This year, we’re focusing in depth on what Lark community members have to say about where we’re headed as a society and the tools we’ll need to get there. Every month we are inviting a guest essayist—theater artists as well as people from fields outside theater—to share a unique perspective on some important strategic questions we’ve been asking ourselves lately about the purpose of live theater in the twenty-first century, what the field has to offer society as a whole, and what we can learn about how to shape the theater of the future.
This month's guest essayist is Maria Alexandria Beech, a translating playwright for our U.S.-Mexico Playwright Exchange Program in both 2008 and 2009 as well as an Advisory Committee member for the program. She has been an important addition to this program by keeping a close eye on how Mexican culture is perceived, misperceived, valued, and undervalued on both sides of the border. And as this year’s U.S.-Mexico Playwright Exchange came to a close, she took part in some of many conversations about how we can deepen our commitment to bringing Mexican voices and stories to audiences in the U.S.
Let's Not Use the Word “Mexico"
by Maria Alexandria Beech
As a child, I almost drowned in Mexico. No one told us that the beaches in Acapulco could be deadly, and I got trapped in a fish net. That experience cut short our vacation, but left me impressed with the mystery of the country’s indigenous roots, and colonial remnants such as bull fighting.
In 1997, I returned to Mexico for a fiction workshop but, after sharing long conversations and tequila shots with Cuban American playwright Irene Fornes, I abandoned fiction for playwriting. Irene’s proposal was simple: your characters are people. Ask them questions and listen. That decision changed my life, not only because it re-directed the course of my work, but because it opened a world of possibility to me, the possibility of theater.
That summer, our Mexican counterparts in Taxco were writers like Oscar de la Borbolla, who had written THE DAMN VOWELS, (Las Malditas Vocales) a work he said nearly drove him crazy because he had used only one vowel in each of its five stories. (Los locos somos otro cosmos is my favorite because it protests the treatment of patients in an insane asylum.) Another writer had set his play in a rocket inhabited by a little girl and an astronaut. Yet another had written a poem about chairs. It seemed the Mexicans were synthesizing their rich culture with events around the world, engaging in a conversation with history, science, global literary trends, and with each other. Their work felt fresh and important to me, like looking through a magnifying glass for the first time, and by experiencing their literary impulses, I became excited to follow my own.
However, when I returned to New York, I found little trace of Mexican theater in my “comparative” literature classes at Columbia. I learned that when it came to non-US theater, mainstream New York (and academia) was interested in the Greeks, Romans, British, Irish and French, and writers such as Chekhov, Ibsen, Calderon de la Barca and Lorca but there was little focus on contemporary writers from other regions. One artistic director told me that writers from other countries “didn’t have an audience.” It was accepted that limited audiences existed for different styles of theater. Furthermore, some perceived that if a play didn’t have an audience, then creating a new audience could prove too risky, especially since it often entailed devising unique marketing strategies. Ignoring the work of certain regions seemed dangerous to me because it seemed to tell artists (and their cultures) that their art wasn’t important or relevant, and that blocked the dialogue and exchange that was elemental if we were going to progress as a civilization. It was also troubling to me that even though Mexicans and Mexican Americans made up a significant portion of the population, few theaters were producing their stories.
After attending one Beckett and Chekhov production after another, my yearning for unique international stories became palpable, and I always remembered the magnificent work I had heard in Mexico. (When films such as 21 Grams, Pan's Labyrinth, Babel and others surfaced on our movie screens, images of Mexico’s artists at work and play came to me since I knew these films reflected a vibrant creative community.)
When Andrea Thome called me one year ago to participate in the exchange program at the Lark, I jumped at the opportunity to revisit Mexico’s talent. I was hired to translate THE CAMELS (Los Camellos), by Luis Ayllon. THE CAMELS is about a poor family that is hired—and trapped in a theater—to act out their lives on stage. Paid by the word by a producer and goaded by the public to show their worst behavior, the family members insult and degrade each other and compare their lives to soap operas. In an era when we exploit individuals and families for entertainment—almost as a way to avoid taking responsibility for our own lives and actions—this play felt urgently relevant. It wasn’t a play about Mexico; it was a play about the world. The other plays in the exchange program were equally stunning. Ernesto Anaya’s THE MAIDS OF HONOR (Las Meninas), translated by Migdalia Cruz, brought us painter Diego Velasquez whose denigration as an artist made him yearn for a position in the court. This play spoke to our era in which art—and artists—are defined by commercial viability. In fact, all the plays presented universal themes but in unique settings (ie, a boat, a mariachi park).
