Playwright Oliver Mayer’s “Yerma in the Desert”

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by Julio Martinez

Playwright Oliver Mayer first came onto the L.A. theater scene in 1996 with the Mark Taper Forum’s production of Mayer’s Blade to the Heat, a highly expressionistic look at a champion boxer forced to confront his sexuality when he is accused of being gay. The production was directed by Ron Link.

“It was very successful,” said Mayer. “After Blade to the Heat got so much attention, I started getting film and television offers from Hollywood. Madonna bought the rights to the play. I worked freelance [and] did a lot of different kinds of writing, but I didn’t do as well as a lot of people in this town.”

In 2003, Mayer joined the faculty of USC’s School of Dramatic Arts and has since achieved tenure. “It is the single hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” he affirmed. “It was a seven-year interview. Now I am an Associate Dean of Strategic Initiatives, which is a big title but basically says I try to connect our school with other interesting entities, bodies, and individuals.”

Mayer has remained active as a playwright throughout his academic career and is now about to present the premiere of Yerma in the Desert, produced by a new company, Urban Theatre Movement. “They are very rough, but they are full of heart,” he said. “My wife, Marlene Forte, and I have become involved with them recently. Marlene was a founding member of LAByrinth Theatre Company in New York in 1992 and she says UTM resembles the LAB guys back when it was founded. That was David Zayas, John Ortiz, Sam Rockwell, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Judy Reyes—a lot of good people.”

In 2016, Mayer wrote a play for UTM called Blood Match, based on Federico Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding, but set in Sinaloa, Mexico, and involving the drug trade. (The harvest is a harvest of poppies.) It incorporates the music of Gloria Trevi, the specter of Jesus Malverde (the patron saint of Mexico’s drug cartels), and the iconography of Northern Mexico. “UTM did a great job with the play,” said Mayer.

That experience encouraged Mayer to write Yerma of the Desert, based on the Lorca drama, Yerma. “This time I really made it mine,” he said, “inspired by Nilo Cruz taking Anna Karenina and turning it into Anna of the Tropics. I wanted to make this my own piece, but I still want it based in Yerma, which I think is Lorca’s best play.”

Mayer set the play in the present day at an elite university. His subject matter is not the students or faculty but the faceless people who actually keep the university running: the custodians and the men and women of the department of public safety. “It’s weird how well it fits to transfer Lorca’s characters from the fields of Spain to the halls of academia,” Mayer said. “But this immigrant-based, blue-collar, almost invisible kind of work is in many aspects the most important one that makes a university move through its daily existence.

“Obviously, the students and faculty are going to get all the attention,” Mayer noted, “but the maintenance staff at that level are essential. The story of them, mixed with the tragedy that comes from Lorca’s play, creates a story that is really current, grappling with race, immigration, sexual identity, and gender inequality. I think it is a window through which we see where we are in LA right now. I am using what I know right now: the elite university that I am in. It is almost my looking glass into the people who I think deserve to have their story told.”

Forte and Edgar Landa are co-directing the play, which Mayer wrote directly for UTM. “I think 11 out of 12 parts cast are company members,” he said. “And it is very female-centric. That is going to be great. Music is incorporated because I can’t help myself. The play opens with that great song by Stair Steps, ‘Ooh Child.’ There is something very LA about that song because it was in Boyz in the Hood.”

Mayer is deeply committed to infusing his theater works with music to underscore the thematic vitality of his plays. For Yerma in the Desert, the songs of Ricky Martin were key. “The character Yerma is a custodian. In Lorca’s play, she was a washerwoman. Her husband (Juan) and Victor are guards with Department of Health and Safety. In the Lorca play they were shepherds. Juan is very attractive on the outside but has internal problems,” Mayer said. “One of the things people see in him is that he could be in a boy band. It was only natural that the Ricky Martin music came to mind.” Juan Luis Guerra’s song, “Burbujas de Amor,” is also in the play, “because there is so much romance in these women’s lives,” Mayer said. “The Yerma character has a dream represented by this song about finding true love and being soft and intimate with a partner who is not just pretty on the outside, but romantic on the inside.

“These people have complex lives,” Mayer added. “The men and women who clean up students’ apartments and the faculty residences know things about them. It is up to them to keep their knowledge to themselves and usually, they do. But it doesn’t mean they don’t have opinions.”

Mayer feels he is now at a resurgence of his career as a playwright. Born in Hollywood, raised in North Hollywood, he went to Cornell, attended Oxford and received his master’s degree at Columbia. “I came back to LA in 1989, and got a job at the Mark Taper Forum on the artistic staff, just as the company began work on Angels in America.”

The Taper proved to be Mayer’s continuing education in his quest to be a playwright. “I wrote my first play at 20. I am 52 now,” he said. “I try to write one or two plays a year. In a 32-year career, I have probably produced two-thirds of my plays. So, playwriting has always been number one for me [and] now I have taken things into my own hands as a playwright.”

Mayer has a full schedule. Members Only, his sequel to Blade to the Heat, is going to be produced by the Latino Company and Jose Luis Valenzuela in March 2018. Set in Manhattan, it takes place twenty years after the 1950s events of the original play, when ideas about sexual diversity have advanced and “AIDS is just beginning to be a problem,” Mayer said. “Quinn, the main character, is in his 40s, and still fighting, and now he is going take on the task of training a female fighter.”

And then there is the Paderewski Cycle, a competition established by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute for a treatment of a musical based on the life of the famed 20th-century Polish pianist and political figure. A finalist, Mayer will present his treatment, Three Paderewskis, on November 3 at the USC Brain and Creativity Institute’s Cammilleri Hall. “It is surprisingly cool to be involved,” he said. “But at this moment, I am deeply involved in rehearsals for Yerma in the Desert.”


Greenway Court Theatre and Urban Theatre Movement present the premiere of Yerma in The Desert, scripted by Oliver Mayer, co-directed by Marlene Forte and Edgar Landa, opening Saturday, November 17. Greenway Court Theatre is located at 544 N. Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles.Blood Match is planned as part of the Mark Taper Forum’s Block Party schedule.

Julio Martinez

Julio Martinez

Julio pens the weekly LA STAGE Insider column for @ This Stage Magazine, as well as the monthly LA STAGE History column. He is a recurring contributor to Written By (the monthly publication of the Writer’s Guild of America) and is the TeleVision columnist for Latin Heat Entertainment. On air, he hosts the weekly Arts in Review program for KPFK 90.7 FM. An active journalist for over 30 years, Julio’s articles and reviews have appeared in Los Angeles Times Magazine, Daily Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, L.A. Weekly, Stage Raw, Backstage West, Westways Magazine, and Drama-Logue Magazine, among others.