Lacking in Latino theaters

Philly’s Latino population is under-represented on local stages.

By J. Cooper Robb
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 1 | Posted Mar. 2, 2010

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Greenhouse effect: Ginny (Johanna Carden, left) tends to her urban garden while supporting Elliot (Ephraim Lopez).

Photo by Mark Garvin

The Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio on 3 is one of the city’s smallest theater spaces, but the company’s production of Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue by West Philly’s Quiara Alegria Hudes’ is a major event.

Hudes is a Tony Award winner for the Broadway musical In the Heights, and Fugue was a 2007 Pulitzer Prize finalist for drama. However, what really makes this production significant is that it’s a Latino play being staged in Philly.

Though there’s been a few examples of locally produced Latino theater—Azuka Theater staged Naomi Iizuka’s Polaroid Stories , Theatre Exile produced Milcha Sanchez-Scott’s Roosters and InterAct Theater Company put on Kristoffer Diaz’s The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity —Philadelphia’s support of Latino playwrights pales when compared with New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

The relative absence of Latino theater is especially curious given the city’s Latino population. From 1990 to 2000, while the overall population of Philadelphia decreased by 4.3 percent, according to the 2000 U.S. census, the city’s Latino population grew by 45 percent. Though many U.S. cities boast a plethora of English-speaking, Spanish-speaking and bilingual companies, Philadelphia lacks a regularly producing professional Latino company.

Need further proof of this cultural deficit? The Walnut’s production of Fugue marks the first time Hudes’ work has been produced in her hometown.

An original and sophisticated show, Hudes’ play is constructed like a musical fugue with various narratives on a single theme.

Jumping easily between eras and locations, the story focuses on three generations of men in a Puerto Rican family.

The grandfather (Edward Furs) is a veteran of the Korean conflict, his son (Nick Anselmo) served in Vietnam and the youngest family member, Elliot (Ephraim Lopez), is a Marine stationed in Iraq. As the play progresses, each man recounts his own experiences of war. Though Hudes doesn’t spare us the horrors of the men’s experiences, the brutality they faced is tempered by the strong, loving presence of Ginny (the fabulous Johanna Carden), the play’s sole female character who tends to her gorgeous urban garden (magnificently realized in Andrew Thompson’s lush scenic design) with the same care she gives the wounded soldiers at the hospital where she works.

Under José M. Avilés’ careful, rhythmic direction, the narratives intertwine and unravel in a familial dance that is beautiful and sometimes haunting.

Fugue is difficult to define or categorize and Avilés says it's not uncommon for Latino theater to be misinterpreted.

“Latino art is often described as colorful and musical but our experiences and stories are so much more. To me, it is theater that is told through a Latino perspective or voice but is ultimately about the human condition,” he explains. “The story in Fugue is universal. It could be about any American family but this family happens to be Puerto Rican and so it is told from that place of identity.”

However, it isn’t just Fugue ’s universality that makes it such a fine example of Latino theater, says Avilés. He also credits the play’s diversity of perspectives.

“Each Latino nationality has its own history that has influenced that particular culture,” the director explains. “Being Latino is very much like Hudes’ play. We recognize and take pride in all of our similarities but we come from landscapes, circumstances and influences that are different, allowing for variations on a theme.” ■

Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue

Through March 14. $30. Walnut Street Theatre, Independence Studio on 3. 825 Walnut St. 215.574.3550.

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1. Eric said... on Mar 4, 2010 at 08:00PM

“The year is 2010 and this is the first time Hudes’ work has been produced in her hometown? It seems as though Latinos are slowly getting recognized by their work. Will things change for Philadelphia after the census. One can only hope we can stop categorizing people and start recognizing them for their work. Whether it's hospitality, dining, acting, arts, etc., Latinos are growing in every industry. I hope everyone can see the importance of this growing audience”

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