Matthew Wiener is yelling.
“Stop moving around so much!” he bellows at James Garcia and Marcelino Quiñonez, who are rehearsing a scene from El Che, Quiñonez’s new play about Marxist revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Wiener steps between the actors, improvising a scene in which Guevara, played by Quiñonez, is reunited with Castro after his infamous exile.
The actors smile and nod at Wiener. “Okay,” Wiener finally says, resuming his spot behind a plastic folding table in this rehearsal room at Tempe’s Childsplay campus. “Let’s take it from the top.”
“I think he’s the best director in Arizona,” Quiñonez says of Wiener during a lunch break. The pair worked together on Speak Spanish to Me, an Actors Theatre play I saw and hated in 2008. “He’s quick, witty, generous, and able to figure out the rhythm and sound of these scenes.”
The duo are preparing for El Che’s world premiere on August 26. Quiñonez wrote the play from source material including John Lee Anderson’s Guevara biography, A Revolutionary Life, as well as Richard Harris’s The Last Revolutionary, and Guevara’s own Bolivian journal. “The rest was creativity,” says Quiñonez, who has a thing for historical figures who come to bad ends. He’s previously collaborated on a play about Van Gogh, and has written a 10-minute monologue about Bobby Kennedy. El Che is his first full-length play.
Born in Durango, Mexico, Quiñonez moved from San Jose to Phoenix in 1997. In 2014, he ran for an Arizona House of Representatives seat in District 27; today, he teaches acting at Arizona School for the Arts. He studied theater at ASU under such luminaries as Marshall Mason, David Barker, and Danny Irvine, taught high school for awhile, then returned to ASU for an MFA two years ago.
“I don’t feel like I’ve lived long enough to write about my own experience, or that my story as an immigrant and artist was different enough,” he says of writing about history’s heroes. “I do like to steal as many traits from them as possible.”
Playwright Guillermo Reyes, a mentor of Quiñonez’s, was instrumental in developing the Guevara play, as were actors Richard Trujillo and James Garcia, who plays Fidel Castro in the project. Written as a one-person monologue in 2007, El Che has been previously performed in Spanish. When local Latino troupe Teatro Bravo wanted to publish El Che in an anthology of Spanish-language plays, they asked Quiñonez to rewrite it as a full-length play.
“I had to turn those long monologues into scenes and add new ones,” says Quiñonez. “I did my best to create a balanced account of Guevara’s life, the good and the really ugly. We bring up the murders after the revolution, his infidelity to his first wife. It’s all in there. He’s a complex figure.”
Quiñonez was inspired by Guevara’s underdog status, enamored of how he has become a symbol of rebellion, of fighting against the establishment. “His life was interesting to me, but his constant pursuit of justice was what was really attractive. He was never at peace. Nothing was good enough for him. He loved literature, he was an intellectual, but his drive for revolution and his own ambition blinded him.”
The stories in El Che are based in fact; creating dialogue from thin air was an artist’s challenge. “Their voices were in my head,” Quiñonez says, “so based on what Che had done, I had an idea of what to say. I’ve been betrayed by friends before, so I could write his betrayal. I’m a teacher, so I knew how Castro might mentor someone. I did have to be careful not to throw in any conspiracy theories of my own, though.”
Thanks to some deep-pocket support from the community, Quiñonez is paying every participant in the project — a rare circumstance in the theater world. He has no plans to found a new theater company, but wants instead to foster an ongoing series of Latino-themed plays — at least one per year.
“It’s our responsibility to get Latino stories told on stage,” he says. “I think about my children, and Matthew’s daughters, and how I want them to know these stories, because they saw them in a play or musical. We don’t have that now, so it’s up to us to make it happen.”
El Che performs August 26 to 28 at Phoenix Center for the Arts, 1202 North Third Street. Call 602-254-3100 for tickets.
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