The recent election has given us pause. Does 30 years of creating “theatre that matters” matter? For the Latino Theater Company, it has been 30 amazing years of constructing a body of artistic work and community to alter the narrative of who we are as Mexicans/Chicanos/Mexican-Americans/Latinos/Latinx in the American theatre. Our journey has taken us from a laboratory inside of a regional theatre to an independent company to the directorship of a multi-theatre complex.
It began with a visceral need to tell our stories, to give voice to the voiceless—a political act to give visibility to the invisible people in this country by providing a space and creating initiatives that would allow our artistic community to create in a safe space.
Diversity and inclusion were at the core of the Los Angeles Theatre Center from its beginning in the mid-1980s. Bill “Bush” Bushnell and Diane White gave us the opportunity there by providing us space. The LATC’s mission was, and continues to be since we took it over a decade ago: to build a theatre where what’s onstage looks like the people of our city. Back then it was called “multiculturalism.” Since then, we’ve called it many things—diversity, inclusion, etc. Regardless of how the work is labeled today, we know what it means: creating theatre that reflects who we are as a city and as a country.
There were few champions of multiculturalism back then. “Bush” and C. Bernard Jackson of the Inner City Cultural Center were among those who led that vision in Los Angeles. Bush gave us a rehearsal space in the newly opened LATC: In October 1985 we brought together a group of 22 Latinx actors and met three times a week for three hours a day to train, rehearse and read Latinx plays, many which no one had ever heard of. We discussed how to move Latinx theatre forward inside of a regional theatre. Was it possible to have an ensemble company inside of a LORT theatre with a traditional hierarchical structure where producers choose a play, hire a director, a design team, audition actors, etc.? How would it work to have a group of actors and a director collectively making decisions about which projects to produce and creation of new work?
We decided to find out and formed the Latino Theater Lab—a laboratory of creation in content and form for Latinx theatre. The lab was one of many labs at the LATC which included the Black Lab, the Asian Lab, the Classical Lab, and more. The roots of the Latino Theatre Lab continue on the LATC stages to this day.
While other regional theatres were doing occasional readings and small or second-stage productions by minorities, the LATC highlighted our work in their season and on their mainstages. With this support, I directed La Victima by El Teatro De La Esperanza, The Promise by Jose Rivera, Roosters and Stone Wedding by Milcha Sanchez-Scott, and The Mission by Culture Clash. We commissioned many Latina/o playwrights and supported the development of their work.
The Latino Theater Lab also began researching the Chicano Moratorium of 1970 and the death of Mexican-American journalist Ruben Salazar, killed by a tear gas projectile shot by a L.A. County Deputy Sheriff. Thus August 29 was created and produced in 1990; this was the play that solidified the Latino Theater Lab and affirmed how important our work was to our community and our city.
At that time, 9 of the original 22 members were active: Enrique Castillo, Trinidad Silva, Lupe Ontiveros, Lucy Rodriguez, Sal Lopez, Geoff Rivas, Evelina Fernandez, Rick Coca, Angela Moya, and myself. Unfortunately, not long after this historical production, the Los Angeles Theatre Center declared bankruptcy in 1991.
Welcome to the Occupation
When closure of the LATC was announced, we didn’t know what the Lab’s future would be. The LATC had been a beacon of multicultural theatre in the U.S. and a vital space for Los Angeles theatre. We knew that it should not close down. In an act of civil disobedience, we refused to leave the building when the police came to lock it up. The Latino Theater Lab occupied the theatre and demanded that the city reopen it for the benefit of the community. We ate, slept, and remained in the LATC for 11 days until L.A.’s City Council agreed to keep the theatre open as a Cultural Affairs Department facility.
Occupying the LATC for those 11 days brought us a lot of community support, including that of Gordon Davidson, then artistic director of Center Theater Group. Gordon invited us to CTG, where we received funding to create the Latino Theatre Initiative, a 5-year program to put Latinx productions on the Taper stage and to commission new Latinx plays. During our time at CTG we put four productions on the mainstage: Carpa Clash by Culture Clash, Death and the Maiden by Ariel Dorfman, Bandido by Luis Valdez, and The Floating Island Plays by Eduardo Machado.
In 1995 we left CTG and became an independent outfit called the Latino Theater Company. We moved to a small community theatre house at Plaza de la Raza in Lincoln Park and created our first season of Latinx plays, including a revival of August 29. But eager to produce work on a larger scale again, we soon came back to the LATC, renting a small office and theatre for our production of Luminarias in 1996-97; for two years following this production, we worked on producing an independent film adaptation of the play. In 2000, we created one of the first Latinx plays about homosexuality and AIDS, Dementia, at LATC. It was a landmark for us in another way: It was then that we decided to make LATC our home again.
Soon afterward, a dear friend and longtime supporter of the company suggested that we do more than just move back in; we should also be running the now city-owned and -operated LATC. At the time I thought the suggestion was insane! Then the city put out a RFP for a new operator of the facility, and we decided to throw our proverbial hat in the ring. In 2006, after a three-year struggle and several negotiations, the Latino Theater Company received a 25-year lease on the LATC. With a $4 million state grant for the historical building and committed program funding, we reopened the new LATC with its original mission of diversity, inclusion, and creating a home for all Angelenos.
Our programming now reflects the people in our city, where the majority population is OTSWM (other than straight white males). For the past 10 years, our programming, admin and tech staff reflect diversity in gender, race, religion, culture, sexual orientation and identification. We were given an opportunity 30 years ago, and now we are in a position to continue to create and reciprocate opportunities for all of Los Angeles. We do this with great passion, svelte budgets, and a dedicated staff who believe in the theatre that Bush and C. Bernard Jackson believed in.
Our most recent work was a monumental achievement. A Mexican Trilogy: An American Story, featured on the cover of the December issue of American Theatre, is a six-hour epic about Mexican people in the United States that spans 100 years. This work is our response to the negative rhetoric, the hate, the lies being told about who we are, and it speaks to the foundational contributions of immigrants to this country. A Mexican Trilogy: An American Story was hailed by critics as a “dynamic theatrical experience” and compared to the epic work of Tony Kushner.
And yet here we are, three weeks after closing our show and looking at a future where he-who-shall-not-be-named is President-elect—a man who founded his campaign on vitriolic misogyny and racism and was chosen to be our country’s leader.
For an independent theatre with leadership of color, it is never easy. I have had many conversations with family, friends, and community about the deep disappointment regarding this year’s election. Many have expressed sorrow and anger; some are paralyzed by the brashly growing hate crimes and I can’t help but ask myself: Have 30 years of artistic struggle made a difference? Does continuing to fight for the work we have committed our lives to matter?
Amid the chaos and bewilderment, I see the gifted artists, students, community our company has inspired, and I know the answer is yes. Not only has our body of more than a dozen original works mattered in the overall canon of American theatre; it has been and continues to be a source of influence for the generations who follow us.
Now more than ever, our stories matter. They remain the touchstone of our past and our future, but we have to put in the work today. Let’s create beauty, let’s provoke thought, let’s heal our communities through poetry and song, let’s make joy and laughter our form of resistance and strength. We welcome you to our beautiful, creative home in Los Angeles and invite you to join us in the fight for tomorrow. Join us in refusing to be silenced and marginalized. Join us under the lights and on the stage as a collective voice, because united we are stronger, united we are louder, united we cannot and will not be ignored.
José Luis Valenzuela is the artistic director of the Latino Theater Company and the Los Angeles Theatre Center. He is a distinguished professor and the head of the MFA Directing Program at UCLA.