A visit from El Teatro Campesino is always an event. It's been a long time--four years since we saw founder Luis Valdez's "I Don't Have to Show You No Stinking Badges" at the Los Angeles Theatre Center; 10 years since the Teatro did any serious touring.
Now El Teatro is back in town and there's both wistfulness and joy in the double bill it opened Wednesday at the Japan America Theatre. One play lightly brushes the past, jogging memories of the dramaturgically raw but splendid political actos that forged this company; the other squarely embraces the future. Both revive the salty assertiveness of a dauntless Chicano spirit unleashed by this Teatro 25 years ago. It has mellowed, but it has not abated.
"Soldado Razo," the curtain-raiser written by Valdez, goes back to 1971 and, while Valdez (or director Marilyn Abad) has attempted updating it with minor references to Central American conflicts, the play is locked into the experience of the Vietnam War. There's no escaping its period or its point: that too many young Mexican-Americans died in Vietnam.
What was once a sardonic sketch becomes rueful recapitulation. The simple, two-dimensional characters of young soldier Johnny (Anahuac Valdez), his loving mother (Mary Ann Rodgers), father (Miguel Najera), brother (Lakin Valdez) and girl-friend (Dena Martinez), have taken on a certain docility and tameness, but not the play's central character, La Muerte (Andres Gutierrez).
Death is never tame and this particular incarnation is a shameless spoofer--a hooded, monkish calavera or skeleton, its expression frozen in a permanent sneer.
"Thanks for going Greyhound," sniggers this mythic figure when young Johnny boards the bus for Oakland and Vietnam. But the final image of the dead Johnny, silhouetted against a blood red sky as he follows La Muerte into the beyond, remains as indelible as ever.
"Simply Maria," which follows, is the Teatro's forward thrust. Written in 1986 as a first play by the then-17-year-old Josefina Lopez, it captures the spirit and the sense of satire of the early Valdez actos , but in a modern context.
Her issues are not his issues. This is a Latina rite-of-passage play written a la Valdez, but very much belonging to the Lopez experience--that of being born in Mexico and of moving to Los Angeles as a young child.
Growing up a woman in the United States, but in the clearly delineated turf of a Mexican household, creates de facto conflict for the adventurous Maria (an enchanting Martinez). It's family expectations vs. Maria's broader and stronger personal yearnings for college and a creative life.
Maria's rocky road to selfhood is hilariously pockmarked with scenes from a marriage-that-almost-wasn't--that of her parents Ricardo (Najera) and Carmen (Rosa Maria Escalante)--and punctuated by the debunking of every happy Hollywood ending and stereotype, Latino and Anglo.
Her parents' reunion in Los Angeles is played to the parodistic strains of "Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing." An imaginary encounter with a Latinized Statue of Liberty is underscored by the words "Give up what is yours, your culture, your heritage, and I'll give you the opportunity to have what is mine . . . " But the funniest episode is a live reconstitution of Maria's favorite television fare (Superwoman, played by Rodgers) vs. Mama's adoration of the Mexican soaps. (Francine Torres is a riot in a variety of pushy, self-assertive types you hate to love.)
But this is not all just fun and games. Cultural undercurrents run deep. When Maria coaxes her reluctant parents to come to her school's open house, she's suddenly overcome by a shocking sense of shame. It's Maria's own inarticulate sense of not fitting she projects onto their behavior.
In restrospect, "Simply Maria," though ostensibly comic, makes comments that cut as profoundly as some of Valdez's other early actos that could probably also stand some reviving: the matchless "I Get Nothing Out of School" (the saga of every Latino drop-out) or "Vendidos" (a used-Mexican lot where you can purchase your favorite stereotype).
Lopez, as living proof of her own thriving cultural duality, is able to laugh as hard at those Mexican stereotypes as she is to laugh at our home-grown American ones. Hers is the way of the future.