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Casting an “Authentic” IN THE HEIGHTS

In July 2015, I spent four days experiencing Chicago’s robust Latin@ theatre scene as a participant in the Latina/o Theatre Commons’ Carnaval of New Latina/o Work hosted by the Theatre School at DePaul University. Aside from Latin@ theatre companies such as Aguijón Theater, Teatro Luna, Teatro Vista, and Visión Latino; Chicago is home to a rich talent pool of directors, producers, designers, dramaturgs, and playwrights that were on display at Carnaval. But above all, my biggest takeaway from the weekend was the amount of talented Latin@ actors that performed in the 12 play readings at Carnaval. I simply couldn’t believe that Chicago had so many high-quality Latin@ actors. It blew me away. Many people commented on this. On Café Onda, Tiffany Ana López noted, “Nearly all of the presented work was distinguished by strong dramatic writing that, without exception, was well directed and superbly acted. The consistent strength, sophistication, and nuance of the performances made Chicago appear a veritable mecca for Latina/o actors.” By any measure, we all can agree that Chicago has a talented and deep acting pool. Yet, the recent casting announcements of Evita and In the Heights in Chicago have been met with resistance due to the lack of Latin@ talent on and off stage. So what’s going on in the Windy City? Let’s look at the two instances.

First, in March 2016 the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, Illinois (just north of Chicago) announced a cast for the musical Evita that included only one Latin@ actor. This outraged the Latin@ and allied theatre community, not only locally but nationally, as well. Chicago actor Bear Bellinger spoke out against the casting announcement, “Using only one actor of Latin descent is irresponsible to that truth and a lost opportunity to feature a group of people who are regularly ignored on our stages.” Marriott Theatre soon responded. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, executive producer Terry James claimed, “If we had our choice, the entire cast would be Latino. It’s not a conscious choice. We can only cast the actors that audition for us.” Director and choreographer Alex Sanchez reiterated this point,

We obviously were looking for Latin American actors. There weren’t very many, like a handful, that we had seen. (…) It think if there was a gripe about it, what I have to say is then to come out and audition. Put yourself out there. Take the risk and audition for these shows. We can only hire the people that come.

Yes, it is true that you can only hire the people who come. But, what kind of outreach was done to the Latin@ acting community to ensure that information was widely distributed and accessible? Did Marriot Theatre reach out to the Alliance of Latino Theatre Artists in Chicago?

On the Chicago Inclusion Project, director-playwright Tlaloc Rivas even saw this moment as a tipping point.

This Hemisphere of the Americas—that includes North, South, and Central territories—is not the same one that allowed Evita to emerge in the 80’s. The world is much more fluid, dynamic, multiethnic – and to ignore that in 21st century is akin to claiming men should only perform the works of Shakespeare.

Has Evita, along with West Side Story, reached its Mikado moment? Has those musical’s origins—with its inauthentic portrayal of ethnic or foreign life, written by white men and originally played by a predominantly white casts—to be done today? Or should it not be done if it can’t be cast authentically?

Musicals that take place within a Hispanic/Latino culture but that have historically excluded any creative or artistic input from Hispanic/Latino artists and performers haven’t necessarily had to face such a measurement in any significant way. Until today. Because today, there are no excuses, and to claim that all efforts were made for diversity in casting falls rings false. I’m surprised that the producers didn’t cite the recent casting call of Hamilton in Chicago as the reason they couldn’t find any performers of color.

After all, Evita was originally done with few Latin@s and featured Anglo actors Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin as Eva Perón and Che Guevera, respectively. But as Rivas notes, in 2016 there are no excuses. This is not the 1970s in which Evita premiered. Casting an inclusive Evita shouldn’t be an option, but should be a requirement of producing the show.

Carnaval 3

The Latina/o Theatre Commons Carnaval of New Latina/o Work at The Theatre School at DePaul University

Fast forward to July 18, 2016. Porchlight Music Theatre proudly announced the cast for Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’ 2008 Tony Award winning musical In the Heights which featured a white actor playing Miranda’s theatrical doppelganger Usnavi, the musical’s main character. Additionally, as many social media users have pointed out, the creative team is predominately non-Latin@. While we cannot determine if someone is or isn’t Latin@ based on name and appearance alone, casting a white actor as Usnavi is egregious enough. Nevertheless, there are still obvious missteps on Porchlight’s part. Artistic director Michael Weber noted:

After an exhaustive audition process, during which we saw hundreds of the Chicago-area’s diverse music theater talent—both established and new—and even reached out to our city’s vast hip-hop dance community, we are excited to introduce the cast…We have made every effort to present a company that reflects the true spirit of this story of community…

Every effort? While Evita is a British musical written by white men telling an Argentine story, In the Heights is a Latin@ musical in every regard and, as such, has been well-received by the Latin@ community. This is to say that to miscast Evita is one thing, but to whitewash In the Heights takes the issues of race, ethnicity, and casting to a new level. By all means and purposes, casting white actors in roles written for Latin@s in professional theatre is unacceptable (See: Should Latina/o Roles Be Cast with Non-Latina/o Actors?). Moreover, as arts advocate Howard Sherman notes, “Without ever using the word Latino (let alone Latino/a, Latinao or Latinx), this statement comes off as Weber patting his own theatre on the back for working so very hard to meet the basic requirements of the musical he chose.”

