Man on the Verge

"There aren't many Mexican cowboys here tonight," says playwright Guillermo Reyes, with a hint of sardonic disappointment in his voice.

A glance around the room affirms his observation. One lone cowboy sits at the bar, complete with 10-gallon hat and dusty boots. The rest of the cramped, humid dance floor is packed with a variety of bodies, all pulsating to Latin techno music.

If your mind isn't open before you come to Paco Paco, the Valley's "premiere" gay Latin dance club, no problem. The inhabitants will pry it open for you.

Two young paradigms of Latino masculinity freak to the beat of a Jennifer Lopez dance mix. Gold chains cling to sweaty necks as they hike their boxers above their baggy jeans. Their bare, tattooed chests and pierced nipples writhe against each other.

It's a mixture of ages and styles, though mostly Latino, and almost entirely male. There are only four women in here, and three of them aren't women.

The watchword of the evening is ambiguity. It has come out of Reyes' mouth a dozen times tonight, and it comes out loud and proud in his plays.

Touted in this month's American Theatre Magazine as one of the "world's finest stage writers," Arizona State University's playwright-in-residence makes art out of poking fun at the concept that identity can be boxed up and pigeonholed. This 38-year-old writer, who has called the Valley home for the past four years, has written more than 20 scripts. Most of them deal with themes of sexuality, gender and Latino identity. His plays have been produced in Los Angeles and New York, and like any artist trafficking in contentious ideas, his work has been both praised and criticized.

Whether it deals with sexual, ethnic or cultural identity, Reyes' theater illuminates that which defies categorization, leaving most of his characters on the border.

If you are going to see a Guillermo Reyes play, prepare to have your stereotypes shattered -- and not just one at a time.

A Mexican cowboy in a gay bar -- it's the kind of juxtaposition Reyes can sink his teeth into.

Or this: A married Mexican-American U.S. Border Patrol officer who is in the closet and doesn't speak Spanish falls in love with an undocumented Mexican man. Such is the conceit of Reyes' play Deporting the Divas. That play also features an undocumented Guatemalan drag queen, a favorite to win Miss California, who looks too much like a white woman to get deported.

Then there's the white supremacist with a gay son in Strangers in Paradise, and the Marine about to be shipped off to the Persian Gulf who falls for a mysterious Latino in The West Hollywood Affair. Or how about the Latino in Men on the Verge of a His-panic Breakdown who bleaches his skin, changes his name, goes to Hollywood and can't get cast in a Latino role because he's too white?

All of Reyes' characters tend to be excessive caricatures, and all straddle fences and cross borders. All of them live between worlds. All are hiding something. And, for the most part, all of them are anchored in reality, but burst from Reyes' pen as outrageously comedic.

"Humor can offend, but it does so in a way that makes you laugh, and that disarms the audience," Reyes says. "After they get home, they [patrons] probably wonder, 'Wait a second, that was a serious situation.'"

Joseph Megel, artistic director of Playwright's Theatre of New Jersey, has worked with Reyes for more than eight years. He directed Men on the Verge in Los Angeles and New York, and has watched Reyes come into his own as a playwright. Recently, he directed a version of Reyes' Deporting the Divas for the NYC Queer @ Here theater festival.

"It [Divas] really does something that very few pieces like it do, which is address this issue of what it feels like when you are in a culture where belonging is everything, and you don't," Megel says. "Gay versus straight, Latino versus Anglo, immigrant versus citizen, illegal versus legal immigrant, Chicano versus Mexican. When you look at all the different categorizations, and you don't glom onto one as an identity, you find yourself nowhere."

Reyes says that in his case, looking for the person behind the writer is a waste of time. If you want to know who Guillermo Reyes is, read his plays.

Men on the Verge got him noticed, with its series of comedic monologues about several Hispanic experiences, woven together by Federico, "The Gay Little Immigrant That Could." He's a cheerful young Latino who shows up from an unspecified Latin American country on the day of the Los Angeles riots. Other characters include an aging boy toy, a gay Cuban exile who is president of the gay Arizona Republicans, and an ESL teacher [English as a Stressful Language] who insults his Latino students.

