• 'American Mariachi' community conversation: Food, music and tough issues

    by John Moore | Jan 18, 2018
    Making of 'American Mariachi'

    Local performers Deborah Gallegos and Yolanda Ortega of Su Teatro at the DCPA's 'recent American Mariachi' community conversation. To see more photos, click the image above to be taken to a full gallery. Photos by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.


    'We've got some work to do,' DCPA tells Latinx community at forum addressing both barriers and opportunities

    By John Moore
    Senior Ats Journalist

    The DCPA hosted one its largest community conversations on record Jan. 11, when about 100 local Latinx and others gathered to talk about the many possibilities and challenges afforded by the Theatre Company's upcoming world premiere of the musical play American Mariachi.  

    And several admitted they came looking for a fight. One was Reynaldo Mireles, program manager of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center of Colorado.

    “My first thought when I received the invitation was that I want to go down there and fight with some gringos,” Mirelis said to laughter. “I thought, ‘Well, I never got an invitation from the DCPA to have a conversation about us being Latinos before,’ so I was really coming in with that fighting energy.”  

    But he quickly softened after arriving at the DCPA’s Newman Center for Theatre Education. And for two reasons, he said: “There was cena … and there was musica.”

    Dinner and music.

    Cynthia Reifler Flores. American Mariachi Photo by John MooreThe latter was a rousing, 30-minute performance by the American Mariachi house band led by Cynthia Reifler Flores (pictured right), described by director James Vásquez as “one of the leading female mariachis in the world.” The musical demonstration, led by Flores' singing, moved legendary, five-decade Su Teatro actor Yolanda Ortega to spontaneously tell Flores: “You sing with your heart and with every little fiber in your body. I'm your new groupie.”

    Attendees represented a wide range of metro cultural, business and civic groups including the Mexican Cultural Center, Telemundo Denver, Mi Casa Resource Center, Museo de las Americas, The GrowHaus and the Denver mayor’s office, along with individual artists, teachers and students. Also representing was the entire cast of American Mariachi, José Cruz González’s story of a young woman in the 1970s who becomes determined to form an all-female mariachi band in a desperate attempt to connect with a mother lost in her dementia. The play, a co-production with the Old Globe Theatre, moves directly to San Diego for performances there after it closes in Denver on Feb. 25.

    Others admitted to their cynicism as well. But after 90 minutes of blunt and constructive conversation about the sustainability of the DCPA’s aggressive commitment to communities of color both during and after American Mariachi, any opening clenched fists changed to handshakes.

    “We are here to support you, and I am really excited about bringing more GLBT from our community to the play,” Mireles said at the end of the evening. “And of course, our ninas, because I am wanting them to see what they could actually become one day.”

    How did Mireles and others move so far in such a short period of time? In part because DCPA Director of Strategic Projects FloraJane DiRienzo came clean.

    “We’ve got some work to do,” DiRienzo said flatly. Not so much onstage: The Theatre Company has in recent years staged three world premieres by González as well as new works by Karen Zacarias, Octavio Solis, Rogelio Martinez and other Latinx playwrights.

    “We have always had a longstanding commitment to diverse voices on stage," she added. "But in some ways that has fallen a little bit short because we have make sure that our audiences are just as diverse as those voices that are onstage

    Suggestions from the community included making sure bilingual employees are positioned at the front door of the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex to welcome all first-time patrons who need help finding their way around. Others hope that translated supertitles like you see at the opera are made available for non-English-speaking audiences. Others wondered if a performance or two might be presented entirely in Spanish. The director and his cast committed to both exploring those possibilities, and to making personal appearances at any local school that asks them.

    The primary, systemic barriers to attendance at major arts venues by communities of color are not unique to Denver: The price barrier, getting the word out to the people who might be most invested in a given story, and the cost and general intimidation of downtown parking.