As some have pointed out (on Facebook), this casting decision gentrifies a show that is about a community fighting against gentrification. Evidently, Porchlight fails to comprehend the lived realities of Latin@s all across the nation who face many of the issues seen in Miranda and Hudes’ musical. This especially rings true when a white man is cast as Usnavi. These roles were written by Latin@s for Latin@ actors. The Latin@ community wants their stories told, but in an ethical way that speaks with the community in question. To gentrify In the Heights is to completely miss the point of the musical.

Furthermore, the casting announcement by Hedy Weiss of Sun-Times refers to the cast as “unusually ‘authentic.’” Aside from the use of the word “unusually” here, I am left questioning authenticity. How do we measure authenticity? While I am certainly not the judge of this, I would argue that, given the In the Heights casting, Porchlight Music Theatre is surely not the best judge of authenticity and Latinidad. What is more, much of the creative team is not Latin@, including the director and designers. Weighing in on the discussion of authenticity, Howard Sherman also wonders about the use of the word “authentic”: “Aren’t all casts authentic, in that the actors are who they say they are and will be playing the roles they’re announced to play?”

Meanwhile, in Atlanta, Georgia, Aurora Theatre and Theatrical Outfit are mounting a co-production of In the Heights with that features Latin@s in the principal roles (and much of the ensemble), with Diego Klock-Perez as Usnavi, Courtney Flores as costume designer, María Cristina Fusté as lighting designer, etc. That in the Atlanta metropolitan area these two companies can produce the show as Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes intended and a theatre company in Chicago cannot is mystifying.

While there are certainly many factors at play, perhaps this is a testament to Anthony Rodriguez’s leadership at Aurora. Nevertheless, a theatre company need not have a Latin@ artistic director to produce a Latin@ play. But the company does need to do the community outreach to ethically produce shows such as In the Heights, Anna in the Tropics, and Zoot Suit. If you can’t field a majority Latin@ cast and hire a predominately Latin@ creative team, then perhaps do a different show. While non-Latin@ theatre companies should be encouraged to produce Latin@ work, this goes beyond simply mounting a show. If theatres truly want to engage in conversations of equity, diversity, and inclusion, then they first need to look at how their company is run from top-to-bottom. For starters, what is the racial and gendered make-up of your staff? What are your audience demographics? What stories are being told on your stage? In the end, being an ally isn’t about patting yourself on the back. It’s about recognizing your privilege and how you can use it to enact change. It’s about listening and putting your own self-interests aside. Be committed, hire a more diverse staff, do the outreach to actors of color, and engage with the local community. Then mount In the Heights when you can ethically do so, in a way that truly connects with the community by speaking with the community and not for it.


***For more on this conversion, please see:

***Update, 8:06 pm, July 20, 2016*** The original version of this blog said that few Latin@ actors were cast in principal roles for In the Heights. As more information has become available, this has been redacted.

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The Latina/o Theatre Commons Carnaval of New Latina/o Work at The Theatre School at DePaul University

4 Takeaways from Creative Writing Camp

Right out of undergrad I had a gig teaching middle school, however after teaching at the college level for the last seven years it feels like a lifetime ago. Before my experience with Writers in the Schools’ (WITS) Creative Writing Camp (CWC) the thought of teaching middle schoolers made me a bit nervous. And to tell the truth, I’m not even sure why. I really loved the year I taught middle school. I only left because I wanted to pursue my Ph.D. full-time.

Looking back, it was easily one of the most positive teaching experiences I’ve ever had and here are my four takeaways:

  1. 10 year olds can do as much as 13 year olds, if not more

When I first looked at the class roster and saw the age range I thought it would be difficult to teach 10 and 13 year olds at the same time. It wasn’t. In fact, while teaching I barely thought of age differences in the classroom. I looked at them all equally as writers and taught in the normal way I always teach. I spoke to them as if they were adults. Now, that doesn’t mean I didn’t get (really) goofy at times, dancing, singing, etc., but as my college students will attest, that’s how I teach. It’s just who I am.

  1. They were obsessed with the rules and with labels

On the third day, I went to begin my lesson based on Lupe Méndez’s “A Poem About My Name” when one particularly inquisitive young writer asked me:

Her: Are you an author?
Me: We are all authors! All of us in this room!
Her: No, but are you a published author?
Me: Yes, I’ve published a lot of things and so have some of you in this room. And we are going to publish an anthology at the end of camp!
Her: I know, but are you an author?
Me: Yes.

All of this is to say that I spent two weeks trying to inspire these kids to recognize that they can be writers and whatever else they want to be. The possibilities are endless.

As far as the rules, blame it on testing or the age, but one of the biggest struggles of camp was to empower our young writers to not worry so much about the rules. Many of them were overly concerned with structure and style, but we continually told them that this was an opportunity to hone their individual writing style and not worry about forcing rhyme schemes or a certain number of lines or syllables. My co-teacher and I worked to privilege the individual and help each of them reach a positive space with their creativity and writing.

  1. Having a co-teacher was transformative

One of the best parts about CWC is having a co-teacher in the room. And did I have a good one! I was lucky enough to be paired with Sarah Jerasa and, within a few days, our students were asking us if we had been friends for years. Nope. We met not even two weeks prior at Rice University during CWC orientation. That Sarah and I clicked on so many levels from the first minute is really a testament to WITS’ match.com-esque “formula” for pairing co-teachers.

