Saracho on the color of TV: 'We look like the future'

by John Moore | Jan 11, 2016

Tanya Saracho
From left: 'FADE' playwright Tanya Saracho, actors Eddie Martinez and Mariana Fernández, and director Jerry Ruiz.


Writer Tanya Saracho works in a magical place called ShondaLand where there are unicorns literally running down the hallways.

OK, maybe not so much unicorns … literally. But compared to the rest of a television landscape that remains dominated by white male writers, Saracho is living out a fantasy that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago.

how-to-get-away-with-murder-season-2Saracho, whose play FADE will begin performances in its world premiere staging at the Denver Center’s Ricketson Theatre on Feb. 5, is moonlighting as a staff writer on the hit ABC series How to Get Away with Murder (pictured right). 

Veteran TV writer and playwright Theresa Rebeck, whose new play The Nest will debut on the stage right next to FADE, recently told the DCPA NewsCenter: “I am tired of (TV) being a boys club where I am the only woman around.”

Saracho, on the other hand, is writing for a TV show with nine writers, five of whom are women, “and we're all of color,” she says. “So we’re the majority in that room. Everyone’s queer or of color or whatever and we look like … everything.

“We look like the future.”

Tanya Saracho quoteShondaLand is the name of the production company founded by African-American producer Shonda Rhimes (Grey's Anatomy, Scandal). But Saracho is the first to admit that ShondaLand is not Hollywoodland. Yet.

“It’s different because this show has a female lead of color (Viola Davis) who is really problematic and complicated and beautiful and ugly at the same time,” said Saracho. “I feel you can only fully write that character if you have a shorthand in the writers’ room. Where if she does a little twist with her hair, then you already know that has social and cultural connotations.”

Saracho previously wrote for HBO’s Looking and Girls. Her life changed when she wrote a full episode of Looking that aired last February. She realizes that more people saw that one episode of television than will likely see all of her stage plays combined over her lifetime.

“I realized the power of TV when I wrote that episode,” she said. “I wrote this line that was something like, ‘White guys are the worst - they think they own everything.’ Well, that got people talking. All these memes showed up on social media, and I was like, ‘Wait a minute. I've been doing all this political theatre from the beginning of my career and no one has ever made a meme out of it.’ But it’s crazy the reach that television has.”

Saracho sees positive change everywhere. Davis became the first black woman to win the Emmy for leading actress in a TV drama. On Sunday, Taraji Henson won the Golden Globe in that same category for Empire. “All these things are happening, and it’s exciting,” Saracho said.

Such was not the case when Saracho started writing FADE, which was partly inspired by her experiences working her first TV job. She is the first to tell you she was an untrained quota hire.

FADE is about a first-time TV writer named Lucia who doesn’t know what she is doing,” Saracho said. When Lucia discovers that the studio custodian, Abel, has a more credible understanding of the fictional star character she is supposed to be writing for than she does, she begins incorporating his insights into her scripts. Lucia’s professional stardom rises, but soon she must grapple with the possibility that she has become part of the problem she came to the studio to help solve. 

Saracho’s play was featured at the last Colorado New Play Summit, when the story was still a developing idea. In the year since, she says, she has leaned more into the tougher consequences of her story – specifically the issue of betrayal.

“I was kind of shying away from that and making excuses for her,” she said. "But then we did a workshop and now I feel like, yes, let this be an ugly act of true betrayal.”

She is essentially forcing herself to do what she is challenging audiences to do – and that is to look again at our preconceptions and prejudices about immigration.

“I've been obsessed with trapping class in my plays since the beginning, especially when it comes to a Mexican point of view,” said Saracho, who, like her fictional lead character, was born in Mexico and describes herself as “an Americanized, acculturated Mexican citizen with a green card.” When you consider that the lowly Abel is a third-generation Chicano, the culture clash between the two characters is bound to get necessarily messy.

“I know that a lot of people in this country think of a Mexican immigrant in only one way,” Saracho said. “I like to flip that around. So here the woman has money and status and yet, she is the Mexican immigrant. And if you think the janitor looks and feels more like what you think an immigrant is, well, no: He’s a full-blooded American.

“I would love for people to think about immigration in a more complicated way. Not so much the politics of it but more: Do you really understand your neighbor to the south? Do you really understand the class system and the pathways to getting here and staying here?”

And when FADE opens and Saracho returns to ShondaLand, she will do so knowing that TV writer rooms still look a lot more like they do in FADE than they do at How to Get Away with Murder.

“No, we can't say that it’s all better just because of this one room," she said. “The lack of agency and opportunity in television is real - and it is true.”


FADE 
tanya-saracho

  • By Tanya Saracho
  • Feb. 5-March 13
  • Ricketson Theatre
  • In this  true-to-life new comedy, Mexican-American Lucia is hired to write for a Latina TV character in a cutthroat Hollywood TV studio. She soon discovers that the Latino studio custodian, Abel, has a windfall of plot ideas. As their friendship grows, his stories start to blur with hers with unexpected consequences. FADE is a standout new play from Tanya Saracho, whose writing “lands in that sweet spot between comedy and drama” (Chicago Tribune).
  • Tickets: 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
  • TTY: 303-893-9582
  • Groups of 15 or more: 303-446-4829
  • Also: Purchase in person at The Denver Center Ticket Office, located at the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex lobby. Buy and print online at DenverCenter.Org.

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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.

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