    One of the most moving testaments to that reality came from Bianca Acosta, a young, single mother who is working to becoming a teacher at Bryant-Webster, a dual language Denver Public School that happens to house Mariachi Juvenil de Bryant Webster — the first after-school elementary mariachi group in the DPS system. She said:

    “I was not going to come tonight because my grandfather passed last night in Mexico. The last time I came here, I got lost for almost an hour looking for this  building because I am not familiar with driving downtown. And if I pay $10 for parking — that's my budget for gas for an entire week. Those are real things. Denver is such a beautiful city, and I am so in love with it, but it's expensive. But I am here to represent my community.

    “When I first heard this play was happening, I was so excited, but then when I saw the price of the tickets, I said to myself, ‘I can't even afford to bring me, much lesss my family.’ I see my family every day struggling to survive. When we talk about theatre, it doesn't even cross their minds because it is so out of our reach.

    “That's why I wanted to come tonight: To tell you that our communities deserve to have the experience to see this play just like anyone else. So how can we make that happen? Is there a way to raise money to bring as many families, especially Spanish-speaking families, to the play? I imagine that many of those people who come will be going to be in a theatre for the first time. I can imagine their kids being blown away by seeing their culture and their music portrayed on the stage. How can we make that possible?”

    DiRienzo told the crowd the DCPA is committed to ensuring that everyone who wants to see the play has an opportunity.

    "It's possible," DiRienzo told Acosta. "Yes, it's possible.”

    DCPA board member Patricia Baca told Acosta and others in attendance that  the DCPA has scholarships and corporate underwriting that can make it affordable for families with financial hardship to come to the DCPA not only to see its plays but to participate in classes offered by the Education Division. And she made it plain that the DCPA’s commitment to Latinx and other communities of color is neither new nor fleeting.

    "The Denver Center is for everybody," she said.

    “And this is not the first or last play we will ask you to come in and give us your thoughts about,” Baca added. “And we will not only ask you to give us your thoughts on Latino-oriented plays. We want you here for the multitude of offerings, and we want to know what you think and feel.

    “The conversation cannot end here. The conversation needs to continue. The suggestions you have made have been noted. And we will take action on as many of those as we can.” 

    Here is a roundup of other comments from the community conversation:

    American Mariachi director James Vásquez: “My full name is Pedro James Vásquez. My dad was born in Mexico, and my mom in  Southern California. I look very much like my mother, while my two younger brothers look very Mexican. I don't have a Spanish accent, so growing up, I got made fun of by a lot of my cousins for the way I spoke. So I just stopped speaking. American Mariachi is about reconnecting people to their culture. It’s about being given permission to reconnect with your culture, and attempt to start speaking again. And I am grateful for that.”

    Tina Walls, DCPA Board member: “My big passion is bringing the arts and culture of the underrepresented to the broader community, and bringing the under-represented, especially the kids, to this wonderful cultural footprint that we have in this community."

    Patrick Elkins-Zeglarski, DCPA Associate Director of Education: “People don't get any whiter than I am, and no more devoted to mariachi. And I can tell you that mariachi saved my life when I was growing up. I came from a very violent high-school experience, but we would stop everything when my peers would bring out their instruments and bring us all together in the halls of our high school in Northern California. So I am very much a witness to the story you are telling. Could we have any greater Valentine to our community than this play?”

    Jesse Ogas, Su Teatro and Fire Fly Autism: “We are seeing bigotry and hatred and ugliness in our community that I have not experienced in my lifetime — but my parents did. And to watch them now as elders having to relive that just infuriates me. What you are doing right now with American Mariachi is extremely important at this particular time in our history because you are portraying who we are as people — and to celebrate us in this way really is important. It takes courage.”

    Patty Baca, DCPA board member: "This play is going to be one of the delights of our community this year. I believe so strongly in this story, especially for our children so that they can see our people on the stage. See our people writing the play, directing the play, designing the play — and knowing that those are all possibilities for them as well.”