I’m sure the fact that Sarah and I gelled so well aided in this, but not having to stretch myself thin across 21 students was a game-changer in every way. We were able to team teach nearly all of our lessons, jumping back-and-forth between the both of us every step of the process. We could give each writer personalized attention during “office hours” and writing workshops. For the anthology and end-of-camp celebration poems, many writers benefited from having both Sarah and I offer feedback. Not to mention, I learned tons from Sarah—new lessons, new methods, new jokes (there were a lot of laughs!). Simply put, Sarah inspired me to become a better educator.

  1. I wrote every day, but not what I expected to write

In May, I hit a writing plateau while finishing my book manuscript. I hoped that being around so much creative energy would help me to push through. For the most part it did. I wrote everyday (both at camp and when I got home), but not what I expected to write. Instead of a finished book manuscript, I now have a series of poems about my name, growing up in New Orleans, gumbo, my family, and other tidbits from my life so far. During our 15-20 minute free-writes to start the day throughout the second week, I journaled—something I hadn’t done in about 8 years. All of this is to say that prioritizing writing and making time to write everyday (however you define that) is an important step in my process as a writer. While each writer should find their own process, writing everyday works for me. It makes it a habit. On days when I don’t write, everything feels off-balanced. Moreover, I find that writing everyday helps me to push through writer’s block. When I prioritize my writing, I never have trouble putting words on the page. Admittedly, this involves learning what works best for you, creating an optimal writing environment, and being in control of things you can actually control.

Demanding Action and Attention to Latina/o Theatre in Dallas: Deferred Action by David Lozano and Lee Trull

“Why hasn’t Congress passed an immigration reform bill that would protect the DREAMers and their families?” This is the central premise of Deferred Action, a new play co-written by David Lozano (Artistic Director of Cara Mía Theatre Company) and Lee Trull (Director of New Play Development at the Dallas Theater Center). Deferred Action played at the Dallas Theater Center’s Wyly Theater from April 20-May 14 under the direction of David Lozano. Deferred Action is the second piece in a trilogy on immigration that Cara Mía began with The Dreamers: A Bloodline (2013), which tells the story of a mother fleeing El Salvador for the United States with her baby—a key part of Deferred Action’s plot.

Democrats. Republicans. Politicians. Activists. No one is left unscathed.

The collaboration between Dallas Theater Center (DTC) and Cara Mía began in 2009 when newly-minted DTC Artistic Director Kevin Moriarty attended Cara Mía’s production of Crystal City 1969, a company-devised play that dramatizes the Chicana/o civil rights movement in South Texas. Moriarty approached Lozano about both companies working on a new play that would continue Cara Mía’s work of staging Latina/o political history. This is the first collaboration between Dallas’s leading regional theatre and one of its leading Latina/o theatres, a unique collaboration that has involved Lozano and Trull co-writing the piece and a production that features actors from both theatre companies. Indeed, one of the most powerful parts of Deferred Action is seeing several Cara Mía company members make their DTC and major regional theatre debuts.

Continue Reading at Café Onda/HowlRound

Houston, We Have a Problem! Excluding Latina/o Stories in Tejas

In 2013, Smithsonian Magazine heralded Houston as the “Next Great American City,” citing its ethnic and cultural transformation over the last few decades as well as its reputation as a city where people can achieve the so-called “American Dream.” The Kinder Institute for Urban Research and the Hobby Center for the Study of Texas at Rice University released a study that showed how Houston holds the nation’s most equitable distribution of the country’s major racial and ethnic groups: Asian, Latina/o, black, and white people. In Harris County, the demographics reveal that white people comprise only 33 percent of the population whereas Latina/os are 41 percent and African Americans 18.4 percent. In fact, of the population under 30-years-old, only 22 percent are white. The same year, an NPR feature celebrated this rich diversity. Still, in 2012 Pew Research Center ranks Houston as the most economically segregated city in the nation.

Houston is growing at an astronomical pace and there is no evidence that this is slowing down. Luckily, the arts are along for this ride. In 2015 and 2016 alone, the city has seen an unprecedented boom in the arts. The Alley Theatre just completed a $46.5 million makeover. The $25 million MATCH (Midtown Arts and Theater Center Houston) opened with four theatres, an art gallery, rehearsal space, and office space. Main Street Theatre unveiled a $2 million overhaul of their space. AD Players Theater broke ground on a $49 million facility in the Galleria area that will house three theatres, a scenic shop, classrooms, and offices. Queensbury Theatre (formerly the Country Playhouse) opened its new $6.5 million theatre. And the Museum of Fine Arts Houston broke ground on its $450 million expansion (including a theatre).

Despite what the demographics and influx of cultural arts activity reveals, Latina/o representation on stage in Houston is few and far between. In the 2015–2016 theatre season, out of all the full productions at the city’s leading professional theatres such as the Alley, Stages Repertory Theatre, and Main Street Theatre, only two were by a Latina/o author: The Danube by Maríe Irene Fornés at Catastrophic Theatre and The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity by Kristoffer Diaz at Stages. To repeat, in a city with over 2.1 million people (over 5 million in the metro area) at least 40 percent of which are Latina/o, there were only two Latina/o plays produced during the entire professional theatre season. To me, these numbers are startling and reveal that Houston is wildly behind other places with similar demographic diversity across the country such as New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago where Latina/o stories are frequently seen on a variety of stages: big, small, Latina/o, LORT, university, high school—you name it.

