With Latino arts being ballyhooed everywhere this summer--in magazines and movie houses, art galleries and fashion shows--the three emerging playwrights featured this weekend at South Coast Repertory's Hispanic Playwrights Project are wary of being pigeonholed by an ethnic label.
"I don't think there's anything particularly interesting about being Hispanic, any more than being Chinese or black," says Cuban-born Rafael Lima, 34, whose "Parting Gestures" will receive a public reading Saturday on the SCR Mainstage in Costa Mesa. "What interests me is being human."
Lynnette Serrano-Bonaparte, 24, whose "Broken Bough" will be read tonight, goes further. "I don't consider myself a Hispanic playwright," she professes, though her Bronx heritage is largely Puerto Rican and her play has Santeria, a religion with a Caribbean following, as its central symbol.
Charles Gomez, 34, maintains that the Nicaraguan setting of his "Bang Bang Blues," to be read Saturday night, is not even essential to its meaning. "The play is about (TV) network politics," says the Miami-born writer whose parents came from Cuba in the '40s. "It could be set anywhere. The country is less important than what's happening to the characters."
The three writers look to such non-Latino playwrights as David Rabe, Lillian Hellman and Lanford Wilson as models. Yet they also contend that their Latino roots are inescapable and that everything they write is colored by their ethnic background.
Far from wanting to escape their heritage, they simply want to address broader issues. At least that is how the director of the 3-year-old playwrights project, Jose Cruz Gonzales, 31, explains it.
"They're trying to tap universal themes coming from their Latino experience," he says.
For instance, the main premise in "Broken Bough"--that blind faith leads to destruction--resonates with the imagery of certain Santeria rituals but easily could have been illustrated by a religion more familiar to Anglo-Americans. "Just substitute fundamental Christianity," asserts Serrano-Bonaparte.
Conversely, in Lima's "Parting Gestures," an autobiographical play about a son and his mother, there is virtually nothing to identify the characters as ethnically Cuban-American. Nonetheless, the nature of their relationship "stems from a Latin way of looking at the world," says Lima.
The question of what defines a Latino play strikes an ironic note for Gomez, a longtime TV journalist who spent four and a half years as a CBS correspondent in Latin America. "There seems to be an interest in having playwrights produce work about the ghetto," he says. "I've been told that I'd have been better off (getting a production) if my play had been set in a ghetto."
Gomez, who grew up in middle-class surroundings, says that sort of reasoning results from the notoriety of such barrio plays as Luis Valdez's "Zoot Suit" a decade ago and the more recent East Coast success of Reinaldo Povod's "Cuba and His Teddy Bear."
"In New York," Gomez recounts, "everybody came down to the Public Theater to see if the kid (in 'Cuba...') was going to stick a needle in his arm--and by the end of the first act he does. I'd like to think the climate is ripe to look beyond that for other things."
Gomez's "Bang Bang Blues" was in development for three years at the Public but had languished there, the playwright says, until SCR decided to give it a Mainstage reading under Jules Aaron's direction. Now, the play will be the first cooperative venture between SCR and the Public, where it is scheduled in Joseph Papp's "Festival Latino" later this month with the same cast and director.
Lima is reaping a similar benefit. Best known for his highly praised "El Salvador," currently at the Gnu Theatre in North Hollywood, Lima says "Parting Gestures" was "like a child strangling on its own umbilical cord" when he sent it to SCR dramaturge Jerry Patch.
"All I expected was some advice on where it needed work," says the playwright. "He calls me back and tells me about this workshop."
In the meantime, "Parting Gestures" has been scheduled for a Second Stage production this fall at Circle Repertory in New York.
Lima, who is also an actor, moved to Venice three months ago to turn "El Salvador" into a feature film for Columbia Pictures. With the writers' strike over, Columbia has optioned the play, about freelance journalists covering the war in El Salvador, as a TV series instead.
"They want to do something like 'MASH', " Lima says. "I'll write the pilot, but I will not write episodic television. I don't care how much money they offer."
Such reluctance apparently has nothing to do with his wariness of ethnic stereotyping, since he has taken no offense at playing Latino drug addicts on "Miami Vice" for the past three years. But it has everything to do with distinguishing between art and commerce.
Writing episodic television, Lima says, "would harm whatever writing talent I've developed."