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'Home is the community you build'

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival hosted a convening of its Latinx Play Project artists Sept. 27-29, bringing some of the nation’s top Latinx theatre artists to the Rogue Valley for a weekend of reflection, connection, and celebration.

As part of the LxPP weekend, the public was invited to a panel discussion at Carpenter Hall on Sunday with five prominent Latinx playwrights who all have deep connections with OSF: Octavio Solis, Luis Alfaro, Richard Montoya, Karen Zacarias, and Mildred Ruiz-Sapp.

“Latinx” is a gender neutral, nonbinary term meant to include all who identify with the Latin American culture. It’s used as an alternative to Latino or Latina.

Panel moderator was Tiffany Ann Lopez, director of the School of Film, Dance and Theatre at Arizona State University. She also has worked for several years with OSF as a production dramaturg.

Within the theme, “Working from Home,” she guided the five artists in a discussion about working and writing in America and Ashland. She asked them to discuss the role home plays in their work.

Zacarias, whose play, “Destiny of Desire,” was produced at OSF in 2018, said it was important for her to create family and trust wherever she went. She has roots in several different cultures, including those of Lebanon, Denmark, and Mexico.

“The idea of where people belong is complicated,” she said. She used to feel like an outsider, but now embraces it and uses it in her work. “I know how it feels to be different.”

Montoya, whose “American Night” was the first play produced (2010) in the OSF American Revolutions history cycle, said everybody, in a way, is searching for home.

“That was brought home to me yesterday when I saw ‘Cambodian Rock Band’ and ‘Mother Road’ back to back,” he said. “This idea of home is a powerful one.” In both plays, a trip “home” is a pivotal element in two very different stories.

Ruiz-Sapp is a playwright, actor and co-founder of UNIVERSES, a national theatre company which helped create “UniSon,” a musical inspired by August Wilson’s poetry, performed at OSF in 2017.

She is a New Yorker whose parents were from Puerto Rico.

“For my dad, home was always Puerto Rico,” she said. “He raised us with that yearning for ‘home.’ I wasn’t born there, but for me, home has always been the island.

“Eventually, I understood that we’re always maneuvering. We’re a nomadic ensemble, bouncing from home to home. Now I’ve maneuvered to Ashland.”

Solis is an author, director and playwright whose “Mother Road” is a 2019 OSF production. He has a different take on the concept of home.

“Home is my house,” he said.

“We’re itinerants. So I need a place where I can nest, where I can work. Home is also important as a place to entertain, rap with other artists about anything under the sun.”

One of the first things he and his wife did after moving to the Rogue Valley area was to build a studio where he could write, undisturbed.

“Ironically, I still go to the café to write,” he said, laughing.

Any theatre that has produced several of his plays also feels like home to him. “I feel like part of the company. I do my best to get to know the crews, people at the box office, the actors, because they’re my family for weeks,” Solis said.

“I think one reason we go out to cafes,” Montoya added, “is we get to brush up against humanity.”

Alfaro teaches at the University of Southern California. He recently completed his sixth and final season as playwright-in-residence at OSF.

“I was raised in a farmworker family, always on the move,” he said. “I incorporated that into my art. Over a 10-year stretch, I was in a different city in America for a year at a time. In every city, I’d feel my way around, get to know people. I too knew a lot of coffee shops.”

He came to think of the theaters where he worked as his homes, “but in a way, they were really my dormitories.”

As a youth, he lived in a soup kitchen for a year, with his parents’ permission. It changed the way he worked. It gave him the sense that home was wherever he was.

The panelists talked about making a home for not only themselves, but also for others.

“We’re often called on to be ambassadors of the theater to the Latino community,” Solis said, “to help open the doors for those people.

“But the theater has to meet me half way. OSF is good about encouraging attendance by school groups. And I have asked theaters to arrange for book readings to expose our work to the people.”

He said home means that theaters open their doors not only to him but to his community as well.

Zacarias talked about coming to America.

“When we moved from Mexico to the United States, I was 10 years old,” she said. “We traveled 3,000 miles to Boston. It was a time when the country liked immigrants.”

But she was different, and had an accent, and kids could be mean.

“I’d go home and write dialogue, what I could have said. I started creating characters.” It was the genesis of her writing career.

Her father worked in medicine and when AIDS came onto the scene, they moved to Atlanta where he worked at the Center for Disease Control. It was a difficult time for AIDS patients, who often were looked on with suspicion and fear.

“He wasn’t working on a cure,” she said. “He was working on changing the culture so a cure could be found.”

It changed how she approached her work, which has relevance to attitudes toward immigrants in America today.

“I’m not working on a cure,” she said, “but on changing the culture by how I’m telling my stories. Home is the community you build, and there are lots of ways to go about it.”

A member of the audience asked the panel to talk about white privilege, and how they approached writing for predominantly white audiences who might not get all the subtle cultural inferences.

Alfaro said he’s very aware of a shared humanity and sees opportunities in creating works of art for the larger community.

“I have to trust that my job is bigger than me,” he said.

Solis said he can’t just skew his work to a Mexican audience.

“I’ve got to respond and respect the audience that’s there,” he said. “You have to invite them to the table. It can be a teaching moment.”

Solis said he was sharing a two-pronged message in “Mother Road.” The Mexican-American descendant of the Joad family must confront the idea of what he earned by being a relative, and what he is willing to work for.

“I also had a message for older white men about when it’s time to pass the baton,” he said.

OSF’s LxPP Artist Lab, founded in 2017, has been the only development program at a major U.S. regional theater that has paired veteran and emerging Latinx storytellers, while focusing on both the work and the artist. It’s supported by a grant from the WarnerMedia Foundation.

Jim Flint is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.

Jim Flint photo Playwright Richard Montoya talks about the concept of home for artists whose lives are often itinerant, as moderator Tiffany Ann Lopez, left, and playwright Karen Zacarias listen.
Jim Flint photo OSF scenic designer Christopher Acebo introduces the panel at a Latinx Play Project event Sunday at Carpenter Hall. From left are moderator Tiffany Ann Lopez, playwrights Karen Zacarias, Richard Montoya, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, Octavio Solis, and Luis Alfaro.