Rising Seattle theatre collective eSe Teatro: Seattle Latinos Take Stage is dedicated to reflecting the various experiences of being Latino in the United States—or as artistic director Rose Cano likes to put it “all of the colors in the rainbow of brown.” Last week they hosted the organization’s Northwest Regional meeting of the National Latino Theatre Alliance at ACT, adding Seattle’s voice to a national conversation about Latino Theatre. eSe Teatro (named both for the Spanish pronunciation of the letter “s” and the familiar Chicano phrase “wus up, ese?”) opened their first full-scale production at the ACT Theatre last week: Oedipus El Rey, award-winning playwright Luis Alfaro’s retelling of the Greek classic set in the California prison system. Cano talks about the intersection between art and society, and the meaning of destiny in ancient epic cultures.
How do you define Latin American Theatre?
I don’t think it’s any one definition. It doesn’t mean that everything Latino has to be folkloric. It doesn’t have to have a poncho and a hat. It’s not about that, it’s about changing that national conversation. What is Latino theatre? It’s an open debate.
What eSe Teatro is trying to do is give a platform for Latino voices. And to give local Latino theatre artists in Seattle a place to express themselves on various different levels. It can be as an actor, as a director, as a writer, as a volunteer, as a stage manager, as a lighting designer. It’s giving a place—a psychological place. I think Latino theatre also can include plays not written by Latino artists—like Shakespeare and Greeks—but with a Latino director that brings a specificity to it.
My vision is to create a sustainable audience because I think that’s what Seattle needs, just because of the sheer demographics and the number of Spanish speaking people here. There are cities smaller than Seattle like Portland, which has had a Latino theatre for about 30 years or so. So we think why, what happened with Seattle, where are we? And part of what we do is outreach to our new audiences. It’s twofold—we’re outreaching to Latino professionals and to the people they serve.
Can you talk about how your work in the medical field overlaps with your art?
What I found is that art closely reflects society. I lived for 10 years in Peru and a lot of my artistic sensibility is from that decade that I spent participating in a lot of theatre festivals and living and creating work there where it seemed like art was an indispensable way of showing your citizenry. It doesn’t mean it had to be a pamphlet with a sign, no—it’s all about high aesthetics.
I learned the different ways of bringing messages. If you have an illiterate population you’re going to bring the message in a certain way. If you have this very elite theatergoing audience in a fancy theatre you might bring the message in another way. When we choose a play immediately in my head is “How can I reach out to the community this play is talking about?” I can’t keep the two worlds apart.
This latest play that I wrote—Don Quixote and Sancho Panza homeless in Seattle—is about the intersection between chronic inebriation and mental health in homeless Latinos in downtown Seattle. Because for two years I worked in an emergency room at Harborview on the weekends and so we’d see a lot of these homeless gents.
Do you see any particular connections between ancient Greek myth and Chicano culture?
Chicano culture is informed by ancient cultures—Aztec cultures and Maya cultures, and so I do think there is that parallel to being guerreros—being warriors. Because you feel it if you’re a part of a Latin American culture that there’s a huge culture behind it as big as the Greeks or other western cultures that informs your psyche in a way.
What can people expect to come away thinking about after seeing El Rey?
People will go away with a sense of big epic questions but brought down to a specific community. I think that’s amazing how even these big tragic situations definitely happen today. We can ask ourselves these things about destiny. Can we change our path? A lot of us are immigrants, we came to this country, our parents brought us here for a reason. So that was our parents wanting to change our destiny—their destiny. They said we’re gonna try this. We’re gonna try to change our lives. There are things you can do to move your destiny, to encourage your destiny, to put some muscle in there. So how much is pre-written?
But ultimately Oedipus can’t change his fate.
I think there are still some questions. How much is it the tragic flaw of the person—the hubris—that brings them down? I don’t think it’s giving the message that you can’t change what you’re born into, because people pick up and leave. They cross the border every day.
Oedipus El Rey runs through Dec. 16 at ACT Theatre. Pictured above: Oedipus El Rey. Photo by Tess Malone.