By Julia Stier
Not all heroes wear capes – some wear the title of Artistic Director. One such hero is Elisa Bocanegra, Founder and Producing Artistic Director of Hero Theatre. A social justice theatre company, Hero is dedicated to their mission of “reimagining great works for social progress by championing voices that need to be heard. Now.”
One way that Hero fulfills its mission has been by introducing playwrights who are women of color to the classical American cannon. Bocanegra shared with me how Hero got its start championing these voices, and why it’s important to do so.
Hero first got its start introducing women of color playwrights into the classic American cannon with Festival Irene and the work of Maria Irene Fornes. Can you tell us a little bit about the festival and what it meant?
Irene was a friend of mine. I knew her back in the day when I was a kid starting to act in NYC. I basically grew up on the plays of her students from the legendary INTAR Hispanic Playwrights Lab. Irene talked to me a lot about her plays and let me into a couple of her rehearsal rooms. That was a big deal for someone like me. I was a theater nerd. I couldn’t get enough of it. I was also a bit of a freak to my family members who couldn’t understand why I liked it so much. My childhood was pretty lonely because of that.
Somewhere along my early journey, I met Migdalia Cruz, one of Irene’s students. Migdalia wrote Miriam’s Flowers and The Have Little about young Puerto Rican women. Migdalia was Boricua from the Bronx, like me. Except I was actually born in Newark, NJ., an even more dangerous and impoverished area. Migdalia’s work made me feel seen. Those were my stories too. Her characters spoke like me. I knew theatre was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life after discovering her work.
I guess I say all that because Migdalia credits Irene so much for teaching her. Irene taught so many of our great Latinx playwrights. She gave them a space and shared her knowledge.
I had the idea of bringing Irene’s plays forward and claiming them as classics, somewhere around 2014, three years after I started Hero Theatre. I started my own company (actually my mentor Olympia Dukakis made me start it) in order to give artists of color, like myself, more opportunities to do the classics. Then I realized my company would basically consist of us performing plays by dead white men. And that didn’t seem right.
Then I kept digging and reading everything I could get my hands on that Irene had written. You know, Irene had won all these Obie Awards, but no one in my acting classes or many in the theatre community, even knew of her. They worship Sam Shepard and Tennessee Williams. Both writers whose work I really like by the way. Well, sometimes I like it. Sometimes I can’t relate to those stories at all. Irene deserved to be recognized in that same way.
When Migdalia told me some money was needed to help pay for Irene’s nurse aide who was helping to keep her alive, I planned the festival in her honor. Teachers are my heroes. Irene is one of my heroes. And now her students carry on this legacy. My people’s legacy. Too important to ignore. Especially for my comunidad. We called it Festival Irene. My intern used to say it sounded like a hurricane. That made me happy. Irene was a true force.
I miss visiting her in the nursing home. Alzheimer’s was eating her brain up, and it was sad she couldn’t talk back to me. She used to like it when I sang to her in Spanish, though. I know Migdalia, Irene’s friend and agent Morgan Jenness and Michelle Memran, who created a documentary about her, must miss her even more. I’m grateful to them for fighting to keep her alive for so long. Irene was and will always be a treasure.
How has Hero expanded the American classical cannon?
I honestly don’t know how to answer that. Because I don’t know how much impact we have out there. It’s hard to measure the impact of art quantitatively. In fact I don’t think we can. I can only go by what my audiences receive and what their feedback is. I do know that I am going to spend the rest of my producing career acknowledging great works by our women writers of color. It breaks my heart that my students and mentees don’t know about this important work. It’s too important to ignore! Many of these writers are still alive and writing and facing age discrimination. So many of us stand on the shoulders of their work, but they are deemed too old to be produced or to be writing for TV. It’s sad, and frankly, makes me furious.
How do you define a ‘classic’?
I keep thinking about my mentees. Of future generations. In this day and age, we need to examine closely what message we are sending by calling something a classic. If we don’t reshape the classic cannon to be reflective of our experiences, including the experiences of generations of artists of color, we are doing a disservice to the art form. When I’m curating our season and selecting a classic, I look at plays that were written 20 years ago or older – and who has written them. I ask artists from my leadership team, most of who are still in their 20’s, what the play makes them feel while reading it. The classics belong to all of us after all, verdad?
