Despite a swelling Latino population in North Texas, theater catering to this segment of the community, not to mention mirroring it, is difficult to find. Theaters produce non-Anglo writers' works infrequently. Bilingual or strictly Spanish performances are even more rare.
The Fort Worth Theatre is making an effort to alleviate the situation with its fourth annual Hispanic Playwrights Festival this week by producing four Latino writers' plays. Yet, during the past nine years, the Fort Worth Theatre has produced about a dozen plays by Latino authors, plus adaptations of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, as well as Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, which featured primarily Latino casts. Yet they represent a small portion of the 70-something works produced by the theater during that same time. The Fort Worth Theatre went from staging one to two Latino pieces last year, but the increase was short-lived. The financially struggling theater had to scale back to one Latino production this year, managing director Steve Garrett says.
Luis Valdez and his politicized California farmworkers' ensemble, El Teatro Campesino (The Farmworkers Theater), began the push to bring Latino voices to American theaters' stages 35 years ago as part of an effort to popularize and raise funds for the grape boycott and farmworker strike led by Cesar Chavez. Plays by Hispanic Americans still face obstacles to being staged today. One of the biggest hurdles--the presumed preferences of theater's predominantly white, established audience--motivates producers to rely on well-known dramatic pieces as well as discourage producers from branching out to new, unproven works by minority writers. So far, none of the plays presented during Fort Worth's Hispanic Playwrights Festival has gone on to be produced anywhere else, Garrett says. (Only one festival production, local playwright and physician Robert Nieto's Casa Rio, a comedy about a woman's struggle to go into business for herself selling burritos, has been included in a Fort Worth Theatre regular-season lineup.)
Regardless, the fact remains that Latinos are the fastest-growing ethnic group in the United States. "As the Latino population continues to grow, my hope is that people will be interested in learning more about the Latino community--their concerns, how Latinos see other people, how they are a very diverse community," says Nieto, this year's festival organizer.
The key to sparking broad interest in Latino playwrights' works is creating pieces that stretch beyond Latinos' unique experiences within their communities, addressing universal themes, like overcoming obstacles and dealing with family conflicts, that cut across ethnic lines. Dallas playwright Victor San Miguel's Bird Droppings, a comedy about a theatrical family's efforts to cope with the loss of a member, and this year's festival's only full-length production, has that type of broad, personal appeal. One way to develop the talent and experience needed to generate such works is to create a nurturing artistic and career environment for Latino playwrights, Nieto says. As he put it, the festival "is an opportunity for Latino writers to mount their plays--the playwright benefits because they get to see how their work works onstage and how the audience reacts to their words onstage."