Diverse Decree

Seven Guitars, one Tortilla, two approaches to ethnic theater

Last week, two very different plays about ethnic minority cultures opened at local Equity houses. August Wilson's brilliant Seven Guitars is a study of 1940s black America haunted by the author's recent statements against multicultural theater, while Our Lady of the Tortilla is Latino playwright Luis Santiero's satire of old customs and Catholic icons. One play is high art, the other a silly sitcom that nonetheless makes a big point.

It's hard not to like Our Lady, and harder still to take it seriously. Santiero's play is based on a tabloid story reported in the early 1980s about a woman who discovered a likeness of the Virgin Mary baked into a tortilla. In the play, the comic turmoil that the woman's family endures after word of her "visitation" goes public is set against issues of cultural shame and propelled by a lot of politically incorrect Hispanic stereotypes.

When Nelson Cruz (Richard Trujillo) brings his snooty, white-bread girlfriend (Andre Brennan) home to meet his relatives, he's aching to make them seem like an ordinary middle-class family. He hides a houseful of religious icons, tells his girlfriend that his philandering father is dead, and casts his lazy brother (Lionel Estrada Jr.) as a successful advertising man. Finally, after a lot of drearily wacky episodes and a dozen references to Phoenix locales, the nice Anglo girl convinces her fiance to be proud of his heritage. If not for this comedy's culturally conscious message, it would be just another frothy drawing-room comedy worth missing.

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The Phoenix Theatre production (the original locale has been needlessly changed from New Jersey to South Phoenix) is quick-paced and well-acted. But Santiero's script is so overrun with ethnic cliches that I cringed more often than I laughed out loud at the stereotypes onstage: the red-hot mamacita (Wilma Bonet) chasing after her two-timing husband; the ultrareligious, superstitious tia (Renee Victor) who builds shrines to dead saints and makes tamales for the gringos; the smooth-talking, morally corrupt hombre with the pregnant girlfriend (Toni Kallen). And I was horrified by the audience's loud laughter--and not just because the cheesy jokes didn't deserve the attention. The predictable script didn't bother me as much as the ethnic cliches.

Later, I cornered the playwright about that. "Only non-Latino critics ever object to the stereotypes in this play," Santiero said resolutely. "I've written real people here. Nobody wants to hear this, but there's a very thin line between our stereotypes and the way my people really are. Latino audiences recognize this. They see the play and they say to me, 'That's how it is at my house. I have an aunt like that.'"

Santiero, who's collected 10 Emmy awards for his work on Sesame Street, contends that any opportunity to expose Latino culture to white audiences is one well taken. "To say that I can't satirize my own culture is to say that I should limit myself to only making one kind of theater for Latino people," he says. "When a mainstream theater produces my work, they're making a contribution because they're bridging that gap between two different cultures."

Santiero's words gained poignancy the next night when I watched Arizona Theatre Company's production of Seven Guitars. Earlier this year, its playwright August Wilson had made waves in the theater world by saying that multicultural theater was a failure and that black artists should work separately from whites. In a public discussion last June, the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner opined that American theater is merely another example of white cultural dominance, and that the emotional and artistic survival of black Americans is dependent upon creating exclusively black theater.

Wilson is clearly suffering from some kind of artistic myopia: In order to see black theater as a tool of empowerment, one must first overlook that comparatively few people in this country attend theater on a regular basis. And Wilson's position seems particularly disingenuous when one considers that his plays premiere in prestigious mainstream theaters, and not in the small, struggling black theaters where most African-American playwrights are produced. Isn't the role of theater to create dialogue, rather than limit it? To recommend separatism is to suggest a shutdown of communication.

Wilson's words seem particularly puzzling considering his commitment to creating a 10-play cycle chronicling the experience of African Americans in each decade of this century. Given his plays' wide success in white-dominated mainstream theaters, a goal of the series must be to expose mainstream audiences to the history and experience of African Americans. If those plays were produced only by struggling black theater companies, their audience would be severely limited.

Seven Guitars is the seventh play in Wilson's cycle. Set in 1948, the play is an oddly imbalanced pair of longish acts that tell the story of Floyd "Schoolboy" Barton (Marcus Naylor), a blues musician who's just returned from prison and whose last record was a hit. He's obsessed with getting to Chicago, where he's been promised a recording contract by Savoy Records. The seven guitars of the title are the play's seven characters, Barton's friends and neighbors, who convene in a tenement yard to reveal their dreams and to make beautiful music out of nothing. Each has a solo turn with Wilson's remarkable prose; there are occasional discordant duets and restless harmonies and, in the play's most memorable scene, the four male characters make music with sticks, a piece of string and a beat-up guitar. Wilson's story plays like a ravishing, intricate melody; his musical and emotional touchstone is the blues.

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