“There are no second acts in American lives” — attributed to F. Scott Fitzgerald
Of course Fitzgerald never met Evelina Fernández. Charity, the second production in her loosely autobiographical Mexican Trilogy, opens Friday at Los Angeles Theatre Center. Fernández’s epic generational saga follows the Garcias, who cross the Mexico/Arizona border circa 1910 and eventually move to California.
The first part of the trilogy to receive a production was actually Part II, Hope, which opened at LATC last year. Hope depicts the Garcias living in Phoenix during the 1960s. Fernández’s real-life daughter, Esperanza America, portrayed one of the daughters, Gina.
In the 2005-set Charity: Part III of A Mexican Trilogy, Fernández herself plays the adult Gina. The script for Fernández’s prequel or part I, Faith, is yet to be completed.
In essence, Fernández’s trilogy explores whether the American dream is applicable to and attainable by Mexican Americans. “We ended Hope with the assassination of JFK,” says Fernández. “And the family is leaving Arizona and moving to Los Angeles. In Charity, it’s decades later, and the family is changed in that Rudy and Gina, who was pregnant in part II, have just lost their son in Iraq. Bobby, who was the younger son in part II, and [his sister] Betty, who used to “˜talk’ with JFK and Fidel Castro, haven’t been able to find the right partners” (Betty’s marriages haven’t lasted; Bobby is gay and single).
Fernández continues: “The grandmother, who was only talked about in part II, plays a big role [in Charity], because she’s still alive after so many years, and all of her children have died. So she’s over 110 years old, and Gina has the responsibility of taking care of the grandmother.” Nana is portrayed by Ofelia Medina, the noted Mexican actress/activist who has starred in telenovelas, depicted Frida Kahlo in a 1984 biopic and onstage in 2000 and supported the Zapatistas.
The playwright says the titles Faith, Hope and Charity were “originally going to be the names of the main characters in each piece, but it didn’t turn out that way. Now they are themes in each play.”
She elaborates on the theme of the play that’s about to open. “There’s a certain cultural experience that goes without saying — that you take care of your family. In the play Gina is taking care of her grandmother, who is over 100 years old. Then a relative arrives from Mexico and Gina is very conflicted about whether or not she wants to bring him into her home, for lots of different reasons.
“In the Latino culture charity goes without saying, there’s no question. Many times you have only enough food for two people, three people show up, you’ll figure out a way to feed five. Families do it every single day…[There are] families of five, six, seven people living on $18,000 or $20,000 a year. So charity is something that’s a given in the Latino community — and I’m sure in other communities, too. I’m only speaking from my experience, because that’s who I am.”
Not surprisingly, Fernández’s dramatic triptych is what the Chicana bard calls “loosely autobiographical,” and she outlines the plot and theme of the final installment to come: “The prologue of Faith takes place during the Mexican Revolution — two young people flee the Revolution, as my grandparents did…They had five daughters…The first one is Dolores, which means ‘pain.’ The second one is Consuelo, which means ‘consolation.’ The third one is Amparo, which means ‘shelter.’ Esperanza — who is my mother — means ‘hope.” The fifth, Antonia, “I’m sure means something, but not literally.
“They landed in this mining town in Arizona, called Jerome, and the five girls grew up during World War II. It’s about having enough faith to leave everything behind, come to a new country and build a life,” explains Fernández.
Although born in 1954 in Boyle Heights, Fernández was raised in Phoenix until she was nine. “When my parents divorced, we moved to East Los Angeles and moved in with my grandparents. So I really consider myself to be an Angeleno,” notes Fernández, who attended East LA schools, including Rowan Avenue Elementary School, Stevenson Junior High School, Garfield High School, East Los Angeles College and Cal State LA.
In grammar school Fernández started writing short stories that were published in local East LA newspapers, but she never formally studied the craft of playwriting. The acting bug bit while she attended Stevenson Junior High and Garfield High, where Fernández participated in school plays, as well as in the historic 1968 walkout of Chicano students. An early first marriage at age 19 put her acting career on hiatus until she became more deeply involved with the Chicano Movement, joining CASA (Centro de Acción Social Autónomo). Her onetime CASA compañero, Antonio Villaraigosa, remains a friend — as well as LA’s mayor.
Fernández feels there was a higher social consciousness during the 1970s than there is in today’s younger generation. She strongly condemns the recent government-imposed shutdown of Tucson’s Chicano studies program as “bordering on fascism. To stop people from learning their history — this isn’t made up, fabricated history. This is true history. I mean, these things happened. How can you stop people from learning their own history?” asks Fernández, who strives to render her people’s saga in dramatic form.
Theater for the People
She is joined in this aesthetic enterprise and struggle by her onstage and offstage partner for 31 years, husband José Luis Valenzuela, who has been the Latino Theater Company’s artistic director for 25 years and LATC’s artistic director since 2006. Fernández declares that LTC “wanted to do the trilogy because of the anti-immigrant crap going on in the country. The sentiment that ‘we don’t belong here, send everybody back to Mexico.’ Whether you’re second or third generation, sometimes if you make a comment about something, it’s like ‘go back to Mexico.’ But come on! My people have been here for 100 years. How can you say that to me? So we decided to write the trilogy because of that.”
