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Conjuring Up Immigrant Dreams

Liberally using magical elements, Jose Cruz Gonzalez drew on his heritage for a holiday tale about family and struggle.

November 25, 2001|IRENE LACHER | Irene Lacher is an occasional contributor to Calendar

In the mind of Jose Cruz Gonzalez, comets wear roller skates, suitcases hold butterflies and men levitate to the sky after making love to a woman who cannot love them in return.

In the plays of Gonzalez, those wonders actually take place before your eyes. Well, perhaps not actually, but, then, that's where the art of theater shows its hand.

"If you find the right collaborators," says the soft-spoken Gonzalez, "anything is possible."

Which is fortunate for the prominent Latino playwright and director, because his Chicano roots and rich imagination infuse his plays with magic. Witness "Marisol's Christmas," a sweet fable about family and border life now at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank.

Light on its feet, "Marisol's Christmas" uses a cast of only four and simple props such as roller skates--for the comet, of course--and a beach ball to tell the story of Christmas Eve for a little Mexican girl named Marisol, who has just arrived in Los Angeles with her father. Marisol misses her mother, who hasn't arrived yet, so her papi weaves an elaborate fairy tale to raise her spirits.

"To me, 'Marisol' is really about a sense of hope," says Gonzalez, 44, a professor of theater arts and dance at Cal State Los Angeles. "It's like any immigration story. It's about coming and dreaming, and working for that dream."

Gonzalez is distinguished in the world of Latino theater, having launched and served as project director of South Coast Repertory's nationally known Hispanic Playwrights Project for 11 years. The Falcon's selection of "Marisol" as its holiday production reflects the theater's new campaign to diversify its audience and court Latino theatergoers with productions that reflect their culture.

"It has a real charm and simplicity that I think are in keeping with the best that the Falcon does in terms of children's theater," Falcon producing director Jan Breslauer says. "And it reaches out to the Latino community, which is something [Falcon founder] Garry Marshall and I thought would be a good thing to do. It's an audience that hasn't yet been invited to the Falcon, and 'Marisol's Christmas' will bring them in, in a way that doing a work that specifically speaks to a culture can."

The director, Mark Valdez, a longtime admirer of Gonzalez, says the play's Latino flavor was a strong draw for him. "It's wonderful to be working on a Latino play," says the 30-year-old Valdez. "There aren't that many of them out there. And it has a very wide appeal. It's a balancing act of respecting a culture but not excluding anyone who's not a member."

Marisol made her debut in Gonzalez's mind several years ago on the road from Los Angeles to San Diego, where he was directing a workshop at the Old Globe Theatre (now the Globe Theatres). During his commutes, he would frequently pass a yellow sign at a border stop near San Onofre that featured a family: A father, mother and child are running, all holding hands, in a warning against crossing the road.

"There have been over 100 people who've died crossing that freeway," Gonzalez says, "so that image always struck me. My wife teaches elementary school in Santa Ana, and it's predominantly immigrant kids. So the stories she would tell me about the children and the struggles they have to go through living in an urban landscape, how does a child grow up in that?"

The structure of Gonzalez's nimble play also springs from Latino culture, the tradition of teatro Chicano . The grass-roots form of theater, spawned by the migrant worker movement of the '60s, is short on resources but long on resourcefulness, mounting simple productions with found objects and a few actors playing multiple parts. "I've been there thinking the way you do in poor theater," he says. "It's economical and you can tour it very easily. You just throw it into a truck."

As originally written for Santa Ana's Teatro Cucucuevez in 1994, "Marisol" called for three actors who morphed from family members into the curious creatures of papi's fable. For the Falcon production, the fourth version of the play, which has also been staged by South Coast Rep, Gonzalez wrote in a fourth actor at the theater's request to amp up the theatricality of the production. Gonzalez decided to add a homeless person.

"The Christmas season is a sad time for a lot of people, and I guess I just wanted to look at that side of Christmas," he says. "They're all part of the human race, and they share a moment together."

The characters move fluidly between English and Spanish, so Gonzalez was careful to communicate meaning by providing context and well-placed responses in English. "Spanglish" came naturally to him because it filled his home when he was growing up in a family of migrant workers in Freedom, a tiny town in Northern California. His more recent plays are almost entirely in English.

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