Continue reading at Café Onda/HowlRound

#Syllabus4Ham: The HAMILTON Syllabus

When Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton debuted at The Public Theater in early 2015 it sparked a resurgence of theatre into the national zeitgeist, something unseen since Rent premiered in 1996. Seemingly everyone is talking about Hamilton. In fact, at the Final Four in Houston this past April I overheard two men discussing the musical during halftime of Villanova’s buzzer-beating win over North Carolina.

Hamilton is everywhere.

Including the classroom. One night while teaching my elementary Spanish course at the University of Houston, on a whim, I cut short my lesson about the preterite vs the imperfect and decided to introduce my students to Hamilton. The result? They loved it. While they seemed apprehensive about watching musical theatre clips on YouTube, they left the classroom with a newfound opinion about what a musical could be.

Seeing my students’ interest in Hamilton, I did a google search for “Hamilton syllabus.” While there is a syllabus, or a reading list, for nearly every current pop culture phenomenon, nothing exists on Hamilton. Until now.

The Hamilton Syllabus (#Syllabus4Ham) is organized according to the following resources: Criticism, Perspectives, Ham4Ham, and Interviews (with Alex Lacamoire, Javier Muñoz, Renée Elise Goldsberry, and Lin-Manuel Miranda). I have limited my syllabus to resources that speak exclusively to the musical and it is my hope that someone else will create another syllabus that includes critical race theory, feminist theory, queer theory, performance theory, etc. to frame a critical discussion about Hamilton.

Whether you find yourself looking to include Hamilton in your high school or university classroom, want to write the next great musical, or just want to read more about the show, the resources below provide a starting point for conversations about Hamilton.

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Criticism

Racializing the American Revolution Review of the Broadway Musical Hamilton – Donatella Galella (Advocate)

Why Hamilton is Not the Revolution You Think it is – James McMaster (Café Onda/HowlRound)

Race-Conscious Casting and the Erasure of the Black Past in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton – Lyra Monteiro (The Publican Historian)

Hamilton: the Musical: Black Actors Dress Up like Slave Traders…and It’s Not Halloween – Ishmael Reed (counter punch)

Hamilton– Stacy Wolf (The Feminist Spectator)

Hamilton missed a chance to highlight Haitian Revolution – Chinua Thelwell (Miami Herald)

Hamilton: Five Ways Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hip-Hopped History Musical Breaks New Ground – Jonathan Mandell (HowlRound)

Father Worship: Hamilton’s New World scripture – Peter Manseau (The Baffler)

Perspectives

Hamilton, Theatre, and Democracy in America – Patricia Herrera (Café Onda/HowlRound)

A Hamilton Skeptic on Why the Show Isn’t As Revolutionary As It Seems – Rebecca Onion (Slate)

Watching A Brown ‘Hamilton’ With A White Audience – Gene Demby (NPR)

‘Hamilton’: Meet the Man Behind Broadway’s Hip-Hop Masterpiece – Brian Hiatt (Rolling Stone)

The Making of the Hamilton Cast Album – CBS News

Questlove on ‘Hamilton’ and Hip-Hop: It Takes One – Ahmir Questlove Thompson (Rolling Stone)

Exploring ‘Hamilton’ and Hip-Hop Steeped in Heritage – Anthony Tommasini and Jon Caramanica (New York Times)

How ‘Hamilton’ Is Revolutionizing the Broadway Musical – Alisa Solomon (The Nation)

Non-stop Between Subway Stops: Underground Reflections on Hamilton – Oscar A. L. Cabrera (Café Onda/HowlRound)

Mi tierra, my testimony: a #HamilTestimonio – Rebecca Martínez (Café Onda/HowlRound)

Ham4Ham

Pedagogy

Making His Story Their Story: Teaching Hamilton at a Minority-serving Institution – Erika Gisela Abad (Sounding Out!)

In the (Class)Room Where it Happens; Incorporating Hamilton into Theatre Curriculum – Heidi L. Nees (Theatre Historiography)

Teaching Hamilton: An American Musical as Contemporary American Drama – Sunny Stalter-Pace (Pedagogy & American Literary Studies)

Teaching Hamilton – Greg Specter (Pedagogy & American Literary Studies)

Teaching Revision through Hamilton: An American Musical – Caitlin L. Kelly (Pedagogy & American Literary Studies)

Early American Library History and Digital Humanities Using Hamilton – Laura Miller (Pedagogy & American Literary Studies)

Deconstructing Hamilton Lesson Plan – Heidi L. Nees

Hamilton Scavenger Hunt Lesson Plan – Heidi L. Nees

Ham4Ham

Ham4Ham: Taking Hamilton to the Streets – Trevor Boffone (Café Onda/HowlRound)

Hamilton’s Ham4Ham Preshow: The Complete Compendium (So Far) – Laura Reineke (Vulture)

The Show Is Nonstop – Forrest Wickman (Slate)

Broadway hit ‘Hamilton’ has a Web win on its hands – Rae Votta (Daily Dot)

Hamilton Collage

Alex Lacamoire

Que Onda? with Alex Lacamoire, music director of Hamilton – Trevor Boffone (Café Onda/HowlRound)

The man behind the “Hamilton” sound: Hidden Beatles references, the “hip-hop horse” sample and why if “it’s all computerized, there’s no heart to it” – Suzy Evans (Salon)

