All too often, only plays with successful mainstream productions make it into print. This practice is disturbing not only because it exposes the harsher realities of commercialism—it also excludes certain kinds of plays and playwrights. To date, there are merely a handful of published single-author books of Native-American plays. While the Hispanic Playwrights Project at California’s South Coast Repertory has promoted dozens of new works by Latina/o playwrights since 1986, a volume of their representative works is only now available. So it is worth noting that both collections under review here break important new ground in the landscape of published dramatic writing, offering a fine introduction to contemporary multi-ethnic drama.
William S. Yellow Robe Jr.’s Where the Pavement Ends provides a searing examination of family, culture and nation in the shadow of U.S. colonialism. Like many playwrights, Yellow Robe started his career as an actor and began writing to provide solid roles for himself and other Native-American actors. He went on to found the Wakiknabe Theater Company in Albuquerque, N.M., where he presently serves as artistic director. He has written some 31 plays; the five selections in Where the Pavement Ends are based on his experiences in northeastern Montana on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation as a member of the Assiniboine Tribe. The plays address such major issues as tribal autonomy, ecology, identity politics and the historical legacy of Indian/white relations.
The first play in the collection, The Star Quilter, details a series of encounters between two women from 1960 to 1990. A renowned quilter, Mona Gray, is asked by her white neighbor LuAnn to make a quilt for a Montana senator. The gift becomes famous among Washington politicians. LuAnn responds by setting up an exploitative business, never understanding Mona and her spiritual sense of art-making.
Accountability—to family, earth and self—surfaces as a major theme in The Council, a play about man’s relationship to animals and the earth. At one point in the play, the character Panda Bear warns Man, “You are fortunate that no being is allowed to be attacked or hunted at a Council. Be sure to think before you take.” LuAnn might wish to heed these words as well.
Although Quilter and The Council deliver a serious message, Yellow Robe sometimes uses humor to confront stereotypes about Indian/white relations or to complicate the Native-American characters battling alcoholism. The Body Guards opens with the sound of gas being released from a dead man’s body, the clarion call for this play’s exploration of the relationship between two desperate men hired to guard the corpse. Rez Politics, Yellow Robe’s children’s play, co-commissioned by Seattle Children’s Theatre and the Honolulu Theatre for Youth, reminds one of the obscene hilarity of the cable television show South Park in its portrait of two mixed-race boys on a reservation engaging in a fist fight over who is the more authentically Indian. Their violent acting-out brilliantly spotlights the most destructive aspects of internalized racism and identity politics.
Unexpectedly, there is even humor in Sneaky, a kind of Antigone story about three brothers fighting with a mortician over the right to properly bury their mother’s body according to tribal custom, all the while in disagreement about the exact elements of ceremony. When they finally do bury their mother, no one can remember a special prayer for the occasion, and the youngest brother Kermit delivers an alcohol-inflected version of the Lord’s Prayer instead:
Our father, who are in heaven, hello it be they name. They kingdom come … does it have to be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us our day and our daily… our daily…Daily fry bread. And forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have …. thrashed ass against us. …Lead us not into temptation O lord, but deliver us from, from, from…lies.
The seven works in Latino Plays from South Coast Repertory represent the evolving genres of Latina/o drama, from social protest theatre to the multi-media spectacles of the avant-garde. The collection presents a broad range of writers, from those with national visibility (José Rivera, Cherrie Moraga, Luis Alfaro), to well-known writers within the Latina/o community (Octavio Solis, Rogelio Martinez), to newer voices (Joann Farias, Cusi Cram). Of the dramatists in this anthology, only Moraga and Rivera have had their plays published in single-author books. Latino Plays is an important resource for teachers and practitioners and a much-needed historical document of South Coast’s role in the development of a new generation of American dramatists unafraid of experimenting with language and form.
For example, Rivera’s References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot uses fantastical elements to explore the Gulf War. Moraga’s Watsonville: Some Place Not Here gives a clear sense of what it’s like in California for Mexican immigrants and Latinos in the wake of anti-immigrant propositions; the playwright’s introduction clarifies that the language in her play is a fiction because her migrant laborer characters would undoubtedly speak almost entirely in Spanish. Luis Alfaro’s Bitter Homes and Gardens features a family whose conversations are based entirely on Hollywood images of the nuclear family and representations of the American dream.
Joann Farias’s Claudia Meets Fulano Colorado employs the myth of Mephistopheles to tell a story of a Latino family in crisis. Rogelio Martinez’s Illuminating Veronica explores love and politics in Cuba during the transition period when Fidel Castro first took office. Cusi Cram’s Landlocked tells a story of art, politics and love among travelers in Europe. Octavio Solis’s El Otro presents a powerful and disturbing vision of two men struggling for a place in the life of the young woman they both call daughter.
In their foreword to the volume, project directors José Cruz González and Juliette Carillo observe that in 1986, when South Coast launched its Hispanic Playwrights Project, “It was nearly impossible to find any published body of work by Latino playwrights, and although new play programs were springing up across the nation, few recognized the Latino community as a source for unique and contemporary work.” This new collection pays tribute to the significance and success of the program, but it also calls attention to the fact that playwrights of color are typically published only in anthologies. It is to be hoped that the vibrant, prismatic plays in this volume and in Where the Pavement Ends will start to remedy this situation by reminding readers that contemporary works by playwrights of color represent some of the most exciting directions in modern playwriting, period.
Tiffany Ana Lopez teaches American drama and U.S. Latina/o literature and performance at the University of California, Riverside.