    John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S. by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

    American Mariachi: Ticket information

    160x160-amercian-mariachi-tempAt a glance: Lucha and Boli are ready to start their own all-female mariachi band in 1970s Denver, but they’ll have to fight a male-dominated music genre and pressure from their families to get it done. This humorous, heartwarming story about music’s power to heal and connect includes gorgeous live mariachi music..

    • Presented by the DCPA Theatre Company
    • Performances Jan. 26 through Feb. 25
    • Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex
    • Tickets start at $30
    • Call 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
    • Sales to groups of 10 or more click here

    Previous NewsCenter Coverage of American Mariachi:
    Cast announced, and 5 things we learned at first rehearsal
    American Mariachi
    : Community conversation begins
    Summit Spotlight video: José Cruz González, American Mariachi
    2016 Summit: An infusion of invisible color and hidden voices
    Vast and visceral: 2017-18 Theatre Company season
    Denver Center taking new plays to new level in 2017-18

  • 'American Mariachi': Community conversation begins

    by John Moore | Oct 09, 2017
    Making of 'American Mariachi'Photos from the Sept. 21 roundtable conversation on 'American Mariachi,' opening Jan. 26. To see more photos, hover your cursor over the image above and click the forward arrow that appears. Photos by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

    Playwright, director introduce coming world premiere that will tell a pioneering story from Denver to San Diego.


    By John Moore
    Senior Ats Journalist

    The DCPA invited members of various local Latino communities to join them on Sept. 21 for a roundtable conversation on American Mariachi, the Theatre Company’s upcoming world premiere musical play by José Cruz González.

    American Mariachi Students from three local colleges, teachers, mariachi players and members of the Mi Casa Resource Center were among the two dozen who joined the playwright, director James Vásquez and members of the DCPA staff for a free-form introduction to the play, followed by an open discussion on how the Denver Center might best engage the community around this high-profile staging.

    American Mariachi is a first for the DCPA Theatre Company: It is being created as a co-production with the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. That means the story is being brought to life here in Denver from Jan. 26-Feb. 25 as a featured attraction of the 2018 Colorado New Play Summit. And once it closes here, the entire production will be transported to San Diego for a second run opening March 23 – sets, actors and all.

    González and Vásquez gave the roundtable audience their enthusiastic accounts of the play’s history, inspirations, logistical challenges and potential audience impact. “I think this play is ultimately going to have a beautiful, brilliant life all around the country,” Vásquez said.

    But first González, who previously debuted September Shoes (2005) and Sunsets and Margaritas (2009) at the Denver Center, wants to make sure as many people from all economic, ethnic and cultural backgrounds see the play when they have the opportunity in Denver. Here’s some of what they told those gathered:

    What’s the story? American Mariachi is set in the 1970s American southwest. It follows the journey of a young woman, Lucha, who has become the caretaker for a mother suffering from dementia. As a girl, Lucha’s father and his best friend were part of a mariachi band, and their home was filled with life and music. But something happened that tore the band apart, after which the mother began to lose herself. Now years later, Lucha and her cousin find a record of a mariachi song that briefly brings the mother back to life. Lucha is then determined to learn how to play this magical song for her mother before it is too late. But as the young women set out to start their own mariachi band (something unheard of in that day), everyone around them discourages them because they are women – including Lucha’s father. But they do it anyway.

    American Mariachi. Summit Are they any good? In a word, no. “They're The Bad News Bears of mariachi bands,” González said. “They're not great. But they find their path, and they learn the song. And along the way they find their voices - and their places in the world.”

    (Pictured right: Elia Saldana and Sal Lopez in the 2016 Colorado New Play Summit reading of 'American Mariachi.' Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.) 

    Will the play include live music? The cast of nine not only must act and sing, they will play live musical instruments. In addition, five mariachi musicians will make up the orchestra.

    The music: About 14 songs will be performed in American Mariachi. González wrote three, including the poignant ballad song at center of the plot. The rest are traditional songs.    

