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Latino Perspective Takes Center Stage : Three New Works Form the Cultural Core of SCR’s Eighth Annual Playwrights Project

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Milcha Sanchez-Scott doesn’t mince words.

The Los Angeles playwright, whose “El Dorado” is one of the few Latino plays ever produced on the South Coast Repertory Mainstage, will tell you that she has no idea what kind of future her new play, “The Old Matador,” may enjoy.

“I don’t know where it will go from here,” she says, “ if it goes anywhere.”

Here is SCR’s eighth annual Hispanic Playwrights Project, which began last weekend with a fund-raiser, “Una Noche del Teatro,” at which actresses Elizabeth Pena and Julie Carmen were hosts. The event continues this weekend with Ruben Sierra’s solo performance of “I Am Celso,” followed by staged readings of plays by the project’s three invited playwrights, including Sanchez-Scott. Her compadres are Roger Arturo Durling (whose “Pacific Ocean” appears Friday) and Silvia Gonzalez S. (whose “I Can’t Eat Goat Head” will be presented Aug. 7, the same day as “The Old Matador”).

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These new works form the foundation of the project, and, as Sanchez-Scott suggests, it is all based on that nebulous but essential phenomenon in the theater: Process.

“You have to hear the words spoken,” she noted recently, “before you have any idea if the play can actually be fully staged.”

In the week preceding this weekend’s readings, playwrights, actors and the directors--Laura Esparza on “Pacific Ocean,” Hispanic Playwright Program artistic director Jose Cruz Gonzalez for “Goat Head,” and Sierra for “Matador"--have been navigating that unexplored territory between the writing and the final production.

The playwrights can be categorized under the generic and institutionalized label of Hispanic , but each arrives here from very different ports of call.

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Sanchez-Scott, 38, recovering from a root canal but in constant communication with Sierra, has come off of two large, turbulent projects.

“El Dorado” was an epic even by SCR’s large-scale standards but unloved by both audiences and critics. An American Playhouse film of her 1987 play, “Roosters,” now in post-production, was hobbled with controversy when original director Marcus De Leon and other crew members were fired during shooting and replaced by longtime associates of star Edward James Olmos, including director Robert Young.

Gonzalez, in her early 30s, had been a teacher for nearly eight years when the story of several undocumented Mexican laborers who died in an unventilated boxcar near her home in Yuma, Ariz., spurred her to write a play titled “Boxcar.”

“I haven’t stopped writing since,” she added with undisguised pride.

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No one has come as far, however, as Durling, 29. Born in Panama City to an Italian mother and American father, his early life there was dramatically changed when the family moved to Manhattan.

He became so Americanized that, he said, “I began to forget Spanish. When I’m on the phone with my mother, my Spanish is so rusty that it takes me a while to put sentences together.”

Durling was trained in theater, but it was mostly as a director, although he has acted in plays by such friends as Eduardo Machado. As with Gonzalez, writing came later.

In this group, Sierra, 46, is a kind of honorary member, not a working playwright but still enacting the play he and co-writer Jorge A. Huerta adapted from Leo Romero’s poems about Celso, a drunken sage in the mythic town of Agua Negra, N.M.

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Sierra’s 1968 play “La Raza Pura, or Racial, Racial” was one of the first Latino plays to get any kind of national exposure through a television production by National Educational Television, the forerunner of the Public Broadcasting System.

Sierra, now a theater professor at Cal State Los Angeles, didn’t have an SCR in the rough days of the ‘60s, “when it was me, and Luis Valdez with El Teatro Campesino, and Miguel Pinero, and a couple of other guys somewhere, all of us doing our thing on our own. No networking then, man.”

It’s all serious networking now, with the Hispanic Playwrights Project only one point in an expanding map that reaches from New York’s International Arts Relations and the Chicago Latino Theatre to San Antonio’s Guadalupe Center and San Francisco’s Latino Stage (partly run by director Esparza).

The Hispanic Playwrights Project is the invention of SCR, and the question remains as to whether it is more than a token nod to Latino playwrights from a well-endowed theater. For example, only four project plays, including “El Dorado,” have received full SCR productions.

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“They’ll be the first to admit that they’re conservative about what plays go on,” Sierra said of SCR. “But they’ve done some (Latino) plays, and I’ll tell you, they’ve done a helluva lot more than the” Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.

The Taper’s record with Latino plays is notoriously spotty, with just two mainstage productions: Valdez’s breakthrough work, “Zoot Suit” and Ariel Dorfman’s “Widows.” Valdez’s “Bandido!” is planned for 1994.