Nerding Out With Hamilton Musical Director, Alex Lacamoire – Nate Jones (Vulture)

Javier Muñoz

Interview with Javier Muñoz – Marisela Treviño Orta (Café Onda/HowlRound)

Javier Muñoz on What It’s Like to Play Alexander Hamilton When Lin-Manuel Miranda Isn’t – Jessica Goldstein (Vulture)

Renée Elise Goldsberry

An Interview with Renée Elise Goldsberry – Victoria Myers (The Interval)

Lin-Manuel Miranda

Genius: A Conversation With ‘Hamilton’ Maestro Lin-Manuel Miranda – Rembert Brownie (Grantland)

How Lin-Manuel Miranda Shapes History – Edward Delman (The Atlantic)

Artist Profile: ire’ne lara silva

irene lara silva pic 1I first met Tejana writer ire’ne lara silva in 2013 at the El Mundo Zurdo conference of the Society for the Study of Gloria Anzaldúa in San Antonio. She was selling copies of her award-winning short story collection flesh to bone. I bought a copy and never looked back. In the three years since, ire’ne has become a trusted friend and has continued to wow me (and everyone else) with her words.

ire’ne is the author of two chapbooks: ani’mal and INDíGENA. Her first poetry collection, furia (Mouthfeel, 2010), received an Honorable Mention for the 2011 International Latino Book Award in Poetry. Flesh to bone (Aunt Lute, 2013) received the 2013 Premio Aztlán, placed 2nd for the 2014 NACCS Tejas Foco Fiction Book Award, and was a finalist for ForeWard Review’s Book of the Year Award in Multicultural Fiction. Check out her website to read about all of her accomplishments!

Earlier this year, ire’ne published her second full-length collection of poetry, Blood Sugar Canto (Saddle Road, 2016), which “is a powerful hymn to life and to her own body by a ‘curandera-poet’ struggling to transmute the fear and despair of diabetes into healing. She sings of the syringes, the paraphernalia of this new world she must live in, its losses and griefs, its pain, and her memories of those in her family who have died of this disease.”

Recently, I sat down with ire’ne to talk about Blood Sugar Canto, Tejas, and her other cultural work.


Why Blood Sugar Canto? Why Now?

I’ve always followed Toni Morrison’s mandate. To write what I needed to read and could not find. I looked everywhere for poetry that could speak to my experiences integrating diabetes into my life. All I remember finding were a few scattered poems from Sherman Alexie. And so, I sat myself down to write. I’ve always turned to writing for what I’ve needed to discover, what I’ve needed to survive, what I’ve needed to learn.

I was drowning in fear from all sides—from Western medicine, from family experience, from my own experience as my body underwent changes. At first, Blood Sugar Canto (BSC) was simply going to document my experiences in as many ways as possible. But as time went on, what struck me was that there was no treating the body without treating the heart, no healing the body without healing the spirit, no healing without calling up strength and hope and beauty and self-worth. And so that was what the book became, a wide-ranging map of all the places I went and the roads I found to finding peace and empowerment and love for my body, my stubborn body set on surviving and growing stronger.

BSC - ireneWith Blood Sugar Canto, you enter the world of memoir/autobiography. How do you negotiate the boundaries between autobiography, fiction, and creative license?

Easily, I don’t. Poetry, for me, is always about the truth. Truth as true as I can tell it. The past as best as I can remember it. What I feel and what I felt as raw as I can possibly tell it. I write to discover truths I don’t even know I know.

I don’t take on personas or other people’s points of view in my poetry. I don’t imagine other people’s experiences or thoughts.

Sometimes I don’t think my poetry is very poetic. Because what I have to say is always more important than how I say it. I will rip out a beautiful line because an ugly awkward one tells the truth more honestly.

In poetry, and especially with this book, I’m not telling any stories I haven’t lived—discussing illness and healing from every vantage point I could think of—as a woman, a writer, a daughter, a sister, as a patient, a healer, a worker, a poor person, as Indigena, Mexican-American, Texan, and as a member of many communities.

The only way to exorcise the demons I needed to do away with (fear, shame, lack of self-worth) was to sit with these poems that way—no negotiating, no hiding—I had to tell myself the truth.

How has your relationship with diabetes changed since you began this work, since “april 23, 2008”?

I just passed the 8-year mark since April, 23, 2008, the day I was officially diagnosed as diabetic and put on insulin. I started work on BSC in early 2011. There was no way for me to write about it earlier because I just wasn’t ready. The first year was mostly shock, fear, and adjusting to a ton of physical changes and life changes. I also left my 10-year job with the State and my 4-year job with a literary non-profit, changed apartments 3 times, and found two new jobs. 2008 was a wallop of a year. The next two years I worked on stabilizing my life and getting my first book of poetry published. By then, I had a wealth of reflections and reactions to life with diabetes—and not just my own health but also my family’s. And as I worked on the book, it seemed that I was able to perceive more about diabetes outside myself—how it was affecting my communities of color and poor and working class communities, how diet and colonization and oppression all combined to affect our personal and familial and communal access to information and healthcare. The more I wrote, the more BSC became about something bigger than myself. The healing/canto poems were all a surprise to me. I discovered beauty and connection and empathy and all the many ways healing brings us to the importance of love.

How has writing and publishing Blood Sugar Canto aided in the emotional healing process?