"There is joy in comedy, but also joy in bringing out the dark side of comedy," Reyes explains.

Although some of the monologues are bizarrely comedic, the characters retain hope. In the end, Federico finds happiness when he and his deaf partner meet an American dyke and her Brazilian girlfriend. The ones with papers marry the ones without, and the ones harboring bisexual tendencies get pregnant. They raise their child with two mommies and two daddies, and teach the baby English, Spanish, Portuguese and sign language. Federico delivers the summation:

"I survive whether you help me or not, and whether you like it or not, and whether I'm legal or not. I am an immigrant, I am the future of this great country of ours. They call me Federico the Gay Little Immigrant That Could. I am an American success. I'm here to stay . . . so . . . get used to it."

Deporting the Divas postulates that having a homosexual in the family is not nearly so troubling as having an immigrant. The play offers a less fanciful ending for the Border Patrol officer and his undocumented gay lover. Border man goes back to his family, and his boss at the Immigration and Naturalization Service cites the compelling reason:

"The family comes first -- you're a fucking Latin! You ought to know that."

The family in Mother Lolita consists of a single, Chilean-Italian mother, with homicidal tendencies, raising an effeminate son alone in Los Angeles. Mother and son are described as "the deadliest Chilean imports since the tainted grapes."

The Hispanick Zone also satirizes issues of Latino identity and sexual identity. Mrs. Crumley, the white, sophisticated upper-class character, opens the show by exclaiming, "I never realized Hispanics might have a sense of humor about their social condition."

"Campus Borders," one of Zone's monologues, is called a "partial self-portrait." It's delivered by a geeky young man who is being interrogated by a campus committee for alleged politically incorrect behavior. Even though he's half Spanish, the young man checked the box that said "Chicano." Instead of admitting that he's sexually ambiguous, he checked "gay." The university acceptance committee welcomed him as a member of two marginalized groups and put him in the gay Chicano dorm. Now he's gone and fallen for an Italian-American princess, and the PC police are on his case.

"I am both Spaniard and Indian, I am straight and gay, I am here and there," the character says. "I straddle fences and borders, correct and incorrect. . . . I came to campus to openly explore the universe without being accused of being a traitor to my people . . . so go ahead, shower me with rotting fajitas!"

Reyes' affinity for characters with inner conflict is understandable. He grew up at the intersection of many cultural planes. He's a Chilean-born U.S. citizen, though he admits that's a long introduction. Latino is fine, provided people know what that means.

"I went to lecture a class in history of theater and the professor introduced me as 'Guillermo Reyes, one of our Chicano playwrights.' I'm not a Chicano, and I had to explain that."

For his theater students, Reyes begins with what Latino means: a person living here whose family comes from a Latin American country.

Chile was in the midst of political upheaval when Reyes' mother, Maria Cáceres, came to the U.S. in 1970. She says many people assume she was a political refugee, but she came in search of opportunity.

"People in my country have a dream about coming here," Cáceres says. "The situation in my country wasn't very good, so I came."

Reyes followed a year later. He was 9 years old. His father was no longer with the family, so Cáceres raised him on her own, doing menial labor and working as a nanny. It wasn't exactly the American dream she imagined, but it did provide a new world for herself and her only son. Reyes spent most of his formative years in Los Angeles. He was immersed in English-only schooling, and went on to attend the racially diverse Fairfax High School. He got his BA in Italian literature from UCLA, and his master's in theater from UC-San Diego.

Reyes says the early years in tumultuous Chile played a role in how he developed as a writer.

"My sensibilities may seem strange. I write comedy, but I also come from a country that tortured people. My work is funny but sometimes morbid," he says.

Growing up Chilean-American gave Reyes a sense of culture clash that would become the focus of his writing.

"It seemed to me whenever I would gather around my mother's friends who were all Chileans, their view of life was so insular. The newcomers were the worst, always making snotty remarks about other people, Mexicans, Argentineans -- they ran the gamut, being prejudiced about just about everybody. You go to a mixed school that taught you to be sensitive to other cultures -- and then you go home."

The division between school and home was one of the many borders Reyes crossed while growing up.

