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Role Player : Cutting-Edge Latino Playwright Is Wooing Anglo Audiences While Trying to Put to Rest Timeworn Ethnic Stereotypes

October 07, 1989|HERMAN WONG | Times Staff Writer

Jose Cruz Gonzalez comes across as soft-spoken, gentle and polite, the kind of man who would hole up in the back halls of academe.

But don't let the scholarly, introspective aura fool you. Gonzalez is a front-line activist, a man who seeks sweeping changes in the American theater, a man who directs plays that step hard on people's egos, pretenses and myths.

The 32-year-old Huntington Beach resident--who also teaches theater arts at Cal State Los Angeles and runs South Coast Repertory's Hispanic Playwrights Project--is part of the growing movement to bring more Latino works onto America's mainstream stages.

He has enlisted in a cause that parallels both the growing political clout of Latinos and the current vogue in crossover Latino films, music and star performers.

He and other activists are taking advantage of the trendy mainstream status now given some elements of Latino arts--from "La Bamba" and Edward James Olmos to salsa, Los Lobos and the Mexican-roots songs of Linda Ronstadt.

Gonzalez is among the young "cutting-edge" Latinos who are trying to woo and enlighten Anglo theater audiences. And first on the agenda is the old matter of ethnic stereotypes.

"We have to keep it meaningful to Anglos; we have to deal with attitudes that they can relate to," he explained.

But at the same time, "we don't want to lose the ethnic edge; we're not trying to soften reality or dilute our cultural uniqueness," he added. "Playing on the mainstream stages doesn't mean we have to make it comfortable for people."

While Latino plays for these general audiences may be less raging and combative, he said, they can be jarring and abrasive experiences, especially when dealing with stereotypes.

"We have to get beyond those images that people still seem to have of Latinos--that our cultures mean nothing but tacos and 'West Side Story.' "

Consider the production Gonzalez is now co-directing (with Miguel Delgado) at the Los Angeles Theatre Center--the wildly lampooning revue, "Latins Anonymous."

It is entertaining but also quite audacious. The young, four-actor ensemble raises, mocks, then demolishes some of the most commonly held images of Latinos--from machismo posturings to barrio street denizens.

One sketch spoofs the stereotypically menial roles--such as maids, gardeners, bandits and drug peddlers--in which Latino actors are forever cast by the mainstream entertainment industry.

To make its point, the sketch uses another stereotype, a "West Side Story"-like gang battle over turf. Only this time, the two gangs are all underemployed Latino actors fighting over the meager job spoils offered by Hollywood and the mainstream stage.

The show's overall goal, Gonzalez explained, is to underscore the ludicrousness of these cultural cliches. "These exist and flourish; we all know that," he said. "Our aim is to take them, within the comical format, to their most ridiculous lengths."

This satirical approach is applied to the trauma of identity crises. The show opens on the ensemble as an Alcoholics Anonymous-like support group for "recovering Latins"--those who have long suppressed their ethnic identity, even changed their names, to become full-time, practicing Anglos.

The evening's centerpiece is about the collapse of a woman going through the throes of "Latin denial." She is resuscitated by paramedics from the "Mayan Defense League," who apply every known form of treatment, including "tortilla therapy" and a Mayan dance number.

"We want to make people laugh. But we want to prod them, make them think, as well," Gonzalez said. "We don't believe the show is offensive. But then, really, these images are not a funny matter. They can be painful and sad when you realize that people still have to live them every day."

Businessman Fernando Niebla, former chairman of the advisory committee to South Coast Repertory's Hispanic Playwrights Project, found "Latins Anonymous" a "very enjoyable and very funny show. It conveyed a lot of important ideas about ethnic misconceptions. I don't think Anglos will be offended."

"And I don't think older Latinos would be either," he added. "Some of the street language may bother them, but not the concepts and the meanings behind the sketches."

But not all Latinos may be so open to this kind of show, some observers argued.

"You have some middle-class Hispanics who have seen it but who have major reservations about the show," said George Herrera, a theater arts lecturer in Cal State Fullerton's Chicano studies department. "They don't see the ridicule and humor behind the show. To them, it only promotes the old negative stereotypes."

Gonzalez knows such stereotypes by heart. He grew up in a Northern California family of Mexican-American field workers.

He did not, he said, experience the kinds of blatantly direct discrimination that his parents and grandparents and their generations encountered.

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