The Fantastic Encuentro 2014 Festival Showed the Power of Latino Theater

Geoffrey Rivas, left, Lucy Rodriguez, Sal Lopez and Evelina Fernandez in Premeditation
Geoffrey Rivas, left, Lucy Rodriguez, Sal Lopez and Evelina Fernandez in Premeditation
Photo by Ed Krieger

Encuentro 2014, an inspiring, monthlong festival of 18 Latino performances and readings, just closed at Los Angeles Theatre Center downtown and a couple of off-site locations. It could accurately be described as a reactionary event. "Reactionary," however, does not refer to a yearning backward. Rather, in the purest sense of the word, the companies, gathered from L.A. to New York to Puerto Rico, assembled in reaction to what Latino Theater Company artistic director Jose Luis Valenzuela described as the frustration that Latino theater was largely ignored at the landmark Theatre Communications Group annual conference in 2011, held for the first time ever in one of the nation's most Latino cities, Los Angeles.

The following year, theater community blog HowlRound hosted eight Latino theater practitioners in Washington, D.C., to discuss the state of nonprofit theater for what's now acknowledged to be the majority ethnicity in L.A., and soon to become the majority population across the United States. That meeting was the birth of what has come to be known as the Latina/o Theatre Commons, which reconvened the next year in an expanded form at Emerson College in Boston. From that conference, the idea emerged for Encuentro 2014 — a festival hosted by Valenzuela's Latino Theater Company.

The paradox is that both creators and audiences at Encuentro 2014 were almost exclusively Latino. Is creating an ethnic ghetto really the best response to being ghettoized?

It may well be — at the beginning — if the purpose is to try to define what Latino theater is, what it means, what it signifies, sans outside interference. Much of this festival was intended for the creators as much as for audiences. At "reflections" sessions, one company would respond to the work of a fellow company, with other creators also invited to weigh in. This was intended to keep at bay the discussions of identity politics that have been a dominant, some say suffocating, theme in the community. The postperformance discussions at LATC were almost entirely about art and aesthetics, which is exactly what Valenzuela said he was aiming for.

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Another paradox: The work of these U.S.-based Latino companies turned out to be a fair representation of American nonprofit theater at large. There was experimental theater, solo performances, ensemble-devised work and playwright-driven work. So where's the distinct identity? In the politics, of course.

Encuentro put to rest the condescending bias that ethnic theater is somehow lesser than mainstream work, and therefore not really worth discussing. For example, Latino Theater Company's presentation of Evelina Fernandez's Premeditation (directed by Valenzuela in a style of aggressively, delightfully faux noir) was a bedroom farce about marital discord. It opened with each of the four performers "spinning" onto the stage, carrying either a lampshade or a piece of furniture. The choreography was a prologue for the spinning about to unfold in the plot concerning the attempt of a frustrated housewife to hire a hit man to kill her husband, a UCLA professor, for his crime of leaving underwear on the bathroom floor. This company has been together for 30 years, and you won't find more skilled or sophisticated ensemble work anywhere.

Caborca Theatre, a Wooster Group–ish, Brecht-influenced troupe from New York, presented Zoetrope: Part 1, written and directed by Javier Antonio Gonzalez. It stripped away traditional stage trappings, exposing the cavernous interior of LATC's Theatre 2, and placed costume racks and even the stage manager's booth in the middle of the stage, along with a videographer, whose work allowed some scenes to be projected onto the back wall. The story, spanning 40 years, followed a marriage circa 1952 in Puerto Rico, and its eventual dissolution after the groom joined the U.S. Army and wound up settling by himself in New York, working in a mailroom. The plot had all the complexities of a telenovela. Unlike television, however, there was no spoon-feeding of connections between the various plots. For the audience, it was a game of connect-the-dots.

The piece illustrated so many divisions: between men and women, between Catholicism and secular life, between the United States and Puerto Rico, between English and Spanish. (The spoken word and projected supertitles kept flipping between languages. Pity the actors, turning from Spanish back to English back to Spanish on the turns of so many dimes.) It was a story of ill-fated marriages. A zoetrope is a film machine that takes static images and rolls them together to create the illusion of movement. But this Zoetrope was, in many ways, a study in disillusion. The performers moved like dancers and the entire event contained the grace of a poem.

Among other highlights was Marissa Chibas' far more traditional solo performance, Daughter of a Cuban Revolutionary, an intensely humane study of Chibas' father, Raul, who helped draft Fidel Castro's manifesto on democracy and later was driven into exile from Cuba after requesting that democracy there be upheld. Also, it took Encuentro 2014 to bring Quiara Alegría Hudes' 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner, Agua a Cucharadas (Water by the Spoonful), to L.A., via Puerto Rico's Tantai Teatro PR — a marvelous Spanish-language production of a play (written in English) with a global view on addiction, isolation and the Internet.

There were more entries than this column has space to describe. With the range of aesthetics, and the caliber of performance, Encuentro 2014 made its case that Latino theater cannot be ignored in any serious discussion of how the United States is evolving.

ENCUENTRO 2014 | Presented by Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., dwntwn. | Closed

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