2016 True West Award: Yolanda Ortega

True West Awards Yolanda Ortego. Su Teatro



Day 19: Actor Yolanda Ortega

Yolanda Ortega has created unique and interesting roles on Su Teatro’s stages for 42 years. But Executive Artistic Director Anthony J. Garcia considers her work in Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima this year to be no less than “the performance of a generation.”

Su Teatro is Colorado’s “Locally Grown, Nationally Known” Chicano theater company based in its own performing-arts complex at 721 Santa Fe Drive. Ortega revisited two epic and signature roles in 2016, both spiritual guides of a kind: Tia in the massive original musical El Sol Que Tu Eres (The Sun That You Are), and the titular Ultima in Su Teatro’s polarizing stage adaptation of Anaya’s novel, the most widely read in the Chicano literary canon since its publication in 1972.

And Ortega played them just a few months after having had a double knee reconstruction in September of 2015.

True West Awards Yolanda Ortego. The Sun That You Are. Photo by Steven AbeytaThe Sun That You Are is Garcia’s contemporary, bilingual reimagining of the Greek Orpheus-Eurydice myth infused with Aztec traditions such as the Day of the Dead. The result is a gritty adventure complete with drug lords, sassy gringas, mysticism and ruminations on the origin of love. With Ortega by his side, Orfeo must calm trembling mountains and ride enormous turtles on an epic journey toward the story’s inevitably tragic confrontation. It was introduced in 2005 as the most ambitious undertaking in Su Teatro’s history.

Bless Me, Ultima is Anaya’s seminal coming-of-age story in 1940s rural New Mexico that has been both banned and celebrated for daring to show a protagonist who not only struggles for his Chicano identity, but with his deeply ingrained Catholicism.

(Pictured above and right: Yolanda Ortega and Miguel Martimen in ‘The Sun That You Are.’ Photo by Steven Abeyta.)

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

Ortega has been an ensemble actor with Su Teatro from its earliest days, one of the theatres born of the national protest movement of the early 1970s that used storytelling as a tool for radical social justice.

Yolanda Ortega QuoteGarcia admits the movement was initially male-centric, from playwrights to actors. But Ortega hung in there, making the most of whatever roles she could get, eventually developing into a leading lady who has since tackled some of the great roles in the canon such as Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Federico Lorca’s Bernarda Alba. “It is that weight and experience and importance that Yolanda brought to her portrayal of Ultima,” he said.

“The first and most obvious impression is Ultima’s presence. Yolanda enters with great carriage. Ultima is special and blessed by a spiritual power that commands respect and attention. That might be a difficult level for a lesser actor to reach.”

But what particularly impressed Garcia was her interactions with a 9-year-old castmate named Christopher Pettis. “They were conversational and intimate,” Garcia said, “sometimes so quiet and intense that we feel we are intruders.

“My fellow directors from around the country who have seen Yolanda perform are always taken with her ‘economy of action.’ Because of her tremendous presence, Yolanda can make so much happen with less. She is always at the center of the play without calling any attention to herself.”

Anthony J. Garcia: On moving from marginalized to mainstream

Ortega studied Public Administration at the University of Colorado Denver, which led to a 32-year career with Metropolitan State University of Denver. That means she both studied and later worked on the very same Auraria campus that displaced the bulk of Denver’s Mexican-American community nearly 50 years ago.

Su Teatro was born, in large measure, from the broken promises of that angry time, and the company has worked over the decades to reunify the Westside community with its roots there, the spiritual center of which remains St. Cajetan’s Church on the Auraria campus. Ortega was a central figure in the difficult ongoing process of healing, and while she retired in 2004 as Metro State’s Vice President of Student Services, she maintains an emeritus position with the university. She is now the owner of Encantada Catering, Inc.

Yolanda Ortega/At a glance

  • High School: Dover (Delaware)
  • Colleges: Arkansas State, Wesley College (Deleware), Arkansas State and the University of Colorado Denver
  • Radio: Co-host of Cancion Mejicana on Sunday mornings on 89.3 FM KUVO
  • Career: Vice President Emeritus of Student Services at Metropolitan State University of Denver
  • Ongoing public service:  Special events programmer for Clínica Tepeyac (health services for the underserved). Serves on the Board of Directors for Escuela Tlatelolco (Denver Public Schools’ alternative education for young Latinos). She is a  Governor’s appointee to the Auraria Higher Education Center Board of Directors and she also serves on the Denver Mayor’s Commisson on Cultural Affairs and Denver Latino Commission.

The True West Awards, now in their 16th year, began as the Denver Post Ovation Awards in 2001. DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore — along with additional voices from around the state — celebrate the entire local theatre community by recognizing 30 achievements from 2016 over 30 days, without categories or nominations. 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. His daily coverage of the DCPA and the Colorado theatre community can be found at MyDenverCenter.Org



Day 1: Jada Suzanne Dixon
Day 2: Robert Michael Sanders
Day 3: After Orlando
Day 4: Michael Morgan
Day 5: Beth Beyer
Day 6: Patrick Elkins-Zeglarski
Day 7: donnie l. betts
Day 8: Night of the Living Dead
Day 9: The Killer Kids of Miscast
Day 10: Jason Sherwood
Day 11: Leslie O’Carroll and Steve Wilson
Day 12: Jonathan Scott-McKean
Day 13: Jake Mendes
Day 14: Charles R. MacLeod
Day 15: Patty Yaconis
Day 16: Daniel Langhoff
Day 17: Colorado Shakespeare Festival costumers
Day 18: Miriam Suzanne
Day 19: Yolanda Ortega
Day 20: Diana Ben-Kiki
Day 21: Jeff Neuman
Day 22: Gabriella Cavallero
Day 23: Matthew Campbell
Day 24: Sharon Kay White
Day 25: John Hauser
Day 26: Lon Winston
Day 27: Jason Ducat
Day 28: Sam Gregory
Day 29: Warren Sherrill
Day 30: The Women Who Run Theatre in Boulder
Theatre Person of the Year Billie McBride

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