Writing was difficult, but very necessary. I conquered my fear. I discovered truths I needed to hear—that I still need to hear. Every time I read from BSC, I relearn something essential. Publishing it has been a gift—not just to see the book realized but to be able to share it. Part of my desire to get this book out into as many hands as possible is because I meant this book to begin discussions…on healing, on illness, on the individual and the community, on love and the end of fear, on the piercing fragility and tremendous strength of our bodies.

Readers and audience members have shared such touching and personal stories with me. They’ve asked me questions I don’t think they’ve ever felt able to share with anyone else. What a tremendous gift it is—I wrote because I felt alone. If I can ease any share of that aloneness away from others, then what I went through to write these poems is a price well paid. And that heals me. That makes me stronger. It makes me more able to live my life and strengthen my hope that illness is not all we are.

Does Tejas, specifically Austin, influence your writing?

Tejas is everything. Austin, I’m not sure. In some ways, Austin is too new to me to be directly involved in my writing. I’ve lived here 18 years, but my ancestors didn’t come from here and I have no childhood memories of this place. As a writer though, Austin’s been good to me—I’ve been a member of many writing communities, organized a ton of events here, and have had the space/freedom to explore the kinds of writing I’ve wanted to do.

As for Tejas—it’s in everything I write. In some ways, it’s all I write about. The borderlands I carry within me no matter where I am. The land I’m from—the land my ancestors are from. The roads that I grew upon. My parents were fieldworkers and migrant truck drivers. Every year, we drove and lived and worked in South Texas, in the Corpus Christi area, in the Panhandle and back again. I knew how to draw Texas and how to read a map of Texas before I ever read a book. I’ve lived all but 3 years of my life here. While I’ve been tempted to live in D.C., Chicago, and Albuquerque, I know nothing would ever feel like home the way Texas does. The history, the cultures, the landscapes of Texas inspire me and come up, again and again, in my work.

What else are you working on?irene lara silva 2

A second collection of short stories, tentatively titled, “Songs from the Burning Woman.” I am still discovering what they’re about. They seem to be working on issues like grief and sexuality, art and the body, history and healing the wounds of the conquest. They keep shapeshifting on me, so from one day to the next, I don’t know what new themes and connections are going to appear. But it’s exciting to work on new stories. Fiction is a fascinating way of re-organizing the world, of affirming or ignoring the world’s “rules.” I’m always curious about the idea of ‘liminality’ in art, in time, in relationships between people.

After that collection, I’ll be diving into the novel I’ve been wanting to write for the last ten years.

Other projects are going to take the back burner for a little while. I’m feeling an overwhelming desire right now to concentrate on the writing.

What else should we know about you?

This is something I talk about a lot recently because I think it needs to be said as often as possible. I don’t believe there is any one way to be a writer. There is no one “writer’s life.”

I’m not an academic. I don’t have an MFA. I work two jobs and am a caregiver. I don’t have lots of time or resources or energy for that matter. I can’t travel at will or go to residencies. I don’t have a dedicated writing space. I never spent months in Europe or time travelling in Mexico. I’m not beautiful or glamorous or young. I can’t afford to take time off from work, nor can I afford a job that doesn’t provide healthcare. I live with a chronic illness.

But none of that keeps me from writing. None of those things make me any less of a writer. To be honest, juggling all of that with writing is not easy. Sometimes it’s painfully slow. I wish all the time that I could give more of my day, my concentration, my energy to my writing. I give what I can, and books get written. What I want to tell everyone is that it may be difficult, but it’s possible. Your life doesn’t have to look any specific way. You don’t have to look a certain way. What’s important is your desire to create and your drive to put words on the page and then to get them out to the world.

***For More on ire’ne lara silva, see:


ire’ne lara silva is the author of furia (poetry, Mouthfeel Press, 2010) which received an Honorable Mention for the 2011 International Latino Book Award and flesh to bone (short stories, Aunt Lute Books, 2013) which won the 2013 Premio Aztlan, placed 2nd for the 2014 NACCS Tejas Foco Award for Fiction, and was a finalist for Foreward Review’s Book of the Year Award in Multicultural Fiction. Her most recent collection of poetry, blood sugar canto, was published by Saddle Road Press in January 2016.

ire’ne is the recipient of the 2014 Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Award, the Fiction Finalist for AROHO’s 2013 Gift of Freedom Award, and the 2008 recipient of the Gloria Anzaldua Milagro Award, as well as a Macondo Workshop member and CantoMundo Inaugural Fellow. She and Moises S. L. Lara are currently co-coordinators for the Flor De Nopal Literary Festival.

Does Carnegie Vanguard’s HOLY DAY go too far for high school theatre?

Don’t come to Carnegie Vanguard High School’s UIL One-Act Play (OAP) production of Holy Day by Andrew Bovell expecting laughs. This isn’t Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Over the River and Through the Woods, or The 39 Steps. If you want to see something familiar, perhaps The Caucasian Chalk Circle for the umpteenth time, then I am sure there will be a production around the corner. There are three productions of The Caucasian Chalk Circle alone next week at Texas’s UIL One-Act Play Competition in Austin where Carnegie Vanguard will compete for the 6A State Championship with its highly original production of Holy Day.

If you are looking for professional-grade theatre that is brave, raw, and real, then Holy Day will deliver. Holy Day received its world premiere in 2001 at the State Theatre Company in South Australia. Since then, the play has received few productions, making this a powerfully fresh choice for a Texas high school theatre competition. In 2014, Carnegie Vanguard won the 5A UIL OAP state competition with When the Rain Stops Falling, another Andrew Bovell title.