Although SCR’s record is better, Sanchez-Scott worries that the project may no longer be drawing producers from around the country, as it has in the past.

“I’ve never felt tokenism at South Coast Rep,” she said, “but I don’t think there will be nearly as many people coming this year to the readings from other theaters and television and film companies as have in the past.”

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Sanchez-Scott added, however, that already she has experienced what Gonzalez and Durling may be able to look forward to. SCR “has made an investment in me. They liked ‘El Dorado’ a lot, even if audiences may not have liked it.”

Like that earlier work, “The Old Matador” is an SCR commission. It tells of an older man of Spanish heritage dreaming of returning to Spain and the bullfighting rings of his youth, lured on by a woman who runs a Spanish cafe and against the protests of his wife.

“It’s fluffier, more humorous than ‘El Dorado,’ ” said Sanchez-Scott, “and it’s part of my natural rhythm, I think, to go from a big play like ‘El Dorado’ to a smaller one like ‘The Old Matador.’ ”

The new play, however, continues Sanchez-Scott’s fascination with magic realism, a style with one foot in the natural world, the other in the supernatural--and one, she noted, that is especially difficult for actors trained in realism.

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“Latino actors--almost all actors really--have a very hard time with my work, because they do a lot of film and TV, and not really enough of the classics that would let them play with other styles,” Sanchez-Scott said.

For the “Matador” reading, she said she feels lucky to have Latino actor Joan Stuart-Morris, a veteran of classical theater.

Neither Durling nor Gonzalez suggest that they’re encountering Sanchez-Scott’s problems; rather, they talk about finding their way through their new works.

Durling’s “Pacific Ocean” is about a fantastical meeting between a young Panamanian woman in the jungle and the Spanish explorer Balboa, the first European to discover the Pacific, who has returned from the dead in the 1930s to seek forgiveness for his sins. But the play, he assures, isn’t what it seems.

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“It’s a romantic screwball comedy,” Durling said. “I didn’t want to be heavy-handed about colonialism or any other issues that are raised, but disguise them behind sweet comedy.”

The model for this is Preston Sturges, whose simultaneously savage and warm-hearted comic films Durling admires immensely.

“My previous plays (including ‘Canal Zone’) are very polemical and turned off some audiences,” said Durling, whose original Spanish pokes through in his lightly accented voice.

“A movie like Sturges’ ‘Sullivan’s Travels’ is politically urgent, but very inviting. There’s a gentler way of delivering the same message,” in this case, the follies of colonialism and history’s habit of repeating itself.

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For “I Can’t Eat Goat Head,” Gonzalez has come across a different kind of movie-related discovery: Screenwriters aren’t the only ones who have to pitch their scripts in a few words.

“When I submitted the idea of ‘Goat Head’ to the Kennedy Center in Washington,” she recalled, “they wanted a two-sentence description. Oh God! I hadn’t even really worked it fully out in my head yet, and I didn’t have a name for my main character.

“Well, I said, it’s sort of like ‘Wizard of Oz,’ sort of like ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ And then, it clicked: it was an ‘Alice’ tale, only I hadn’t consciously thought of it that way. Then, I thought, what do I call her? Maria? Leticia? Alicia? Of course! Alicia!”

Gonzalez’s Alicia, a young suburban Latina, gets lost in a curio shop off Olvera Street, where “she drops a doll, and as it turns on the floor, it becomes a woman, who leads her into a fantasy land of the Mexican culture she’s lost.”

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Like Gonzalez herself?

“My mama reads my plays, and says to me that it seems I’m always searching for my cultural identity,” says the first-generation Mexican-American.

“But it’s really not that. I couldn’t write about these themes if I were still sorting them out in my own mind,” she said.

Just as she calls herself a “Chicago” playwright, even though she and her doctor husband have just moved from their longtime Windy City home to Powell Butte, Ore., Gonzalez is happy with her dual American and Mexican selves.

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“Unlike Alicia, I am done exploring, and can put it all down on paper now.”

* “I Am Celso” plays tonight at 8 and Sunday, 3 and 7 p.m. “Pacific Ocean” plays Friday, at 7:30 p.m. “I Can’t Eat Goat Head” plays Aug. 7 at 2:30 p.m. “The Old Matador” plays Aug. 7 at 7:30 p.m. At South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. $6. (714) 957-4033.


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