This year, the plays were equally provocative. I translated HITLER IN MY HEART (Hitler en el Corazon) which explores different perspectives of the death of a soccer star (inspired by the death of Spanish soccer player Antonio Puerta). The play is about how an oppressed, alienated culture uses celebrity to search for meaning, finding it only in annihilation—which is why the play shares its title with the Antony and the Johnsons song. The other plays included Quetzalcoatl Puddle, about a love triangle on a futuristic beach where sunlight is rented by the hour and people struggle to hold onto love as a way to understand reality; Gourmet Homicide: or the fine art of Murder, in which upper class friends kill as a hobby and as an absurd way of bonding; and A Lover’s Dismantling: Fragments of a Scenic Discourse, about couples who fall in love and then into regret, presenting two ways of seeing the world: imagination and memory. Once again, I experienced the universality, originality and magic of Mexican theater. It didn’t surprise me that for the second year in a row, the public readings were jam-packed with a diverse and curious audience, some excitedly discovering Mexican theater for the first time.
Following the US-Mexico program last month, and despite the tangible enthusiasm among both its participants and its audience, troubling discussions surfaced regarding the next steps for the translations. Did the plays present themes that would interest a New York audience? Who and where was the audience for these plays? Should the program’s name (US-Mexico Exchange Program) include “Mexico” or would that turn people off?
Keeping in mind that most of the people talking about these issues care deeply for the survival and propagation of these works, I consider these questions important and worthy of discussion. Regarding whether a “New York audience” would find the plays thematically relevant to their own lives, I wondered how many of us had personally encountered a woman pondering the sale of her cherry orchard. Yet those of us who admire Chekhov understand that THE CHERRY ORCHARD explores cultural and ideological tectonic shifts that many have experienced. Even if its plot doesn’t speak to our specific experience, its rich subtext about changing power dynamics and loss resonates with us. Besides entertaining an audience, couldn’t the theater bring new and important minds and imaginations to the service of a world in great need of new thinking and innovative solutions? Was the issue thematic relevance, or was there a cultural misconception at work about the ability of Mexican writers to create universal stories? To explore that question, it is important to try to understand how many people in the U.S. perceive Mexican writers, or better yet, how they perceive Mexicans and Mexico. There is no other way of tackling the question.
It’s not hyperbole to say that the United States is living one of the most racially charged moments in recent memory, and that much of its racism is aimed at Mexicans. Despite a powerhouse economy with a GDP of about $770 billion, Mexico’s endemic poverty has sent millions to the U.S. to look for income and security. Prominent in our zeitgeist is the plight of undocumented immigrants who often face trying living and work conditions. Many Mexicans we encounter in New York form part of this subculture of undocumented workers, and our news media is saturated with images of Mexicans crossing the borders, often running from vigilantes such as the Minutemen. Our news is also flooded with Mexico’s massive drug trade and ensuing violence. In the U.S., commentators realized they could draw ratings by inciting hatred, and did so with relish; and U.S. politicians also fanned the flames of discord, convincing Americans that undocumented Mexicans were taxing the health and educational systems, and taking jobs away from our labor force.
Mexicans have also been complicit in shaping our perceptions of their country. Its most popular entertainment export—soap operas—gives us melodramatic depictions of its wealthy and poor, caricatures that don’t reflect the country’s rich cultural identity. In addition, its world-class tourism industry has succeeded in exploiting our own clichés of Mexican culture by offering us sombreros, margaritas and mariachis. Where is Mexico in all of this?
Besides recent remarkable exceptions in Mexico’s disjointed film industry—which faces its own challenges—there are few ambassadors of Mexican culture capable of drowning out the negative images of Mexicans that permeate the United States. Of course, art connoisseurs know the names of visual artists such as Gabriel Orozco, Arturo Rivera and Ximena Cuevas, and music lovers know Federico Mendez, Victor Rasgado, and Alondra de la Parra. But there is a misconception that the elusive “theater audience” won’t fill theater seats because they don’t know Mexico’s theater, and this may explain why many decision makers from some of the leading theaters in New York and around the country have not yet taken part in the Lark’s exchange program… (though the presence of at least twenty decision makers this year shows that those perceptions may be shifting.)
It’s evident that the theater has the power to unite cultures. International exchanges have the potential to tear down walls and build bridges. I’ll never forget when one playwright looked around the room at the Lark last year and said, “This trip has completely changed my perception of Americans.” Since he is a well-regarded theater artist in Mexico, I can only imagine how that shift in him will influence the stories he tells. At its core, and this may be scary for many, an international exchange holds up a mirror to two cultures and shows us that we are all the same, that we cherish and mourn the same things.
Even though I didn’t drown that summer day in Mexico, a part of my soul stayed there, and I yearn for the day when Mexican plays are published and produced here.