"It's a divided mentality," he says. "Being Chilean, bilingual, gay. It's a bipolar personality."

The homosexual experience infuses much of his writing, but it's something Reyes doesn't like to talk about on a personal level.

"I felt like a late bloomer," says Reyes, who came out in his early 20s. "It was very difficult. I was coming out of that Latin-American self-denial. It's something you don't talk about with your family or a lot of people. You don't expose yourself that way -- you keep quiet."

Reyes' characters certainly don't keep quiet about their sexuality. His mother admits she doesn't always understand it, but she thinks his work tackles ideas people are hesitant to discuss.

Still, no matter how voluble his characters are, some of the "Latin-American self-denial" still exists in Reyes. He can go on for hours about the vagaries of the theater, but ask him about his own relationships and he gets flustered.

"I don't like to talk too much about being gay," Reyes says. "I don't need to overexpress myself. It doesn't leave room for the inevitable ambiguities of life."

He does confide that he had a relationship with a man from Tijuana recently, but the border got in the way. Literally.

"When I went down there and crossed back, I was given a hard time by the Border Patrol. Teenagers would go down there and get drunk and they let them go without checking their papers. They pounced on me. They're not the kind of people who say, 'Excuse me, sir, can I see your papers?' They're assholes. I think they're trained to be assholes."

Reyes attributes his introversion to his footholds in contradictory worlds. He says he would rather play the part of the mysterious playwright than that of a spotlight grabber like Ricky Martin. Anonymity is precious.

"I learned to tune people out. It's a part of being a little crazy, and it's a defense mechanism to go into yourself. I got a little turned off by people as a kid."

And he remains a bit turned off -- and tuned out. In a group setting, Reyes might sit quietly for an hour, leading you to believe he's a good listener. Then he utters a non sequitur, some comment about a future theater production that has nothing to do with the conversation at hand. He's been in his own world and hasn't heard a word.

Friends describe him as friendly, but reserved and inscrutable.

One friend recounts watching the Phoenix performance of Divas with Reyes, who slumped in his seat and took notes. The audience was enthralled, laughing, and Reyes was complaining about details. An actor emphasized the wrong word. The lighting was not right in one scene.

Reyes is a perfectionist, obsessed with his work. But the wild characters that exist in his imagination and come to life in his plays are not manifest in his personality.

"People who know me go to my plays and say it's hard to believe I wrote that," Reyes says.

"I expend a lot of energy on my writing. I don't have much left over to be the life of the party."

Reyes, whose literary influences include Oscar Wilde, William Shakespeare and Manuel Puig, says his own writing process is erratic.

"I don't do the eight-hour-a-day thing," he says. "I write in spurts and sometimes I write on napkins.

"By now I've learned not to think about the writing process. Sometimes I will write an entire act in one night and then leave it alone for six months."

Not all of his texts invoke gay issues, but almost all focus on some aspect of Latino experiences.

"I've written non-gay plays, and one non-Latino play I can think of. But non-gay non-Latino plays? Probably not. You need to write what's close to you, obviously. Also, I'm not sure theater needs another play about a middle-class white family when so many other writers out there are doing that."

Reyes may spend a lot of time inside his own head, but that doesn't mean he's out of touch with reality. There is an audience whose real lives very much echo the issues Reyes evokes; an audience whose members, as the INS agent in Divas explains, "don't belong anywhere but the border."

Jesús Barrón, whom Reyes calls "the hostess with the mostest," has gathered an intimate group of friends before the Phoenix performance of Deporting the Divas. At first he claims he slaved in the kitchen making the salsa and guacamole. He later recants, admitting he lay by the pool all day and bought the food at the market.

"With a name like Jesús, I cannot tell a lie," he says.

The quesadillas are real, though -- Guillermo makes them himself while the rest sit around talking. The Virgin of Guadalupe pop-up book, written in English so Anglo friends can understand, and Latina magazine grace the coffee table. Barrón pulls out his "Who's on Top" map. It depicts the Western Hemisphere with South America placed above North America. He speaks of the time he and his Panamanian friend, Ricardo, were sitting at Denny's debating whether the waitress would know where Panama is.

"She didn't even know what Panama is," Barrón says.

