El Teatro de la Esperanza, one of a handful of Latino troupes that tour the country regularly, was formed during idealistic times and soon was working out of San Francisco, a locus of the counterculture.
The year was 1970, and "we thought we were going to cause a revolution," recalls Rodrigo Duarte Clark, the company's artistic director. It didn't happen, but El Teatro has continued its attempts to stage honest, often provocative plays about the Mexican-American experience. One of its works, a "consciousness-raising" comedy called "Rosario's Barrio," opens tonight at the Yost Theater in Santa Ana.
"Rosario's Barrio," written and directed by Duarte Clark, is a "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" with a Latin accent. As the play opens, Rosario is being hired to do a children's TV program that he sees as an opportunity to explore the Hispanic culture. He wants to educate and inform as well as to entertain. But his producer is worried about offending the audience.
A battle of wills ensues, and within this framework Duarte Clark offers up mini-satires on Columbus, the Los Angeles riots, the military and the government.
"Part of the thing I hoped to look at were the compromises that can come with the creative process," Duarte Clark said during a recent telephone interview from his home in Oakland. "Rosario wants to do something that is not necessarily a political statement but is grounded in reality, and it's frustrating.
"The play questions the value of putting on a show that the compromises have ruined. It's always a struggle to maintain artistic integrity."
Like Rosario, El Teatro has had to struggle ever since it was founded as a student group at UC Santa Barbara. It quickly moved to San Francisco's Mission District, where it remains today.
Finding funds is always a hassle, Duarte Clark said, but the company has survived through grants and commissions, performances in San Francisco and on the road, and workshops for adults and children.
Duarte Clark pointed out that El Teatro's longevity is remarkable, given how few remain of the Latino-based troupes that started up in the late '60s and early '70s. "I think there were as many as 60 operating in the Southwest back then. A lot of them came and went. Many of those people are still in theater, but there aren't many companies like us out there."
Like other groups at the time, El Teatro was inspired by Luis Valdez's famous El Teatro Campesino, generally considered the first major Hispanic company to produce plays for a primarily Latino audience.
Duarte Clark's Teatro differs from Valdez's in that it tends to stage full-length productions as opposed to little skits, or actos. But like Campesino, de la Esperanza's first responsibility has been to the Hispanic community, Duarte Clark said.
"We try to keep within our culture, our traditions. We have to speak from that base first, become immersed in our community. However, that doesn't mean we can't speak to Anglos and other communities. We hope there's a universal quality that both Latinos and non-Latinos will understand."