enrique’s Journey at Encuentro 2014, anti-racism trainings in Denver in 2018, and now Comedy Carnaval. During the LTC Steering Committee meeting the following day, the LTC decided to contribute a small amount to “buy a seat” at Su Teatro to help with the effort of hosting—which still cost far less than a PWI would have charged the LTC in rent for the space for the week. (Perhaps it is telling that no Latinx, Chicano, Puerto Rican, or Spanish language theatre has ever charged the LTC rent for our events, but many PWIs have. Another joke for another day.) Upon hearing the news that the LTC was buying a seat, Tony Garcia’s response was “You know my mother always said, you need to be careful about feeding stray cats because they tend to keep coming around.” Are Latinx theatremakers the future of American comedy? You bet! Are they also the future smart asses of the American theatre? Absolutely! Either way, it seems the LTC community is going to keep coming back to Su Teatro.

LTC attendees standing in front of a mural at Su Teatro.

Comedy Carnaval featured artists. Left to right: Samuel Valdez, Jess Martinez, Jessi Realz, Milta Ortiz, Marilet Martinez, Katie Ventura, R. Réal Vargas Alinas, and W. Fran Astorga in front of Su Teatro. Photo by Montour Photography.

But what else can we do to support this movement? And, reader, what can you do?

There is a need to produce this work and continue expanding the commons. And what better example is there than Quixote Nuevo at DCPA? Much of the production’s design team (set, lighting, and sound) were featured artists from Carnaval (not to mention Octavio Solis was a featured playwright at the 2015 Carnaval, all under the leadership of Quixote Nuevo director Lisa Portes). With hiring power comes great responsibility. When a door opens, how do you hold the door open for others, and who do you bring into the room? Major productions like Quixote Nuevo are concrete examples and bring Chicanx theatre into spaces that have not traditionally been welcoming to Latines. And, it goes without saying that a major solution is to begin systemically funding Latinx theatres that are all across the country and having been doing this work for decades. The artists are there. Now it’s time to actually fund them.

Secondly, we have to continue to laugh together. As Darrel Alejandro Holnes said before the screening of Marimacha, “We have to laugh when we can.” I couldn’t agree more. I laughed my ass off in Denver. Sure, a lot of my laughter was during the performances, but even more of it happened during the informal conversations with old friends and new ones. Laughter builds relationships. Relationships build movements. Movements built a more equitable and inclusive future.

Being in community and fellowship is one of the LTC’s superpowers. It gives us strength and energizes us to plant seeds throughout the Américas—and beyond. And what better way to energize a theatre movement than by laughing together.

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