The Pursuit of Happiness

Anyone doubting that Latino theater has proven itself a worthy subgenre need look no further than last month's Pulitzers. Nilo Cruz, Cuban-American author of Anna in the Tropics, the play about Tampa cigar-makers set in the Spanish-Cuban community of Ybor City, received this year's Pulitzer Prize for Drama -- the highest honor bestowed on a playwright in the U.S.

Locally, Latino theater is also flourishing. Cubano Felix Pire's The Origins of Happiness in Latin, a one-man show that won Arizona Theatre Company's National Latino Playwriting Award two years ago, is receiving a full production as part of ATC's RepFest this month at the Herberger. James E. Garcia, a former New York Times writer enrolled in the master's program in playwriting at Arizona State University, won first place in last month's Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival -- the nation's most prestigious playwriting contest for university students. His play The Crossing, about the death of 14 immigrants in the Arizona desert two years ago, beat out more than 600 other entries in its category.

Garcia recently founded the Phoenix-based Colores Actors/Writers Workshop, a new company that will debut its first full season later this year. Garcia's company joins Teatro Bravo, the local troupe founded by celebrated playwright Guillermo Reyes (and which this month debuts its Spanish-language production of Santiago Moncada's Entre Mujeres), in producing Latino theater. Meantime, Garcia's play Borderlines will be produced this summer as part of the Herberger Lunchtime Theater Series, and his American Latino Redux is on the roster for ASU's upcoming main-stage season.

The soaring profile of Latino theater, according to its principal players, has been a long time coming. "The Latino Playwriting Competition has been going on for 10 years," says ATC artistic director David Ira Goldstein. "We started it sort of selfishly, as a way to look at Latino plays, which we're interested in because we produce theater in the Southwest."

It's commendable that any troupe would present programs that reflect its diverse community. But why now?

"Latino writers have been working all along," according to ATC playwright-in-residence Elaine Romero, who oversees the competition. "Nothing new there. What is new is the marked increase in the Latinos' ability to get education and mentorship, both of which support our playwrights and lead them further along in the process."

Pire, who cites Census Bureau reports about the increasing number of Latinos in the U.S., thinks the popularity of Latino plays is about the bottom line. "The Latino audience is growing, and wants art geared toward their needs," he says. "A company like ATC is more likely to produce our work because performers like John Leguizamo can be nominated for a Tony." In other words, the more popular Latino writers and performers become, the more likely their works will cross over, drawing both white and brown audiences.

"That's a nice thought," Goldstein says, "but we don't expect that to happen quickly. The truth is that more Anglos will see Felix's play than Latino people. And it's important to note that most of the Spanish-speaking population here is Mexican American, but Felix is Cubano, so his play isn't necessarily about local ethnic culture any more than any other play we might produce."

The fact that only a small percentage of the Latino community attends live theater doesn't bother Romero, who's hopeful that the advent of more and better work will change that. "We're getting scripts from all over the country from Latino writers that aren't necessarily about Latino subjects -- which means the chances of their plays getting produced is greater."

Is there any point in producing ethnic theater if its message is that all people are essentially the same? The Pulitzer is given to a "distinguished play by an American author, preferably original in its source and dealing with American life," so the fundamental message could be that Cruz's win is about his ability to obscure our cultural differences. Pire doesn't think it matters; he believes that humanity is a more important message than diversity, that our similarities will draw us together more than any one lesson about cultural differences.

"I wouldn't say my play is any color in particular, anyway," he says. "It's universal because it's about a family. No matter the culture, there are common experiences in family lives -- in how we treat each other and the epiphanies we have together."

At the end of his autobiographical Origins of Happiness in Latin, Pire speaks directly to the audience. "Now that you know my story," he says, "you are mi familia." The playwright says that this lasting message is more important than awards or cultural diversity. "People from all cultures get the same message from my story," he says. "And that sense of oneness is what good theater, no matter its skin color, is all about."

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela