Jose Cruz Gonzalez, a Mexican American, has been crossing borders all his life. "I always feel like I'm on one side of the fence or the other," he says, "or I'm on the fence about to cross over."
The soft-spoken writer-director--looking earnest yet casual in wire-frame glasses, jeans and a collarless shirt--was sitting on an office sofa at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, talking about his upcoming departure from the nationally recognized Latino play-development program he founded here.
"It feels like when I just got out of grad school," he says. "It was scary as hell, and I liked that feeling. I've been serving other artists for a long time. Now I need to push my own thing."
So at the conclusion of the 11th annual Hispanic Playwrights Project--it begins Tuesday at South Coast Rep with private workshops and ends Aug. 2 and 3 with staged readings of three new plays open to the public--Gonzalez, 39, will head off to concentrate on writing his own plays while directing at other theaters.
Since its inception, the program has been a launching pad for 43 Latino plays by nearly as many writers, among them Oliver Mayer, Lisa Loomer, Octavio Solis, Eduardo Machado, Jose Rivera, Edwin Sanchez, Ruben Martinez, Rafael Lima, Milcha Sanchez-Scott, Edit Villarreal and Guillermo Reyes.
Mayer, whose "Blade to the Heat" was a hit earlier this season at the Mark Taper Forum, calls Gonzalez "instrumental" to his growth as a writer as well as the growth of his career.
"If it wasn't for Jose I might not have come back to Los Angeles," he says. "I was living in New York. I'd run out of money and didn't know what I was going to do. That's when he called and offered me a workshop of 'Young Valiant' [an early play]. It was my first workshop at a major regional theater."
Mayer, the Taper's associate literary manager, adds: "It was exactly what I needed in my life, and it gave me renewed strength in my own writing, even though South Coast didn't produce my play."
In fact, South Coast Rep has produced only four plays developed in the program: Loomer's "Birds," Solis' "Man of the Flesh," Sanchez-Scott's "El Dorado" and Arthur Giron's "Charley Bacon and His Family." But the program has served as a networking lifeline for all its writers, and 23 project scripts have gone on to full productions at nearly two dozen theaters elsewhere.
Says Loomer, whose best-known play, "The Waiting Room," premiered in 1994 at the Taper and is scheduled to open in New York at the off-Broadway Vineyard Theatre in October: "Jose was really one of the first to bring Latino writing to an American audience. He's just one of the best spirits I've met. His work comes from a pure passion."
Gonzalez's departure has not been formally announced yet and, a South Coast Rep spokesman says, a plan to replace him won't be formulated until then. Gonzalez says he wouldn't be leaving if he didn't think the project had gained sufficient institutional strength at the theater to continue without him.
Besides, he adds, "my theory is to keep my options open. I'm not necessarily leaving for good. I'm not burning bridges. I'm taking an unpaid sabbatical for a year. After that we'll see what happens." He'll also be taking a paid sabbatical in the fall from Cal State Los Angeles, where he is a tenured associate professor in the department of theater and dance.
Gonzalez has come a long way from Calexico, the California town on the Mexican border where he was born. He grew up working in the lettuce fields of the San Joaquin Valley, going to school in Watsonville and living in one large room of an old, abandoned military barracks with his family until he left for college. Spanish was his first language; English, learned in school, was his second.
"Our family did certain crops," he says. "My father and grandfather worked in lettuce. My mother worked in apples and eventually in the apple canneries. My grandmother worked in strawberries. In between seasons we would do green beans, that sort of thing."
The only one of his three brothers to graduate from a university, Gonzalez has a bachelor's degree in U.S. History/Chicano Studies from UC San Diego, a master's in theater from Arizona State University and a master of fine arts in directing from UC Irvine. But while he learned long ago to negotiate the boundaries of Anglo society and to cross social, cultural and economic borders, he is still dealing with the quandaries of Latino identity.
"We all are," he contends, referring to emerging Latino playwrights. "That hasn't changed. I still think we're writing about our communities. We're still trying to deal with the questions we've faced all along: Who am I? How do I fit into the larger culture? How do I fit into the culture within it?"