Nicole Shalhoub and Corey Brill in South Coast Repertory's 2014 world premiere of FIVE MILE LAKE by Rachel Bonds

When I hear producers say, “Plays by women don’t sell tickets” (and they seem to say that a lot), I always find myself asking, “Which plays by which women?”

The classification “plays by women” denotes nothing other than the author’s sex, and any two plays by any two women are as likely to be as different as any two plays by men. Would anyone, for example, group plays by the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre with those by the humanist William Shakespeare in the single category “plays by men” and assume that that tells us anything about those plays?

The fact is that an author’s sex does not dictate her content, and plays don’t sell tickets based on the sex of their authors. They sell tickets based on whether the play is any good or not.

Two shows opening in Southern California this month illustrate perfectly the fact that one woman’s play is not  another’s, and whether either of them is right for your local theater to produce really depends on its mission and your aesthetic, not the author’s sex.

Rachel Bonds’ Five Mile Lake—a 30-something life-crisis play about a group of friends from the same small town—begins performances at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa on April 13. Premeditation, by Evelina Fernández—a black comedy performed by The Latino Theater Company—opens April 17 at the Los Angeles Theatre Center.

Bonds, Rachel

Producers looking to attract audiences younger than the typical baby boomer ticket buyer would be wise to take a look at Five Mile Lake. Playwright Bonds says her own small-town upbringing inspired this why-haven’t-I-come-of-age-yet story about family, friends and the struggle to find a home, both literally and metaphysically. Mary, whose brother has just returned from Iraq, works in a bakery alongside Jamie in the town where they both grew up. Jamie’s brother, Rufus, comes back from NYC to visit for the weekend with his girlfriend, prompting everyone to look closely at the past, the present and their dreams for the future.

Rather than focusing on a single protagonist, the play provides a different perspective with each character. Jamie respects tradition—he has stayed in town, poured his savings into the family lake house and is taking care of his aging mother. Rufus, who lives in the big city, is working on his Ph.D without much progress and becoming increasingly directionless. His girlfriend, Peta, an ethnically ambiguous transplant from England, has left her family a whole continent behind. Mary wants to move to New York but is staying home to care for her brother, who has returned from war with PTSD.

Refreshingly, the play does not provide solutions to anyone’s problems. In fact its dramatic effectiveness depends upon a certain amount of ambiguity. Depending on their values and experiences, audience members may come away with completely different ideas of what will happen to these characters once the play is over and they return to their day-to-day lives. Director Daniella Topol says this complexity is reflective of that generation at this moment:

It’s about the anxiety of what it means to be 30-something and trying to find your path, not having a family, not knowing if you want one, not knowing what it means to be rooted. It’s about people looking for individual purpose, family purpose and the purpose of the nation. What do we and don’t we do for our families? How do we care for our aging parents? How do we care for our siblings? How do we have room in our life for children?

Though it may add to the experience, you do not have to be from a small town to appreciate the complexity of defining home.Five Mile Lake runs through May 4.

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Premeditation is recommended for producers looking to bring in more diverse audiences, particularly in the Southwest. Evelina Fernández wrote and stars in this production about a disgruntled wife who hires a hit man to kill her UCLA-professor husband. (The show is directed by Fernandez’ husband, José Luis Valenzuela, who, not coincidentally, also teaches at UCLA.) When the wife, Esmerelda, meets up with the hitman, Mauricio, in a hotel room, her husband Fernando and Mauricio’s wife Lydia find out and suspect an affair. When they show up at the hotel to confront their spouses, hijinks ensue.

Staged and designed in the style of film noir, the play uses tango music to set the scene for the battle of the sexes that these two couples play out. Esmerelda worries that after devoting herself to supporting her husband’s career and raising their kids, she hasn’t accomplished anything in her own life and therefore her husband no longer appreciates her. She regrets that she doesn’t have a college education, and has dedicated herself to learning by carrying around a large thesaurus. Her use of both English and Chicano words to parry and riposte in the noir style is better than that of most accomplished women, and her sensuality is evident as she proceeds to instruct Mauricio in how to put some romance back into his own marriage. Meanwhile, Lydia,  mistakenly convinced that her husband is cheating, also manages to help Fernando understand what’s wrong in his relationship.

Evelina Fernandez

The Latino Theater Company has been creating theater together since 1985, so developing the script as an ensemble led by a husband-wife team naturally involved a certain amount of intimacy and willingness to explore their own marriages. Fernández shared that, early on, the men and the women working on the show disagreed about whether Esmerelda would ultimately end her marriage or not. The men had a hard time imagining that she would really do it; the women believed she would be able to build a new life for herself. I won’t tell you who won that battle: Go see the play.

