In 2010, 20-year-old Marisol Valles Garcia volunteered for a job no one else wanted, police chief of the tiny Mexican border town Práxedis Gilberto Guerrero. The job was open because the previous police chief had been beheaded by drug lords. Officials mistakenly thought putting women in police leadership would deter the cartels from carrying out horrific acts of violence on police.
Valles was one of a number of women thrust into high-level law enforcement roles. At the time, Valles was a young mother with a new baby at home. She was motivated by the desire to create a safe space for her family. Her pacifist approach to battling the cartels included hiring unarmed women officers and using police to aid children and families.
This story caught the attention of playwright Matthew Paul Olmos, who had been searching for a story about the Mexican drug wars. The resulting play so go the ghosts of mexico, part one was selected by Sam Shepard to play at La MaMa in New York.
Olmos’ play is the first in a trilogy about Valles and her story. It will open Undermain Theatre’s 33rd season next week. Undermain Theatre artistic director Katherine Owens chose the play not knowing it was meant to be a trilogy.
She was interested in the conflict along the Mexican border and the many layers that accompany the drug trade. She was so taken by Olmos’ writing that she requested he bring the trilogy to Dallas for a three-year project.
“He has such a distinctly American voice," Owens says. "He has this beautiful, rhythmic style; the play feels almost like a Greek tragedy in its progression. He’s truly a rising voice in the theater.”
Owens says in getting to know Olmos they’ve discussed the scope of the trilogy, which will explore a different aspect of the Mexican/American drug wars and the drug trade itself.
The first play uses both literal and supernatural imagery to depict the courage of Valles’ character, which Olmos admits is a poetic interpretation of the actual woman. It also explores the very real violence that goes along with this kind of story.
The woman and her husband will be played by real-life married couple Stephanie Cleghorn Jasso and Ivan Jasso. Both actors have worked with Undermain before, and it was important to Owens to find the perfect actors for the play because she hopes to keep the cast intact for the next two installments in the trilogy.
Owens says Undermain has never produced a trilogy over this length of time. The story will unfold over the next two years with Mrs. Jasso as the connecting thread.
“It shows a tremendous amount of faith on Matthew’s part,” says Owens. Olmos had never been to Dallas, but says he has a lot of friends in the Rio Grande Valley. Dallas wasn't what he expected.
“It reminds me of Brooklyn in a lot of ways," he says. "It’s this city with lots of arts and a great place to develop new work."
Olmos is an American, born and raised in Los Angeles. He is the son of a police officer and a labor delivery nurse. His father is originally from Mexico and had a lot of fears about his son’s writing taking him back to Mexico.
“He didn’t really ever talk about Mexico very much," Olmos says. "My grandmother has moved back there, but my dad never wanted me to go. He was very concerned about being in a dangerous place.”
Olmos once took the play to Mexico, and describes the experience as nerve-racking. He was more concerned for how the play would be received than his safety. “I was very afraid someone would think the play was insensitive.”
Luckily they did not. One actress in Mexico opened up to him about meeting a member of the cartel. “She described him as having such a vacant look, and that he must have to be so numb, so dead, to do this kind of work," he says.
Olmos was the inaugural recipient of the Ellen Stewart Award at La Mama, where so go the ghosts of mexico, part one was first produced in 2013. Owens says one of her goals is to help get the play, which shows women exhibiting strength and courage in the face of unimaginable violence, published.
As for the second and third parts, Olmos says they will each focus on a different aspect of the drug trade. The second play will feature the drug lords in Mexico, all of whom will be played by women.
So go the ghosts of mexico, part one runs at Undermain Theatre, 3200 Main St., Sept. 14 through Oct. 8. Tickets are $15 to $40 at undermain.org.
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