San Diego Latino Theater to Open With ‘I Am Celso’ : Stage: Mascara Magica schedules three shows in 1990 to showcase works by Latinos. For its two directors the theater is the end of a long road, fraught with financial roadblocks.

The city’s first professional Latino theater will debut in June.

Mascara Magica, with longtime local directors Jorge Huerta and William Virchis at the helm, will open with “I Am Celso"--a one-man play adapted by Huerta and Ruben Sierra, who stars in the show--from the writings of New Mexican poet Leo Romero. It will be done as a co-production with the Bowery Theatre at the Kingston Playhouse, where it opens June 21 for a four-week run.

Two other shows are scheduled for 1990 in the Sixth Avenue Playhouse in cooperation with the San Diego Repertory Theatre, which manages the space, and four will be produced in 1991, according to Huerta. The next show, which has yet to be named, will probably be a Latin American play running Sept. 5 through 16, and a Christmas show called “Cuentos de Navidad” (Stories of Christmas) will run Dec. 5 through 16.

Huerta described the Christmas show as a “Chorus Line” of Christmas shows with Christmas carols instead of Broadway tunes; the actors will work with a dramaturge to tell their own true stories and remembrances of Christmas past from the Puerto Rican, Mexican, Hispanic and Chicano perspectives.


Virchis said the name Mascara Magica (Magic Mask) was chosen because of the tradition of magic and ritual in Latino theater.

Huerta and Virchis are hoping to establish a contract with Actors Equity, the professional actors theater union; Sierra, who stars in “I Am Celso,” is an Equity actor.

Huerta will serve as artistic director and Virchis as producing artistic director of the new theater. A managing director is yet to be named.

It’s been a long road for Huerta and Virchis, longtime professors at UC San Diego and Southwestern College, respectively, who left their positions as co-artistic directors of the Old Globe Theatre’s Teatro Meta program in 1986 with the idea of starting their own Latino theater, which they named Teatro San Diego. But Teatro San Diego remained a dream, never producing a single play.

Over the years, Huerta and Virchis seemed always in the process of trying to rally the financial support they needed from the community to start up their theater. Just last year, they had hoped to team up with UCSD professors Floyd Gaffney, who directs most of the local black theater productions in San Diego, and Steve Pearson to form a multi-ethnic theater.

But the funding never came together. And time was passing. As they watched their students go off and start theaters of their own, they began to wonder if they were too old to continue pursuing their dream.

“We know we’re doing this all backward,” said Huerta, 47. “People are supposed to be 20 years old when they launch a theater, and we’re two middle-aged men. But people have put their trust in us, and I think it is because our time has come. That’s what Bill and I said when we looked at each other. We knew that if we don’t do it now, we’ll never do it.”

Virchis, who turns 46 on Thursday, calls the theater a combination birthday present and Mother’s Day present; Mother’s Day in Mexico, he said, falls on his birthday, May 10.

“It’s like a a new child is being born,” he said. “It’s like labor pains. It’s exciting, it’s scary and it’s very Mexican because that’s what we thrive on: excitement and risk-taking.”

What finally made the theater possible was a grant from the Metropolitan Area Advisory Committee, which started them on their way in raising the $40,000 to $50,000 they needed for their annual budget; the gift of free space at the Kingston Playhouse from the Kingston Hotel, and the support of the San Diego Repertory Theatre, which will provide various support services as they rent the Sixth Avenue Playhouse.

But all this doesn’t mean the men won’t continue with other projects.

Huerta, the head of the Hispanic American program at UCSD, the first graduate program in the country to train bilingual performers, will present “The Trials of Don Edwardo” beginning today as part of the graduate school program. Virchis is the chair of the theater department at Southwestern.

Last year, Huerta told The Times that his devotion to his graduate school project had caused him to give up on the idea of starting a professional Latino theater, but his commitment to the program ultimately drove him to create a professional theater where the graduates could work in their final year of study.

“I would not have agreed to initiate this program if I thought I was preparing people for unemployment,” he said.

At the same time, the climate for Latino theater was improving.

The Old Globe brought Latino theater into the mainstream with Teatro Meta in 1982, and Huerta and Virchis directed “Fanlights,” San Diego’s first bilingual show, in 1984. The San Diego Repertory began its Teatro Sin Fronteras program in 1987 and has done one bilingual play a year since 1988. Huerta has directed or co-directed all of the Rep’s bilingual plays and will co-direct Ariel Dorfman’s “Widows,” opening in January.

The La Jolla Playhouse sent Graciela Daniele’s Argentine-inspired “Dangerous Games” to Broadway last year. Although the play quickly closed in New York, it was successful here. Last year, KPBS-TV produced “Simply Maria or the American Dream,” a new play by a teen-age Latina writer, Josefina Lopez, one of the winners in the annual Gaslamp Quarter Theatre Company’s California Young Playwrights Project.

And it hasn’t hurt that the Old Globe scored big with its Latino Play Discovery Series last year. Under the direction of Raul Moncada, every play out of the five presented went on to further productions. The Old Globe picked up “The Granny” in its January slot and committed to producing a musical version of “Death and the Blacksmith” down the road.

Fund raising was aided by the growing awareness of the importance of the Latino market in San Diego, Huerta said. A survey by Miami-based Strategy Research Corp. last year cited statistics on the growing Latino community that Huerta and Virchis had been talking about for years: The Latino population of San Diego County was calculated at 473,800 last May, or 17.7% of the total population; it had $2.8 billion in income to spend last year, not counting the $950 million spent by Tijuana tourists.

The importance of the Latino market was not lost on Lee Julien, one of the partners of the Kingston Hotel who promised a June slot, free of charge at the playhouse, to Huerta and Virchis as early as last year.

Mascara Magica’s debut is also coming just less than a year after the Old Globe announced the cancellation of its Latino Play Discovery Series after its three-year $280,000 Ford Foundation grant. Teatro Meta has since been absorbed into the Old Globe’s general Play Discovery Series.

That leaves Mascara Magica as the only organization in town whose sole goal is the development and production of Latino theater.

“We want to present the highest quality of theater, Hispanic American as well as Latin American, in Spanish as well as English,” Huerta said. “That is our total commitment. It doesn’t mean we will only be using Latino actors. We want to break down stereotypes and welcome everybody.