Since 1990, when the Latino Theater Company produced August 29 about journalist Rubén Salazar, who was killed by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s department, they have focused on plays about middle- and middle-to-upper-class Chicanos. Regarding this particular play’s role in fulfilling the company’s mission, Fernández shared,

Once we started [doing plays about middle-class Chicanos] that’s been what we do—not because we don’t think the other stories are valuable or important, they are—but our goal is to tell stories of the middle class. We have also learned that the way to approach serious issues with a Chicano audience is with a lot of humor. It’s a big part of our culture to laugh. This play is about relationships and marriage, and regret and fulfillment, but it’s very funny. Says the playwright.

Trust me—it is. Premeditation runs through May 11.

No doubt some plays by women won’t sell tickets at some theaters, just as some plays by men won’t. However, an audience interested in questions of how and why to live in an increasingly fragmented modern world would definitely buy tickets to Five Mile Lake. An audience that believes in the power of language to reason us through our darkest moments will gladly pay to see Premeditation.

I’m looking forward to both.

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Latino Latina Latina/o Theatre Los Angeles

Originally posted at HowlRound

I can’t believe I don’t speak Spanish. I grew up in Texas, but I took German in high school. I lived in Washington Heights for three years, yet I never learned much more than huevos y queso sándwich (though I did like being called mami). Now I live in Southern California, but still, like most white Americans, I recognize little more than the word on exit signs—salida—and that’s mainly because the signs look just like the ones in English.

Latinos constitute almost 17 percent of the US population and nearly 38 percent of California’s. They represent a whopping 58 percent of the people of Los Angeles; many of their ancestors were here before America even became a country. So my ignorance of the language aside, I really should not have been surprised that when I began to look into the Latino theater scene here I found an incredible depth and breadth of creative activity. In just two weeks, I saw four shows: ¡Ser!, a solo performance by Karen Anzoategui, an emerging Latina queer performer whose autobiographical show mixes English, Spanish, and live music at The Los Angeles Theatre Center (LATC); In the Heights at Casa0101, co-produced by Teatro Nuevos Horizontes; La Virgen De Guadulupe, Dios Inantzin, presented by LATC and the Latino Theater Company; and Ladybird, a community collaboration of 24th Street Theatre’s Teatro Nuevo Initiative.

Latino Latina Latina/o Theatre Los Angeles

The missions of the companies presenting these works are as varied as their shows. The Los Angeles Theatre Center, operated by the Latino Theater Company, has been a downtown institution since 2007 in its current avatar. In 2006 the Latino Theater Company was awarded a 20-year lease to manage the space—which holds four theaters, a dance studio, a gallery, and a huge lobby—and a four million dollar grant to refurbish it. The LATC presents multi-disciplinary and multi-cultural work, including not only Latino theater but also African-American, Asian-American, Native-American, and LGBTQ theater. Though the LATC staff sometimes get asked why a Latino theater company would do plays by and about non-Latinos, Literary and Program Manager Chantal Rodriquez says they don’t choose their shows based on the ethnicity of the creators:

If the play deals with issues that we feel passionate about and we think are really relevant to the city itself, then it doesn’t matter ethnically what it is. We produced the road weeps, the well runs dry, by Marcus Gardley [about the founding of the first all-black US town by Black Seminoles] this year because the themes of the play are so related to migration, identity, and historical loss. These are the themes that resonate with our communities as well. The goal is to spark dialogue and discussion.

Asked about the challenges of getting Asians to come to black shows and Latinos to go to Asian shows, Rodriguez says they don’t have to worry about that because they don’t rely on a subscriber base—though that strategy has it’s pluses and minuses: “Theaters that have a subscriber base tailor their season to what they know their audiences like. We like to challenge our audience, and sometimes we take a hit.”

Latino Latina Latina/o Theatre Los Angeles

The Latino Theater Company is an ensemble of actors, a writer (Evelina Fernandez) and an artistic director (Jose Luis Valenzuela) who have been together for 28 years. La Virgen De Guadulupe, Dios Inantzin—a spectacular staging of the well-known story of tolerance featuring drama, comedy, song, and Aztec dancers—is actually the only show they do in Spanish because their focus is usually on Chicano (meaning Mexicans who grew up in the US) theater. Both Fernandez and Rodriguez point out that because Chicano theater has its origins in political activism, it makes sense for a Chicano theater group to continue the legacy. Rodriguez says:

Chicano theater historically comes from a political space. It grew out of protests in the grape fields of Delano, where, Luis Valdez’ El Teatro Campesino staged plays about the strike on the back of a flatbed truck. Theater became a place for mobilizing large groups of people. It is a space for dialogue and a safe space for expression that we’re not getting in the dominant culture, mainstream media.

