Chicano Theater Alive in Alpine TX
When I arrived in Alpine, Texas this past Sunday, one of the first things that my host said to me was, "I got t-shirts for you." This would be the third one that I have received from Dona Roman, director of The Theater of the Big Bend. Additionally, this will be the third year that they have produced one of my plays. But this t-shirt was different. It was black with a skull in grey, almost invisible, with the words Chicano Theater in big white letter on the front. It was a phrase that I had not seen nor heard in a while. The skull struck me as apropos: Chicano Theater is a phrase whose meaning had been nearly dead to me for a while.
When I first heard the phrase Chicano theater, it was tied to a movement that included many different people and disciplines. I honestly would have a hard time trying to give you a history of the word and the movement, but for me, being a theater artist, it was easy to define it back then. Chicano theater was street theater, Guerilla Theater, Farm Worker Theater, political theater, theater for social change. It was done by people who were more interested in changing society than changing costumes or being good actors, writers, or theater artists. And that was fine for a while. Then two things happened to me that changed the way that I defined "Chicano theater".
One was the realization that our audiences were the same show after show. When we performed in LA, the SF and SD audiences would be there. When we performed in SD, the LA and SF audiences would be there, etc. etc. There was positive side to this: great parties. But the negative side was that we were beginning to stagnate. We were not growing our audiences so our message was becoming redundant. We wanted the message to reach larger audiences. So most of us stopped doing theater and became politicians, teachers, or lawyers or we worked to make the message stronger.
It took us some time to realize that what we really needed was to strengthen the messengers. The message has not changed that much or not at all. There still exists racism, job and educational discrimination, sexism, worker exploitation, poverty, and on and on. The Supreme Court ruled recently that white firefighters had been discriminated against by their city in promotional practices. I thought I had it bad, but when white people are being discriminated against, then no one is safe. Oh, wait, we have never been safe from discrimination (I know a lot of my people who think these are things of the past.)
Back to the message. We soon realized that strong writing, excellent acting, and creative directing only strengthened the message. That it was okay to write about things that weren't 100% political. This really didn't mean we stopped being Chicano theater; it meant that we began to grow beyond our identity as a group of committed people who just wanted to use a play as a vehicle for their cause. And who didn't mind if that vehicle was ever maintained or even ran again.
Second, we realized that the word Chicano was beginning to limit our thinking. It seemed to isolate us in a world where our Mexican heritage was separated from our Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central, South American, African, and European brothers and sisters. There was a shared language, culture that begged to be included in our thinking. It occurred to me personally that I had always been told that I was a minority in America. Then with a change of thinking, I suddenly belonged to the majority. I let Chicano go.
So here I was staring at a t-shirt. Wondering why they hadn't put my play's name on it. (Am I revealing too much about myself?) What I didn't know was that in a moment I was about to undergo another change.
The first cast activity for the production in Alpine was a potluck lunch to introduce Jojanie Segura and me to the rest of the group. This was to happen within an hour of getting my t-shirt. This group had already begun rehearsals and we were to join them for the last two weeks before our opening. The energy in the room was amazing. Here were seven amazing actors. Excited to be meeting us, excited to be getting ready for the last weeks of rehearsals, excited to be bring what they called "Chicano theater" to their community. A theater that they related to, a theater that spoke to their parents. It seems that the groundwork that has been laid for the past two years is now paying off. This group of actors is solid. They are talented and dedicated to their craft. So something old can be new again. Chicano theater has been reborn here. I too have joined in this energy and can't wait for opening night. They are at the same point I was years ago.
An added note, Dr. Jorge Huerta was one of the if not the biggest influence on me in regard to "Chicano Theater". He is going to be here next week to meet with the actors in "Petra's Sueño". I had thought that my style of theater would die with me, but suddenly it looks like it just might be given a fresh start.