Del Zamora never expected to get threatening phone calls when he mounted Peter Gould and Stephen Stearns' folk tale "A Peasant of El Salvador" at the Dynarski Theatre in Hollywood. But he has.
"Mostly, it's stuff like 'You better close that show,' " the director-producer said. "It's really shocking. Though I must admit, when I've handed out flyers to people, they've been taken aback. It's like, 'I'm in a good mood; don't ruin it.' "
Ironically, the flyers (a gruesome photo montage of murdered Salvadorans) do not mirror the play's stylized, bloodless theatricalization. In Zamora's Brechtian staging, brooms stand in for shovels, hoes, guitars, rifles--and brooms. Nine actors play dozens of roles, including peasants, government officials, soldiers, journalists and rebels. The narration shifts among five players, who tell the story of Jesus, a gentle farmer who loses his wife, children and land to poverty, violence and exploitation.
"I tried to think of each of the narrators as professors--one's a drama professor, another a professor of social studies, another of psychology, another of Central American studies--and they're all talking to the audience," said Zamora, 31. "Some critics haven't liked it because they thought it pandered. I feel like, 'Hey, this is elementary school, a beginner's course. Give me a break.' A lot of the people who've seen the show say, 'I never knew any of this.' The piece (written by Gould and Stearns as a two-man show for themselves) is an indictment of both American covert activity in Central America and the widespread brutality of the Salvadoran military against its own people. In the story, the Jesus character comes to a sudden burst of politicization at Archbishop Oscar Romero's 1980 funeral, where, in real life, hundreds of mourners were shot down on the church steps. "Some of the people in our audiences didn't even know who Romero was," Zamora said sadly.
Bernardo Rosa Jr. plays the fallen priest. "It's grueling," Rosa said of his 13-character load. "I gave up a movie to do this, because I believe in this play; I believe in its issues. I think an actor who's not socially conscious is missing something."
Always hungering for more information, Rosa stayed up all night talking to a Red Cross coroner who had come to the show and, it turned out, who had transported Romero's body. To research his role as a U.S. government spokesman, he reviewed tapes of the Watergate hearings.
Zamora was introduced to Central America in 1987, when he accompanied his friend, director Alex Cox, to Nicaragua for the filming of the movie "Walker." A New Mexico native and UCLA film school graduate, Zamora has worked regularly on stage (locally, "Leonce and Lena," "The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit" and "Pedro Paramo") and in film ("Robocop" and "Repo Man"). But, he said, a few years ago, "I looked up and noticed things weren't getting better for Latino actors. I'd been planning to write in my 40s, but I realized I'd better start now."
He's visibly proud of the resultant screenplay, "An American Contra," in which he takes two real-life figures--Benjamin Kinder, an American volunteer killed in Nicaragua with a group of civilians, and Steven Barr, an American who volunteered to fight with Contra rebels--and put them on a fatal collision course. Zamora, who visited the execution site and saw Kinder's body the day after the massacre, says the premise is not only exciting but plausible: "Who's to say an American wasn't there when they killed all those people?"
What continues to draw him to the subject of Central America, Zamora stressed, is the spirit of the people. Once destitute himself (he spent 3 1/2 years living in his van in Hollywood), he says, "there were things I saw there that just broke my heart. People were so poor. But they still have this vigor for life--in the face of everything. I brought rubber balls, jacks, model cars, little makeup kits. The kids didn't know how balls worked. They'd throw them and run after them. And I thought, 'They don't know they're really suffering compared to us. They're just living life.' "
\o7 "A Peasant of El Salvador" plays at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and at 7 p.m. Sundays at the Gene Dynarski Theatre, 5600 Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood, through Dec. 23. Tickets are $10. (213) 398-8350. \f7