Holy Day begins with two men and a mute boy entering a traveler’s inn. The minister’s wife appears—her husband has died, the church has burned to the ground, and her baby has been stolen, supposedly by Aboriginal peoples. The remaining 40 minute cutting (per UIL OAP rules) entangles greed and survival between the four leading players: the inn-keeper Nora, the drunken nomad Goundry, the minister’s wife Elizabeth, and the Aboriginal woman Linda. All four actors deliver performances unlike anything I’ve ever seen on a high school stage. Indeed, as the performances in Holy Day demonstrate, to call Carnegie Vanguard “high school theatre,” which often comes with a connotation of “amateur,” would be to undermine it.

Holy Day explores colonialism, brutality, deceit, murder, and racism on the 19th century Australian frontier, on the borderlands of white and black, of frontier life and indigenous life. While Carnegie Vanguard’s production design is beautiful, with professional-looking projections on a jagged-edged tableau, this is indeed a story about the ugly side of life on the frontier and the realities of colonialism.

Aside from the gorgeous projections, Holy Day features a soundscape of rain, thunder, and didgeridoos. The bare set—save a tree and a table—is filled with a shadowy vastness, a metaphor for the harsh expanse of the Australian outback and the secrets that lie in the shadows of Carnegie Vanguard’s powerful Holy Day. As the projections show, life on the frontier is in a constant state of motion that involves violent collisions amidst a world of heightened naturalism. The vast darkness allows the spectator to focus on Bovell’s words and the explosive performances that give them life. Each character is nuanced and flawed in some way. No one is left unscathed.

As an Australian Gothic play, Holy Day often shows the ugly side of humanity by rendering a frighteningly real look at the effects of colonialism in Australia. The play offers a glimpse into the atrocities of colonialism against the Aboriginal population in Australia where, much like in the United States, European settlers pushed indigenous peoples off their lands and, in many cases, murdered them. As Holy Day shows, children were taken by settlers to be raised as Christians, only to become the servants to white settlers and the victims of physical abuse. As in the United States, these histories are not taught across the curriculum in Australia, making Holy Day a bold choice for Carnegie Vanguard to start a dialogue through theater.

Yet, as anyone who has been following Carnegie Vanguard’s road to the UIL OAP State Finals has observed, the dialogue has instead centered on unfounded complaints from opposing schools that the production is “offensive.” People are asking “What is too far for high school theatre?” and “How edgy should high school theatre be?” In fact, many of the people weighing in against Holy Day have admittedly not seen this production nor read the play script. I’m looking at you, Todd Starnes, who penned an opinion piece, “School play depicts rape, filthy language and public urination,” for Fox News. Simply put, if you haven’t seen or read the play then you have no right to be offended.

Would classics such as Carousel not go “too far” if they were directed with a heavy hand to foreground the domestic violence inflicted on Julie Jordan? Could this not be potentially traumatizing to an audience member who has experienced domestic violence? Is it acceptable to sing racist lyrics in West Side Story while your high school’s students of color are experiencing overt and subtle racism on a daily basis. Examples such as these are innumerable.

Let me break Holy Day down from my perspective of having seen the production three times.

Some have complained about the language in the play. Yes, Holy Day includes a few profanities—“bitch,” “shit,” and “bastard”—but this language is used to accurately capture the historical moment that Holy Day portrays. Sure, these words might be offensive to some in 2016, but have you walked down the halls of a high school in the last 20 years? Have you seen a high school play outside of the bubble you live in? Have you seen a PG-13 movie recently? Have you read a John Green young adult novel recently?

One of Todd Starnes’ chief complaints is the depiction of sex and rape in Holy Day, which I will add, never happen on-stage. Yes, we hear the screams of both characters once they are off-stage, but we never see it (many of the complaints have made it sound like these rape scenes occur on-stage). Of course, rape and sexual violence are difficult topics, but if we can’t be having these conversations in theatre then where can we have them? Is theatre not supposed to be a place to have difficult conversations and get people talking? We do a disservice to our students to ignore the topic of rape. As nearly every statistic reveals, 1-in-4 women in college are the victim of rape or sexual assault. The numbers are staggering by any standard. Sexual assault is very real and, like it or not, a lived reality of high school aged-students, both male and female.

Others are upset that a character in Holy Day urinates and that another female character washes her private parts. The fact that I saw this production 3 times and neither of these things ever stood out to me is significant. The reason is simple; Holy Day is not a play about either of these things. They are quick glimpses that add nuances to each character. Even so, since when is urinating away from the audience upstage offensive? People have been saying that the actor “drops his pants.” Yes, he drops his pants and is wearing long johns. Do I need to recount every high school play I have seen with a boy in long johns or a girl in a slip?

So, does Holy Day go too far? Is it too edgy? My answer is a resounding “no.”

The play met the community standards. The principal approved it. Houston ISD approved it and issued a statement supporting the production. The Carnegie Vanguard parents have unwaveringly supported the show. The contest managers and adjudicators of six rounds advanced the play to the next round, often in the first place slot. Not to mention that there have been copious amounts of warnings before all rounds of UIL OAP competition. There were printed warnings in the program and on the doors. And, at nearly every round, the contest manager issued a warning before the play, reminding the audience that the play was approved by the principal. In all instances, warnings reiterated that the plays competing met their community standards and may not be acceptable for all audiences.