Barrón and Ricardo enjoy Reyes' plays because they broach issues relevant to their lives as Latinos in the U.S., such as immigration and cultural ignorance. Barrón first met Reyes eight years ago when Men on the Verge played in Phoenix.

"I decided to invite him out for a drink after the show," Barrón says. "It was the first time I saw a play with themes like these -- Latin themes and gay themes. I was surprised."

Reyes says the night Barrón came and brought his friends was also the first night there was a large gay Latino presence in the audience. Audience demographic makes a difference at Reyes' shows. A straight audience may not get the gay jokes, an Anglo audience may not get the Latino jokes.

D. Scott Withers, director of Divas in Phoenix, says In Mixed Company, the theater where Divas played, had to consider how to interest gringos in a Latino piece.

"Immediately, almost 90 percent are going to think it doesn't pertain to them, which is not true," Withers says. "Divas is really so universal, because it's about accepting who you are."

It was a difficult show to cast.

"I thought Guillermo would be really helpful in bringing in the Latino actors, but he wasn't able to get them," Withers says.

This is a dilemma Reyes faced in casting previous shows as well.

"I've had some Latino actors who don't want to play Latino characters," Reyes says. "They say they don't want to be stereotyped or typecast."

He has also had Latino actors who don't want to play particular Latino characters. Like the Cuban actor who was reluctant to play Che Guevara because he said Che killed his ancestors. He eventually decided not to take the role of Che because his family would have come to the show.

Playing gay characters is even more daunting for some Latinos.

"I let it be known that we were doing auditions for Divas, and only two Latino actors showed up -- the two we cast," Reyes says. "All the others did not show up. When we did auditions for Bowl of Beings [a Latino play lacking gay themes], 14 Latinos showed up. So you have to wonder what's going on there.

"Some of them are local actors and having family in town don't want to be seen in that light. I've seen that before. It's one of those things I constantly have to deal with."

Steven Peña and Tony Castellanos were the two Latino actors cast for Divas. Peña is not gay, Castellanos is, but both say they were untroubled by the themes of the show. Castellanos says he was just glad to be able to do a Latino role.

"It's rare that I can play a character who is so much like me," Castellanos says. "This is only the third Latin role I've ever played.

"He got into my head when he wrote this character."

The theater chose to market the most comedic aspects of the show, playing up the Carmen Miranda character. Withers says Reyes was a bit dismayed by this.

"Guillermo sees his piece a little more seriously, I think. You've got to market it to get an audience in there, and if we had marketed this as a serious political drama -- I mean, there were dramatic moments, but it's a comedy. An issue-oriented comedy."

Withers says in the end he thinks the production won over Reyes and the audience as well.

"You have all these things that could completely alienate a general theater-going audience, yet the show was a huge hit. I think that's because of the way he writes. It's funny, and he writes in a universal, feeling, emotional-based way.

"We had some people walk out of Divas, and that's okay. At least we got them to sit through an act. I think it's important that they got a little exposure -- a little light coming in there."

Reviewers have criticized Reyes' work for being too comedic, his characters too cartoonish. Some say he brings up serious issues without making a point, and every dramatic moment has to end in a punch line.

"How do you drive home a message?" Reyes asks. "It seems enough that a relationship is being explored between a Border Patrolman and an undocumented worker [in Divas]. I'm not sure how I would deliver more of a message without sounding didactic."

Barrón says he likes the fact that Reyes' plays are funny. He thinks it makes them more accessible to a straight or non-Latino audience.

"I like that he does it with comedy because people can think about the issues and still be entertained," Barrón says. "I don't want to be hit over the head with it."

The undocumented Mexican character Castellanos played in Divas espoused Reyes' belief that laughter can create bonds between people. When the character, Sedicio, first meets his Border Patrolman/love interest, he breaks the ice with a joke about how the officer did him a favor by deporting his homophobic cousin.

"I'm actually a fiery advocate of immigrant rights myself, but a joke is an attempt to find a comfortable middle ground with someone like you who represents the enemy," Sedicio says.

Guillermo Reyes sits in his office, below a Frida Kahlo print and a smiling Ricky Martin poster. He is upset. About as upset as he gets, which entails a slightly perturbed expression.

