An Insider’s Guide to Latinx Theater
What is Latinx theater? Not any one thing, according to Noe Montez. The chair of the Department of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies, as well as an actor and director, Montez focuses his research on Latinx and Latin American theater and performance.
Growing up in Texas, Montez was aware mainly of his own Latinx and Tejano identities, he said. But as he entered the world of Latinx theater-making, he soon found there was a much wider range than he had imagined.
“There is no singular Latinx experience. California Chicanx, for example, are very different than Tejanx people on the Texas-Mexico border,” he said. “Or Nuyoricans or Afro Latinx folks from the Caribbean or Central America or Latinx folks with Indigenous roots.”
As a result, there’s also a great diversity of Latinx playwrights and the subject matter they tackle, Montez said. While some tell stories about labor organization, or sexism, Migdalia Cruz captures a particular Nuyorican experience, while Octavio Solis shares experiences of the American Southwest.
“And some folks are just creating these silly, fun, farces and satires, like the group Culture Clash,” Montez said. “There are lots of complexities within Latinx identities, and all of those stories and perspectives need to be told onstage.”
In a conversation with Tufts Now, Montez talked about some of those stories, and about his own work—both onstage and off.
Tufts Now: How did you get involved with Latinx theater?
Noe Montez: I'm a Latinx person myself, and I'd never been to the theater until I was a first-year student in college. The very first show I saw was an adaptation of a play by the German playwright Bertolt Brecht, in which a chain-link fence separated the audience from the performers. There was an onstage execution happening. And if the audience was so moved, they were invited to tear down the chain-link fence and intervene in that execution. That blew my mind. It became clear that theater had a political resonance and potency that I hadn't imagined. And that drew my interest into the theater, and I started taking more courses, majoring, starting my career.
Like many Latinx artists, I became frustrated and concerned because I wanted to see stories about people like myself and experiences of the sort that I, and some of my friends, grew up with.
Latinx theater has existed in the United States for as long as there have been Latinx people . But in the 1990s and early 2000s, there was a boom of plays, theater companies, directors, and actors, whose work began to spread. Getting to work with some of those artists was the push toward that aspect of my career as an artist and as a scholar.
I started working as a theater-maker, acting, directing, working as a dramaturg on productions and trying to make sure that Latinx stories were represented on stage. I've had the opportunity to collaborate with several playwrights bringing new works to the stage for the first time, acting from time to time, and mostly directing in support of Latinx theater projects.
As a director, the challenge is always figuring out how to be true to world-building--to create communities that reflect the specificity of the geographies of the people whose stories are being told, and to do it in a way that makes people excited to walk into a theater, and see and know a world that they might not otherwise have access to. I think there's something beautiful and political in that work. And that's what spurs the joy of directing in me.
Tell us about Latinx works with the kind of political resonance that drew you to theater.
In the 1960s, Luis Valdez, the grandfather of Latinx theater, and his theater troupe, El Teatro Campesino, performed political plays on the back of flatbed trucks in farms in California to advocate for workers’ rights and call attention to the plight of Latinx farm workers. Valdez performed for workers on strike alongside activists like Cesar Chavez, trying to galvanize a workers’ movement and create safer farming practices.
Cherrie Moraga writes beautiful queer and feminist Latinx stories about the effects of environmental abuse and the ways that structural violence harms Latinx people.
Even the works that are not necessarily trying to directly respond to a political crisis are charged or empowered with telling stories and humanizing people. For example, Luis Alfaro—whose plays are getting produced at some of the largest theaters in the country, in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago—draws from Greek myth as a source of inspiration that he can adapt to tell Latinx-specific stories.
Sharing perspectives and worldviews that audiences may not necessarily be familiar with—that in itself is a political act.
Can you name a few Latinx plays that you have really connected with emotionally?
Virginia Grise a has a beautiful play called Blu that's a poetic and incredibly moving story about queer Latinx people and anti-war politics and childhood told in this dream-like structure. It's probably at the very top of the list of plays that I'm most interested in directing next.
There’s Kristopher Diaz, whose play The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity was a finalist for the Pulitzer about a decade ago. I staged his play, Welcome to Arroyo's, at Tufts in 2013—it was the first Latinx play staged by the Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies.
Welcome to Arroyo's really resonated with me. It's essentially a story about coming to a deeper understanding of one's identity through scholarship and research and a deep dive into one's generational past.
What are you working on off the stage?
I write about both Latin American and Latinx theater, but I'm currently creating an edited collection with Routledge, a Companion to Latinx Theater and Performance, that's going to trace how various manifestations of Latinx self-determination in contemporary U.S. theater and performance work to affirm and celebrate the value of Latinx life.
It analyzes Latinx theater and performance across the history of the United States, drawing on 40 to 50 collaborations from scholars and artists with a range of focuses—from identities and how identities are constructed, to histories of Latinx theater-making and performance, to thinking about access and education, to imagining better and safer worlds and resistance against racism, sexism, homophobia, and colorism. It also goes behind the scenes to look at the work of designers, technicians, actors, directors, vocal coaches, as well as administrators, funding sources, programming structures, and networking projects.
The idea is that it will be as comprehensive as possible exploration of Latinx theater as it exists today and how we got to that point. It’s an exciting collaboration, and it really allows us to champion some of the very best Latinx theater-makers in the United States.
Monica Jimenez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.