Why don’t we see more theatres producing shows written by women of color?
Because these theatres need to be run by more women of color. Basta. If white theatre producers really want to make a change, they’ll step aside and make room for women of color to lead. I know many who are comfortable making us their associate AD’s or putting us on their leadership team. Those ideas are vital for them, right? But if you take the sole credit publicly for being the organization’s artistic and thought-leader, then you are co-opting our work.
Same goes for heads of major MFA programs. Step aside please! Or make conscious systemic changes part of your job. Be an ally. I am lucky to have friends and colleagues who are. Fight for us, please! That way when we do get these positions, we are not held back by systemic bias within these organizations. That way most boards, that are historically white at these institutions, can’t say “see we gave them a chance and they messed up.” They may not say it out loud, but I can assure you that those thoughts will lie somewhere in their minds.
One of my best friends, Judy Bauerlein, who heads up the theatre program at CalState San Marcos, recognizes her privilege. She’s knows that she worked hard to get her position, but she still got it easier than a woman of color would have. Making systemic change is part of her ethos. We’ve been friends for years and our arguments over racism have been epic. I name it right away. She apologizes when she is wrong and I stick by her side. Because I knew someday we would have one heck of an ally for artists of color on our hands. She is amazing.
Lastly, I have to say, that some of our major theatres leaders, who are white, became producers after they had other careers in theater, for example being stage managers or actors. Now if I, or another person of color, applied for a major artistic position, having been a stage manager mainly or an actor, and not having an MFA or PhD – which many of them do not- would we be granted those same positions? Hmm.
What do you think needs to change?
Oof…what doesn’t need to change. I think my last answer says a lot. More funding for smaller companies please. We get shut out. The funding mainly goes to the bigger theatres. Then they invite us to be part of their festivals and apply for funding using our names and our work. It’s not fair. Many of our companies do it because they are desperate to be able to produce with more means. We have it so hard and I understand them.
We need more diversity training for staff members and students at performing arts programs at our colleges. One of my mentees was told he needed to be “more Black” in the scene he performed by one of his classmates. This is at a graduate program in a major city. Don’t get me started.
We need more love for one another as human beings. This list is epic. I think you have a word count so I will stop now.
What do theatres miss out on by not producing works by writers of diverse backgrounds?
Non-profits are supposed to be of service to their community. I ask the leaders of our major theatres out there now: Are your seasons reflective of the communities they are in? Are your staff members of color – being asked to relocate to small, historically racist towns where your theatres are at- given emotional support at work and beyond? Are your boards of directors reflective of our entire country, and if they are, are all board members treated equally in spite of what their donations are? How do you measure the success of a show written by an artist of color…by the numbers they bring in?
Why has Hero decided to champion these voices?
Because it’s my core value to fight for those in need who have been marginalized. It’s more important to me than anything. And because I am lucky enough to have a staff that believes in my programming. It’s amazing to see the young white women on my producing team fighting for artists of color. I challenge them to grow and they stick with us. It makes me hopeful for the future.
What other women of color playwrights would you like to see recognized?
There are so many who should be! Migdalia Cruz and Cherrie Moraga, both Fornés’ students are incredible and still writing incredible plays. We lost Ntozake Shange not long ago, and I feel there has been a resurgence of her work. I wish that would have happened while she was still with us. Her work is amazing.
What is next for Hero?
We are producing TEA, written over 30 years ago by Velina Hasu Houston. It’s about five Japanese war brides who come to America after World War II. We produced a reading of it last year. I cried so hard. It reminded me of my mom’s experience when she came from Puerto Rico. And I’m not going to lie, having all of those incredible Asian-American actresses, who are my friends and Hero company members, on our stage together made me cry. When I think of how hard I have had it as a Latina in the industry, I think of some of my Asian sisters. They have had even less opportunity. We are also producing a show this fall about gun safety in schools. That one will be immersive. My younger company members love immersive theatre, and I felt it would be great to marry that art form with the social justice work we do. Hopefully someday, if I ever have grandkids, they will call these plays a classic.