SALINAS, CALIF.: A story about desperate undocumented immigrants—ill, starving, hiding from the law somewhere in California’s Topanga Canyon—might seem, in TV parlance, to be ripped from today’s headlines. So it may come as a surprise to many that Matthew Spangler’s Tortilla Curtain, running at the Western Stage in Salinas Oct. 24–Nov. 14, is adapted from a T.C. Boyle novel published 20 years ago.
“It’s striking to me how little discussion has changed,” Spangler says. This has remained true throughout the play’s development, which began with a reading at a graduate seminar at San Jose State in 2010, where Spangler is an associate professor of Performance Studies, and continued with a premiere staging at San Diego Repertory Theatre the same year. “From the start,” Spangler says, “people wondered if the play was set in the present day or some time ago. In the end, we had to bring in some ’90s cultural references just to let them know.”
Boyle’s novel tells the story of a pair of couples, one bourgeois American (Delaney and Kyra Mossbacher), the other poor Mexican (Cándido Rincón and his common-law wife, América). The book shifts its point of view among the four characters, who are thrown together through a series of catastrophic events, beginning with a hit-and-run and ending with natural disasters that imperil legal and illegal alike.
In Spangler’s adaptation, the balance is slightly shifted: Kyra is a secondary character, and Delaney, Candido, and América often address the audience directly.
One of his challenges, Spangler says, was figuring out how to depict the horrific conditions immigrants face without alienating those in the audience who might, even two decades removed, see themselves in Delaney and Kyra.
“In 20 years, matters of race have changed dramatically—matters of gender as well,” Spangler says. “But the arguments on both sides of the immigration issue are basically the same. The words of Jack,” Delaney’s neighbor, a man unsympathetic to those hiding out in the canyon, “are almost word-for-word what you hear at a current Republican presidential debate.”
The theme of immigration has run through much of Spangler’s writing. He is best known for his adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s novel The Kite Runner, about an Afghan who immigrates to the United States, only to be compelled to return to deal with the terrors the Taliban have visited upon his homeland. The Kite Runner received five San Francisco Bay Area Critics Circle Awards for its run at San Jose Repertory Theatre, and recently enjoyed a lengthy run in London’s West End.
In addition, Spangler has organized a summer institute for teachers titled “The Immigrant Experience in California Through Literature & Theatre.” The institute, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, took place in 2014 and will do so again in 2016.
Spangler says that Boyle has been “very generous and supportive” of his adaptation. “I first contacted him about adapting his novel in 2006,” he says. “I told him of my idea of focusing on three main characters, and of shifting the narrative to monologues. From the start, he was fine with the changes. He’s seen the play and given us a big thumbs-up.”