Between 1992 and 2005, Los Angeles theater audiences witnessed a cultural experiment that mirrored their rapidly changing city.
Those were the years of Center Theatre Group’s Latino Theatre Initiative, a wide-ranging effort by the city’s leading theatrical entity to create “culturally based” artworks aimed to contribute to “a broader definition of American identity” and help build a new, more diverse theater audience.
The story of how those ambitious goals did (or didn’t) get translated from the page to the stage has been published in an 84-page photo-illustrated book, “The Latino Theatre Initiative/Center Theatre Group Papers, 1980-2005.”
The book is part of a project of the Chicano Archives and UCLA’s Chicano Studies Research Center and its library. A 54-page monograph by scholar Chantal Rodriguez forms the core. Chon Noriega, the center’s director, said about 1,500 copies were printed of the book, which is the most extensive historical study of its subject yet produced.
“The idea is, this is supposed to stimulate new scholarship,” said Noriega, who described the Latino initiative as “extremely important.”
Among the new audience that CTG hoped to cultivate with its initiative were the region’s millions of Mexican American and other Latino residents, who’d been poorly served by CTG up to that point. The singular exception had been CTG’s production of Luis Valdez’s “Zoot Suit” (1978),” which drew around 40,000 people during its nearly yearlong run at the Taper and Aquarius theaters.
In her essay, Rodriguez lays out the political and cultural antecedents that sparked the initiative. Chief among those were shifting demographics -- from 1980 to 1990, L.A. County gained 1.38 million new residents, about 90% of them Latinos -- as well as the furor surrounding several state propositions restricting immigrant rights and benefits.
Rodriguez cites as another catalyst for CTG’s initiative, the closing in 1991 of the Los Angeles Theatre Center, “which had been known for its political work and its support of ethnic- and gender-based labs and productions in the late 1980s.”
First under the leadership of Jose Luis Valenzuela, who in 1992 was appointed the initiative’s inaugural director, then under his successors, the tandem of Diane Rodriguez and Luis Alfaro, the initiative pursued its multipronged mandate to produce plays such as Eduardo Machado’s “Floating Island” cycle and Oliver Mayer’s “Blade to the Heat,” as well as develop new works, hold educational workshops and community events, and train affiliated artists.
In an email, Diane Rodriguez praised the new book. “The documentation of history is paramount for future generations to understand the struggles and successes we have had as a people,” she wrote, “particularly during a time when the immigration issue has overshadowed the long history Mexican Americans have had in the United States and the outstanding contributions we have made to this country, which is our country as well.”
The narrative goes on to recount the 2005 decision by Michael Ritchie to eliminate the Taper’s play development programs after he replaced CTG founding artistic director Gordon Davidson. And it offers an assessment of L.A. theater in subsequent years, as other spaces such as Josefina Lopez’s Casa 0101 in Boyle Heights and Valenzuela’s reconstituted Latino Theater Company have continued to develop and produce Latino-themed work.
Noriega agrees that the initiative’s legacy endures. “When it ended, its impact didn’t end,” he said.