By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"Teatro Dallas has never been treated with the respect it deserves," Meek says. "What they do is difficult, challenging, and it's not going to get broad public support. There is not a lot of support in Dallas' Latino community for what she does. Part of it has to do with a historical rift between Mexicans and Chicanos. Some of it has to do with a lack of appreciation. Cora is not a narrow thinker, she likes to experiment with styles, and it's tough for some people to get behind her."
She declines to name individuals and businesses in the Mexican-American community that she pursued for funds, because they remain potential sources for the theater. But she notes that many either had no idea what Teatro was (and weren't terribly interested in finding out) or gave small, temporary amounts that were never equal to what they funneled into, say, Anita N. Martinez Ballet Folklorico, a traditional, some might say conservative dance troupe.
Clara Hinojosa, director of the Mexican Cultural Institute, who is a Mexican national, an admirer, and a friend of Cardona's, says, "It's a touchy thing to say, but Mexican-Americans can be a difficult group to please. They still struggle with their identities. They're either too much or too little of one thing; they get criticism from Mexicans and Americans. But I think Cora has catered to them, certainly more than any Mexican director of an arts group that I know. She has done Mexican-American, Chicano theater. But she has also kept her integrity. If a theater piece is bad, no matter who it's about, she will say it's bad, and she won't do it. She won't bend and do lighter work."
Some sentiment lingers in the theater scene that because Cardona believes that she often is the smartest person in any room she enters (and she often is), her attitude is one of impatience and even condescension. One performer, a native Hispanic Dallasite who studied theater in college and several years ago acted in a show that Cardona directed, said anonymously of her work with Cardona: "She overwhelmed me. I felt stupid and small." When asked if Cardona had made her feel stupid and small, or if she was just intimidated, the reply was: "I don't know. She's a very demanding director, and a lot of us were unfamiliar with the techniques she uses. When you add that to the whole minority thing, constantly questioning your value in the larger society, it doesn't make you feel very good about yourself."
Cora Cardona recalls a moment when, soon after Teatro Dallas began producing, a former stage critic for The Dallas Morning News asked her why she used so few Latino actors. Because, Cardona insisted, there were so few Latino actors available. It's true that, over the years, Teatro shows have often featured men and women who are considerably younger than the characters they play, prompting some ticket buyers to wonder if the troupe should be renamed Cora's College. She does not shrink from her role in rigorously shaping young performers who have limited theatrical experience: "I had to do a lot of my teaching in the month of rehearsals [before the show]. Sometimes I'd go on for six hours, although I don't now. I will always take chances with Latino actors, because it is my responsibility. I haven't bothered as much with Anglo performers. My attitude has been, 'You better be good.' I don't mean that to sound like discrimination, but it was a social reality I was dealing with."
Marisela Barrera, currently artistic director of Dallas' only other Latino theater troupe, Cara Mia, was directed by Cardona once years ago and acknowledges that it was a "very different experience" from what she learned getting a theater degree at Southern Methodist University. She calls Cardona's style "expressionistic" and, somewhat more academically, "pan-Latino"--it encompasses a multi-headed cultural expression of Mexican and Chilean and Spanish and Portuguese and Cuban whose links across the planet are myth, symbol, and history. Barrera chalks up some of the difference between them as merely institutional--the National Fine Arts Institute of Mexico and SMU, like any colleges with renowned performing arts departments, are cultures within themselves whose techniques and methods are rigorously upheld. But when pressed to be more specific about how the Teatro rehearsals differed from her past training, she had to really think about the question.
"She's Mexican," Barrera declares finally, simply. "I'm Mexican-American."
A misconception that has plagued Teatro Dallas since its inception is that the shows they present are in Spanish. There have been the occasional Spanish-language events, mostly from imported productions of their annual International Theater Festival, but Cardona works in the tongue of her adopted homeland. Vicki Meek remembers that one woman, a first-time attendant, declared after a production that she was surprised she understood most of it. Meek asked her, "Why? The whole thing was in English."
This perception is ironic, since the company within the Dallas stage community that most resembles Teatro Dallas isn't another Latino theatrical entity, but the Undermain Theatre. Besides some obvious parallels concerning history and programming--both began in the mid-'80s, have women as artistic directors, have worked with the same tight circle of actors, and have commissioned or premiered works by national and internationally known playwrights--these troupes share an anarchic sensibility that includes a tendency to laugh at death, challenge official versions of spirituality, remind us about the consequences of economic divisions, and flaunt fair doses of sex and violence (like the Undermain, Teatro Dallas has lost corporate funding because of the content of one of its shows, when a white actress simulated fellatio on a black actor). The leftist elements in both their productions are often subsumed beneath a lush visual aesthetic, which in Teatro's case comes courtesy of Cardona's husband, Jeff Hurst, a lighting designer who creates mystical glows, flickering walls, and spilled pools of light over and across smoky stages.