He is starting a theater company in the fall, and the Tribune's Get Out magazine printed a blurb about it, calling it a Spanish company. Max McQueen's "Theatre Scene" states, "At long last, the Valley has a Spanish theater." It's back to the classroom; Spanish people are from Spain.

Reyes, in conjunction with colleagues Trino Sandoval and Daniel Enrique Pérez, is starting a Latino theater company called Teatro Bravo. When the nonprofit troupe launches its inaugural season, its mission will be to produce plays that depict the Latino/Chicano experience, and give Latino/Chicano artists an opportunity and a venue to develop their skills. Ironically, La Voz, a Spanish-language newspaper, also got it wrong, saying it will be a Spanish-language theater. Bravo will be bilingual, presenting some shows in Spanish, some in English.

Reyes thinks a bilingual theater will better reach what he sees as a divided Latino community; there is the English-speaking Latino community of people who were brought up here and don't necessarily speak Spanish, and a new-immigrant community that may not speak English.

"There's a real complexity to this community, and that's what I'm looking to address with Teatro Bravo," Reyes says. "The other Phoenix theaters in general haven't been able to really click in with this community because they don't understand the complexity and different angles of it."

Reyes is clear about what Latino theater is -- and what it isn't.

"I'm sorry, but Man of La Mancha is not a Latino play and neither is West Side Story, for that matter," he says. "They are not written by Latinos to begin with. And the composers and directors tend to not be Latinos. It's what I call the tourist version of Latino culture, written for a mainstream audience that doesn't know anything about Latino culture."

Teatro Bravo is likely to attract a culturally competent audience, or at least one that knows the difference between Europe and Latin America. But while Reyes may not run into as many cultural barriers, he may have trouble with his shows that attack taboo subjects within Latino cultures. He says himself that the gay themes of his plays have unnerved other Latino theater companies who worry that discussion of homosexuality won't fly with conservative audiences.

"I worked for a Latino theater company run by lesbians in L.A., and they never once did a play that was explicitly lesbian," Reyes says.

Megel says Reyes' work has been treated similarly.

"He's been ignored by Latino theater companies," Megel says. "I don't think people quite know what to do with him. This goes back to giving the Latino the minority slot, and if you are a Latino, you should be this. He's not this, so he's lost the minority slot and the other slots go to white writers.

"I think people are scared of the material, and the challenges it brings up. People are not comfortable looking at it or brave enough to deal with it.

"Guillermo becomes a problem because people do pigeonhole what they expect. And there is this one unnamed minority slot per season. And those theaters that do Latino plays are looking for more traditional expressions of Latino culture than he does."

According to a recent survey of the Theatre Communications Group, which represents nearly every nonprofit regional theater company in the nation, only 1.8 percent of all plays produced in 1999 were by writers with Hispanic surnames.

Reyes says minority pigeonholing is something he feels in many aspects of his professional life. He says he feels supported by faculty and staff at ASU -- most of the time.

"Sometimes I wonder if I'm just the Latino faculty member -- and if some just think, 'Oh, it's good that someone is doing something for the Hispanics' -- but don't think they need to come see my shows."

Reyes says Teatro Bravo won't eschew gay themes. However, the troupe's first-season lineup isn't exactly going to plunge into any, either. He doesn't want to placate the audience -- the first show is political and provocative -- but he also doesn't want to alienate anybody on opening night. In fact, at the fund raiser for Bravo, Reyes had the actors perform an excerpt from The Hispanick Zone that was bereft of gay themes.

Teatro Bravo won't be the first Latino theater company in the Valley -- others have come and gone -- but Reyes is striving for permanence. He says there is an audience for Latino theater, and a need for a company that dedicates itself to producing Latino shows.

"A lot of Latino plays are being ignored," Reyes says.

Reyes hopes that Teatro Bravo can change this, while also increasing awareness about what Latino theater has to offer. He hopes their shows will appeal to not only the Latino community.

"You'd think if the art is done well, it would reach beyond one particular group," Reyes says.

"If it crosses borders and people are able to enjoy it at whatever level, that's what I'm interested in doing."

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