As Charity is more bilingual than most LTC plays, English and Spanish supertitles will be projected at LATC’s downtown complex. Fernández defines LTC as “a company, our artistic, creative body we work in as artists. LTC is the operator of the center. We know there are so many artists of color, gays, Jews, Muslims, there’s so much diversity in this city, and we’re trying to create a center where the stages look like the city.”
Valenzuela, who is also the head of the MFA directing program at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television, says LATC aims to “bring people together to talk about art and culture and the convergence of communities. We do mostly new plays, we talk about what’s going on in our communities, especially in LA…LTC is a company evolving, hopefully bringing in a whole new group of company members, that puts together the Latino perspective of who we are in the theater, in a national level.” The US-born, Mexico-raised Valenzuela adds, “We’re always looking for ways to work with our Mexican colleagues,” such as Medina.
Does Fernández believe Mexican-Americans can also attain the American dream? “It applies to Chicanos as much as it applies to anybody else. We’re Americans, and we’re so far removed from being just Mexican…We’re as American as anybody else, so the American dream applies to us in the same way it applies to other working people,” she maintains.
This theater may be for the people, but does LA’s Latino community support the stage? “Yes — they support it if they know about it,” states Fernández. “If we produced enough Latino plays, we could build a regular theatergoing audience, and that’s one of the things we’re trying to do at LATC.” Fernández has also appeared in films such as 1992’s American Me and 2000’s Luminarias (which she wrote, first as a play that was produced at LATC in 1996).
Conflict of Interest?
How do the husband and wife team respond to those who might see an inherent conflict of interest for so many of a theater company’s plays to be written by a playwright whose spouse is the company’s artistic director? Fernández distnguishes between Valenzuela’s roles as artistic director of Latino Theater Company and artistic director of LATC. “The plays I write are for the Latino Theater Company. And I’m the resident playwright for that company. And we work very, very hard to be able to do our work as a company.” However, under Valenzuela’s leadership, LATC presents “a lot of other playwrights of color,” she notes.
“If I start worrying about that stuff — I just don’t think about it,” she adds. “We’re a company, we’ve been together for 25 years…We continue to do and produce our own work. Nobody raises the money for our productions but us.”
Valenzuela believes this perception is based on an individualistic conception of artistic creation. “What people have to understand about the Latino Theater Company is that we’re an ensemble, we’ve been together for 25 years, the same actors, and the same writer and same director. We come from a totally different tradition of theater of creating ensemble work, which is a very different idea of what the American theater is like. Because how we build the play is very different…usually [Fernández] writes for certain actors in the company…It’s a very different process than what the original theater process is in the American theater. It’s not a conflict of interest — it’s a different model.”
Fernández elaborates on this creative process that is far more collective than the popular Western notion of the lone artiste, scribbling or daubing away in his garret. “I work very closely with the company. We talk; I write. We go back; we read. We talk; I go back — it’s an ongoing process.”
LTC members who act in Charity include Sal Lopez and Geoffrey Rivas. And it seems that Fernández’s family is having a “second act” — her two children, Fidel Gomez and Esperanza America, are both thespians who, she says, “do socio-political, young hip theater, performing in LATC’s The Vault: Bankrupt about the financial crisis and The Vault: Unlocked. Fidel played my son in [her earlier play] Solitude and Esperanza played Gina in Hope.”
They are continuing a family tradition that film historian Luis Reyes, co-author of the seminal work Hispanics in Hollywood, describes in these words: “José Luis Valenzuela and Evelina Fernández have been able to secure and maintain a place where Latino actors can work in a professional setting, with plays developed in-house and giving a voice to Latinos. Few others have been able to fulfill this promise in LA.”
Evelina Fernández’s plays may be about Garcias, not Gatsbys, but her trilogy’s
characters are as much a part of America’s tapestry as Fitzgerald’s.
Charity: Part III of A Mexican Trilogy. Previews Thursday, opens Friday. Thu-Sat 8 pm; Sun, 3 pm, through June 3. Tickets: $40; students, seniors and veterans: $20; $10 Thu. Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring Street, LA. 866-811-4111. http://thelatc.org/.
***All Charity: Part III of A Mexican Trilogy production photos by Ed Krieger
Ed Rampell was named after CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow and majored in cinema at Manhattan’s Hunter College. After graduating, Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting for 20/20, Reuters, AP, Radio Australia, Newsweek. Rampell went on to move to L.A. and co-write “The Finger” column for New Times LA. He has written on theater, film, and opera for The Progressive Magazine, Variety, LA Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, LA Daily News, The Progressive, Written By, Guardian, Mother Jones, Financial Times, Islands, The Nation, Edge, AlterNet, Jesther Entertainment, Hollywood Progressive, JabCat, and LA Progressive. Rampell has appeared on CBS’ 48 Hours, C-SPAN’s Book TV, NPR, Pacifica Radio, the 2005 Australian documentary Hula Girls, Imagining Paradise. He co-authored two film histories, Made In Paradise, Hollywood’s Films of Hawaii and the South Seas and Pearl Harbor in the Movies, and is sole author of Progressive Hollywood, A People’s Film History of the United States.