Though the LATC is located downtown, most of the Latino population of Los Angeles lives in Boyle Heights, where Casa0101 makes its home. Casa0101 was founded by Josephina Lopez in 2000 with the purpose of bringing theater to the community in which she was raised. Lopez shared the history of the neighborhood and her vision for its future:

It is very left out of the larger conversation in LA. It’s kind of like you’ve crossed the border into Mexico. For years the city neglected the Boyle Heights community: There were no resources allocated and so there was much gang violence. Today the perception is still that Boyle Heights is violent, that you can’t find parking, that it’s dangerous, but we are the catalyst for an artistic renaissance that’s happening in this neighborhood. People are finally paying attention and we’re even getting in the news for world premieres of quality plays instead of just drive-bys.

Casa0101 teamed up with Teatro Nuevos Horizontes, a six-year-old group dedicated to bringing Broadway musicals to Latino audiences, to produce In the Heights. On opening night, all 99-seats were filled with an eager and supportive audience while a Broadway-quality cast turned a tiny stage into a whole world. Abel Alvarado, Artistic Director of Teatro Nuevos Horizontes, shared his reasons for wanting to do Broadway musicals in Boyle Heights: “I think the hardest thing we as Latino artists have to face is we’re supposed to stick to art that is only relevant to us. TNH wants to tell American stories with Latinos in them.”

The Teatro Nuevo Initiative at 24th Street theater presents Spanish-language theater with English supertitles for recent immigrants. Their mission is three-fold: to produce professional theater, provide arts education, and engage with their community. Given their location in North University Park, which is 95 percent Latino, Executive Director Jay McAdams and Artistic Director Debbie Devine told me they wanted to make sure they weren’t just producing theater “made by two honkies,” so eight years ago, they hired Jesus Castaños-Chima, an actor who had previously worked with The Latino Theater Festival bringing companies from Mexico, South America, and Spain to Los Angeles. Chima shared his pride in the 24th ST program: “We had people in our neighborhood who didn’t know what theater was. So we started giving tamales before the show just to engage them and bring them to see a show and now it’s a tradition at 24th Street that we give tamales before every show. We started with audiences of five to ten people and now we can sell out.”

Ladybird began with story circles conducted with the parents of the children in 24th Street’s arts education program, who responded to the question, “What are the things that we carry?” Creators Victor Vazquez and Laurie Woolery then wove the shared stories of love, loss, immigration, and tradition into a play performed by these parents (dubbed the Teatro del Pueblo ensemble) for their children, family, and friends. After the performance, the cast and audience participated in a posada: a procession around the block then back to the theater where the kids got a whack at a piñata and everyone enjoyed tamales.

Much of the audience wept as they listened to their family and friend’s stories about, in Chima’s words, “what they went through and what they are now.” Casa0101’s Lopez highlighted the importance of such storytelling in the Latino community:

I am happy if white people come, I think that’s great, but I really feel like we need to heal a lot of wounds that have been unacknowledged. We need to present those stories so people can cry about all the wounds and oppression that sometimes we’re not even conscious of. We need to acknowledge the stories that were left out of the history books. And it’s an opportunity even for the children and grandchildren to cry about the pain and the sacrifice of their fathers. It’s wonderful to see people crying with their fathers.

Commonalities like this exist between Latino theater companies in Los Angeles and across the country. At HowlRound’s Latina/o Theatre Commons convening last November, Rodriguez discovered that “several of us do a Christmas pageant, which indicates that there’s definitely a dedication to large-scale community pieces. Most of us are doing new work as well and classics from the Latino canon, which is still young and still developing,” and everyone is investigating the definition of Latino theater. Fernandez, on the other hand, noted one major difference between Latino theater in LA and in other cities:

There’s so much Latino theater in LA, so many groups creating work in different communities. Not everybody is making theater the same way, and what is so different with LA theater makers is that their dream is not to get into the regional theaters. They’re happy making theater in their community and they’re doing important work in their community. Not everyone has their eye on being on the Taper stage or the South Coast Repertory stage.

Fernandez acknowledged that not everyone can afford that kind of focus: “I’m in a very unique situation: I’m a playwright that writes for a specific company. We have our own theater. I know my plays are going to be produced. And I understand that most playwrights want to be at Steppenwolf or the Taper or the Public or any of the regional theaters. But I wish that we could understand our value without having to make that our ultimate goal. We have the numbers, we have the talent, I wish we could create an independent Latino theater movement.”

I have no excuse for not speaking Spanish. Those with younger brains have an opportunity to avoid my mistake, and they would be well advised to do so. When the Census Bureau reported that America’s white majority will be gone by 2043, Mark Hugo Lopez, Associate Director of the Pew Hispanic Center, noted that “The rapid growth in the Hispanic population, coupled with the young Latinos who make up the largest minority group on the nation’s college campuses, has serious implications for the nation’s labor market and economy.”

The implications for American theater are just as great. Whether Latinos begin a theater movement of their own and/or begin to get produced on regional and Broadway stages in representative numbers, given that 49.9 percent of Americans under five are racial or ethnic minorities, Latino theater may soon be more American than Arthur Miller.