So what is the problem? The fact that complaints have nearly entirely come from parents associated with opposing schools whose work was not to Carnegie Vanguard’s level is revealing. Rather than publically speak against the bold work of these students, why not make a vow to improve your own work? Help your students hone their craft during the summer. Find opportunities for self-growth. Make the best use of your professional development funds. Don’t have professional development funds? Fundraise and make it happen. Pick an exciting and new play that showcases your cast’s talents. Be bold with your design. Be creative. Don’t use projections for the sake of simply using projections. Make sure your play’s cutting is dramaturgically sound.

I urge anyone who can to see Carnegie Vanguard’s Holy Day—Friday, May 20 in Houston and Wednesday, May 25 in Austin. It isn’t often you can see high school professional theatre like this.


Carnegie Vanguard will be performing Holy Day at the world-renowned Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland this August. Please go here to donate to this life-changing opportunity for these students!

Holy Day 2

 

 

“The Stories of Us” by Jelisa Jay Robinson

Stories of Us 2

Somewhere around the middle of Jelisa Jay Robinson’s The Stories of Us at Teatro Vivo in Austin, it hit me. I couldn’t recall seeing a play that so boldly tackled Blackness, Latinidad, and Afro-Latinidad. Sure, I’ve seen plays with Afro-Latin@ characters and lots of Latin@ plays, but nothing quite like The Stories of Us. Black. Brown. Neither. Both. The Stories of Us offers a rich and nuanced view of life in the contemporary United States. These are stories that need to be told all across the nation, from Los Angeles to New York and everywhere in between. Produce this play!

The Stories of Us began as The Untold Stories while Robinson was still an undergrad Theatre and Latin American Studies major at the University of Texas at Austin. The play was later selected for Teatro Vivo’s Austin New Latino Play Festival in 2015 and received a full production this April-May under the direction of Florinda Bryant. The play is a series of vignettes that explores the intersections between Blackness and Latinidad and how this complex relationship continues to influence these (sometimes) overlapping communities today.

Besides “The Wobble” and knockout performances from Stacye Markey and Krysta Gonzales (who I finally got to meet!), what struck me the most about the play was Robinson’s writing. This girl has got it! She is doing important work to update the narrative on multicultural identity in 2016. As The Stories of Us demonstrates, we need to be having conversations about Afro-Latinidad. We need to understand the nuances of being Black in America, being “black enough,” having that “good hair,” being Latin@, speaking Spanish, having light skin, being racialized, passing, and using certain language (the play includes a poignant vignette about using the “n” word). Yet, why in 2016 are these conversations so few and far between in theatre, especially  in Latin@ theatre? Why isn’t there more Afro-Latinidad on stage?

Aside from the play itself, perhaps my favorite part of seeing The Stories of Us was witnessing a young artist find success by telling her stories, her truths. Robinson is living her dream and it’s beautiful to witness! I first met Robinson earlier this year and, through a combination of happenings, she has quickly become an important part of my writing community in Houston. My tribe—Jasminne Mendez, Icess Fernandez Rojas, Lupe Méndez, Josh Inocéncio, and, now thankfully, Jelisa Jay Robinson.

Stories of Us

Que Onda? with Alex Lacamoire, music director of HAMILTON

Here, Trevor Boffone interviews Hamilton’s music director, orchestrator, and co-arranger Alex Lacamoire about his journey as an artist, his Cuban heritage, and collaborating with Lin-Manuel Miranda on In the Heights and Hamilton.

Alex Lacamoire Grammy

Alex Lacamoire with the 2016 Grammy for Best Musical Theatre Album. Photo courtesy of Laura Heywood Media.

Trevor Boffone: Growing up, who had the greatest influence on your decision to become a musician?
Alex Lacamoire:
Probably my cousin Linda, who bought me my first piano when I was four. One of my earliest memories is of walking out my front door to find Linda on the street, standing behind a moving truck that was unloading an upright piano and bringing it into my house. Linda was young, still in college, and not wealthy by any stretch, yet she still shelled out her own money to buy that instrument as a gift. Years later, just after Heights had become a hit, I asked what compelled her to do that for me. She said: “Primo…When you were two years old, you would sit in front of your home-stereo speaker and just stare into it, hypnotized by the sounds coming out of it. You were born to be a musician. Your parents couldn’t afford a piano, and I couldn’t let the opportunity for you to learn be denied.” Naturally, I cried when she told me that story.

Continue reading at Café Onda/HowlRound.

Ham4Ham: Taking Hamilton to the Streets

Ham4Ham

Lin-Manuel Miranda reading Alexander Hamilton. The cast of Fun Home rapping. A Spring Awakening reunion. The “Confrontation” from Les Mis. Lin-Manuel Miranda and Lea Salonga singing “A Whole New World.” Okieriete Onaodowan singing “Defying Gravity” as Mickey Mouse. Alex Lacamoire playing the melodica. You didn’t know you wanted it, but when you got it, you loved it.

I’ve been to many lotteries (won a few, lost a lot). It’s usually uneventful. A theatre employee collects names on paper slips, pulls them out of a bucket, calls out the winners, the winners do some sort of awkward celebration (guilty as charged), and that’s about it, folks.

Enter Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Continue reading at Café Onda/HowlRound.