Latino Theatre Fest turns five
Festival curator Henry Godinez recalls the triumphs and lessons learned.
Politics and Latino theater often go hand in hand. It was Cesar Chavez’s legendary farmworker protests in the ’60s, featuring agitprop performances on flatbed trucks, that gave rise to the seminal Teatro Campesino movement spearheaded by Luis Valdez, the first real self-consciously Latino movement in modern American theater. Forty-odd years later, the Goodman Theatre’s fifth biennial Latino Theatre Festival (Saturday 19–July 25) is deeply indebted to Chicago’s own big political moment for making possible its proudest coup: the first U.S. visit by Cuba’s Teatro Buendía, one of the most influential post-revolutionary groups in Cuban theater.
As festival curator and resident Goodman artistic associate Henry Godinez tells it, the key to Buendía’s visit fell into place in November ’08. “I’d been aware of [Buendía] since 2003, when I went to Cuba,” he says, “and I tried to get them here then, but our immigration lawyer, Bill Martinez, said, ‘I’m not even going to take your money. It’s not going to happen under Bush.’ Then, when Barack was elected, I immediately went to [Goodman executive director] Roche Schulfer and said, ‘What do you think?’ And he said, ‘Let’s go for it.’”
That pattern emerges a few times as the dapper 51-year-old director, who juggles his Goodman duties with full-time teaching at Northwestern, lays out the festival’s history for me in his Dearborn Street office. Godinez owes his own position at the theater to buttonholing Schulfer after learning about an audience-development grant the Goodman received in the early ’90s.
“I felt comfortable going up to him, because I’d acted there,” the Havana native and co-founder, with Eddie Torres, of Teatro Vista, explains. “So I said, ‘Dude, you’re doing these great things with August Wilson. But there’s a Latino community out here, too.’ And in typical Roche fashion, he said, ‘Well, what do you want to do?’” The resulting series of projects culminated in a triumphant 2000 production of Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit, in which Godinez directed Valdez’s son Lakin, an experience he cites as the peak moment of his career.
And then it was back to directing A Christmas Carol. Two years after the Valdez play drew an unprecedented Latino audience to the Goodman, Godinez was starting to feel as though a significant opening was slipping away. The theater had just moved to its impressive new quarters, but its programming reflected old habits. So he told Schulfer, “We put out a huge invitation to the Latino community with Zoot Suit, but then we moved and we forgot to leave a forwarding address!”
Thus began the Latino Theatre Festival, which has welcomed performers including acclaimed Spanish performance artist Marta Carrasco and L.A.-based monologist Luis Alfaro, and has introduced more than 20,000 people to prominent local, national and international Latino theater companies. In its curator’s eyes, the festival aims to disseminate the distinctive elements of Latin-American and U.S. Latino theater traditions, which offer a more lyrical and sensual approach than the naturalism that still dominates Chicago stages.
Cuba’s Teatro Buendía exemplifies this alternative path. “It’s like they’re from a time capsule,” says Godinez, describing the company’s enduring commitment to the kind of spiritually and aesthetically rigorous work associated with ’60s icons such as Jerzy Grotowski and Peter Brook. In a phone conversation from Cuba, with Godinez pitching in occasional translation, director Flora Lauten, 67, explained that Buendía infuses pieces based on European models with a Cuban sensibility. “Caribbean cultures have a unique sense of the world, and Cuba is still a very young culture,” says Lauten, who cofounded the company in 1986. “We bring our own rhythms, passions and energy.”
“They are possessed as performers in a way that we just rarely see,” adds Godinez, who describes the ensemble members scavenging for materials on the streets of Havana and waiting meditatively in costume onstage hours before the curtain rises.
For Buendía, theater is not a commercial pursuit, but a revolutionary form of life, one that enables audiences to grasp the most profound issues. “We present all the different colors, the possibilities of life, but not sweetly, not complacently,” Lauten says.
Unofficially, revolution serves as a theme for this year’s festival, marking the centennial of Mexico’s great uprising. The spiritual and artistic ferment that Buendía represents is complemented by the Goodman’s own production of Karen Zacarías’s The Sins of Sor Juana, a study of the 17th-century Mexican poet who challenged the Catholic Church’s restricted views of women. “I think it was a play that was meant to make bridges,” says the Washington-based Zacarías. “I hope it’ll stretch everybody’s horizons.”
“Sor Juana never picked up a gun; she picked up a pen, and she threatened more people than she could have with a gun,” Godinez says. Godinez has made his own career of reorganizing boundaries. Even as he cites with approval younger writers such as Sarah Ruhl, Kristoffer Diaz and Tarell McCraney whose work shares the Latino tradition’s non-naturalistic bent, he’s not ready to rest on his laurels; he’s eying moving future festivals from the summer slot, for instance, to allow school groups to attend. “I’m proud of what we’ve done with Teatro Vista, with the festival,” he says, “but I’m never satisfied.”