    American Mariachi The development: American Mariachi was commissioned by the DCPA Theatre Company in 2014 and was presented as a featured reading at the 2016 Colorado New Play Summit. It has been honed through two workshops since, most recently in Los Angeles this past summer. At the Colorado New Play Summit in 2016, "it was 150-page play,” González said. "We're now down to 95 pages. So it's now very lean, and it moves like gangbusters.”

    (Pictured right: The cast of the DCPA's 'American Mariachi' at a workshop in Los Angeles in July. Photo provided by Douglas Langworthy.)

    Is there a language barrier? “The script is 95 percent English, with a smattering of Spanish here or there,” Vásquez said. And pains will be taken to convey the meaning of any Spanish word, through physical gestures or outright translation. “Now, the traditional songs are in Spanish,” Vásquez said. “But I think their meaning is something our audience will understand through the sheer theatricality of the musicians."

    That goes both ways: One roundtable attendee said the language barrier works both ways: “I think there would be an appetite for an all-Spanish version of this show for the communities that can only speak Spanish and would otherwise not be able to engage in the story fully,” she said. González took that to heart and said he will consider producing an all-Spanish version of the script.

    More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

    Who is the play for? After an earlier public reading, Vásquez was greeted by a young woman who told him, “I have never seen myself represented on stage. I see movies or TV shows or plays, and it's never about me. This was about me." "She walked out feeling like she had a place in the world," Vásquez said, "which I think is a testament to the play Jose has written.” But González was quick to add that American Mariachi is not only about these young women finding their voices. “It's also about families dealing with Alzheimer’s and other issues we are all dealing with in our own communities,” he said.

    The aftermath:
    After the creators’ presentation, DCPA staff asked their guests for their questions and concerns. One intrigued attendee said American Mariachi may well be seen as an effective counter in communities that still have a stigma about the relevance of the arts. Among the other concerns: A possible price barrier, getting the word out to the people who might most be interested in this story, and the cost of downtown parking. DCPA representatives told them they are committed to ensuring that everyone who wants to see the play has an opportunity.

    “You can open doors,” the DCPA's Nataki Garrett said, “or you can remind people that the doors are open.”


    John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S. by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

     

    American Mariachi: Ticket information

    160x160-amercian-mariachi-tempAt a glance: Lucha and Boli are ready to start their own all-female mariachi band in 1970s’ Denver, but they’ll have to fight a male-dominated music genre and pressure from their families to get it done. This humorous, heartwarming story about music’s power to heal and connect includes gorgeous live mariachi music..

    • Presented by the DCPA Theatre Company
    • Performances Jan. 26 through Feb. 25
    • Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex
    • Tickets start at $25
    • Call 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
    • Sales to groups of 10 or more click here

    Video: José Cruz González at the 2016 Colorado New Play Summit

     

     

    Previous NewsCenter Coverage of American Mariachi:
    Summit Spotlight video: José Cruz González, American Mariachi
    2016 Summit: An infusion of invisible color and hidden voices
    Vast and visceral: 2017-18 Theatre Company season
    Denver Center taking new plays to new level in 2017-18

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ABOUT THE EDITOR
John Moore
John Moore
Award-winning arts journalist John Moore has recently taken a groundbreaking new position as the DCPA’s Senior Arts Journalist. With The Denver Post, he was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the US by American Theatre Magazine. He is the founder of the Denver Actors Fund, a nonprofit that raises money for local artists in medical need. John is a native of Arvada and attended Regis Jesuit High School and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Follow him on Twitter @moorejohn.

DCPA is the nation’s largest not-for-profit theatre organization dedicated to creating unforgettable shared experiences through beloved Broadway musicals, world-class plays, educational programs and inspired events. We think of theatre as a spark of life — a special occasion that’s exciting, powerful and fun. Join us today and we promise an experience you won't soon forget.