Why Latin America?
There are any number of reasons, not least proximity. Mexico is nestled snugly against our southern border, and to its south stretches an array of nations, languages and cultures with which we share a long and tangled history—a history of sacred and secular influences, of the colonization and defeat of indigenous peoples, of internal strife and external interference, of common interests and political alienation. These nations are not only our counterparts in the chronicle of the developing world, they are our neighbors and our continental relatives; it takes the same amount of time to reach Quito or Bogota from New York City that it does to reach Los Angeles (and there’s no time-zone difference). Havana? Last year we learned it’s possible to swim there from the United States.
There is, against all odds, something that can be called a theatre of the Americas: It began, in the form of rituals, festivals and ceremonies, long before the Europeans came to either American continent, and not even the efforts over centuries of conquerors or frontier settlers to put an end to “pagan” practices have been able to bury the impulse. Ironically, colonialists were able in many places—including this issue’s target zones of Cuba, Chile and Mexico—to repurpose indigenous performance practices to manipulate and oppress populations already accustomed to theatre spectacle. That was long ago, but the reclamation of Latin American theatre traditions and the quest for new connections to its historical roots are part of the stories being told in these pages.
A key element, it goes without saying, is finding the right storytellers for this “Southern Exposure” tour, and American Theatre has enlisted a richly informed team of theatre practitioners to accompany readers on their text-based travels.
Sage Lewis, whose analyzes the transformative situation in Cuba’s wide-ranging arts community in his essay “Fire Down Below,” is a Los Angeles–based composer who writes music for theatre, film and virtual-reality projects. His collaboratively created U.S.-Cuba project The Closest Farthest Away and his work designing professional research delegations to Cuba (including TCG’s 2013 group excursion) have made him a recognized expert on the Cuban arts scene. “It’s been an amazing opportunity to be in Cuba and interview two of the island’s most important leaders in theatre administration and directing, Helmo Hernandez and Carlos Celdrán,” Lewis declared after his most recent visit there in late March, and the fruits of those conversations and many others are evident in his piece. Lewis’s team includes expert photographer Adrianne Koteen, whose haunting image of Havana rooftop on this issue’s cover.
A team of three artist/scholars with international interests was enlisted to contribute impressions and reportage about theatre in Chile. “The View from Santiago” has a double byline, shared by Henry Godinez, resident artistic associate at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, and his colleague Yolanda Cesta Cursach, associate director of performance programs at that city’s Museum of Contemporary Art. A veteran of such Latin American collaborations as Pedro Páramo, created with Cuba’s Teatro Buendia in 2013, and coeditor of Goodman Theatre’s Festival Latino: Six Plays, Godinez believes that for U.S. artists, attention to festivals to our south is “an increasingly urgent opportunity to gain a better understanding of the array of cultures and experience that come under the term Latino.” For her part, Cursach drew upon a store of knowledge of the Chilean scene derived from repeated visits to the country and its flagship festival in the capital, Santiago a Mil.
That festival’s remarkable founder, Carmen Rivera, is interviewed in this issue by a third contributor, Olga Garay-English, a creative strategist to UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance and director of CalArts Latin American/Latino Initiative. Garay-English has a special relationship with the festival, serving as senior adviser on international cultural affairs to its sponsoring organization, Fundación Santiago a Mil.
Finally, in a poetically titled report “Living to Sow Seeds,” playwright, consultant and journalist Georgina H. Escobar surveys a new wave of collaborations between theatre companies based in the U.S. and Mexico. A one-time intern at this magazine and an active member of the Latino Theatre Commons, Escobar is a native of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, currently residing in Manhattan.
Why Latin America? Geographic proximity is one reason, but equally important is the Latin American cultural presence in the U.S., particularly in California, the Southwest, and cities such as New York and Miami—not to mention the increasing attention, spurred by changes in national policy, to relations between Latin American nations and the Caribbean as a whole. Latin America is part and parcel of our continental past, and of whatever future we hope to forge.