'American Mariachi' Perspectives: Music as a powerful memory trigger

Making of 'American Mariachi'

Photos from the making of ‘American Mariachi.’ The world-premiere play with music performs in the Stage Theatre from through Feb 25. Photo above from the public Perspectives conversation hosted by Douglas Langworthy. From left: Playwright José Cruz González, director James Vásquez and Scenic Director Regina Garcia. To see more photos, click on the image above to be taken to our full gallery. Photos by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

Director James Vásquez says it’s a good story — ‘and the best party you’ll come to this winter in Denver.’

By John Moore
Senior Arts Journalist

The DCPA Theatre Company’s world-premiere play American Mariachi, opening tonight in The Stage Theatre, is a memory play. But not in the way Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie is considered a memory play — where a character looks back (often unreliably) on a story that took place many years before.

American Mariachi is literally a play about memory. And music has long been proven to be one of the brain’s biggest triggers for memory.  

“The play is inspired by a story I was told about an older woman who was suffering from Alzheimer’s,” playwright José Cruz González told about 100 who gathered last week before the first preview performance of American Mariachi. “But when her family played this woman’s favorite song, she just lit up. I thought that was fascinating, and I soon realized this is such a common thing that affects all of us around the world.”

American Mariachi, set in the 1970s American southwest, follows a young woman named Lucha who is caring for a mother with dementia. When Lucha finds a mariachi record that briefly brings her mother back to life, she becomes determined to learn how to play the song for her live, before it is too late. But this was a time when being a female mariachi player was unheard of in the United States.

Here are five things we learned at Perspectives, a series of free public community conversations  held just before the first preview performance of every DCPA Theatre Company offering. Next up: The Great Leap at 6 p.m. Friday, Feb. 2, in the Jones Theatre.

NUMBER 1The rhythm is gonna get you. Often when you attend a play, or even a musical, the audience is expected to politely sit back on their hands. That will not be the case here. Mariachi music has always encouraged cathartic, joyous yells from anyone within earshot. “We had an invited audience at our final dress rehearsal, and as soon as the music started paying, gritos were thrown from the audience, and we encourage that,” director James Vásquez said. “You can’t help but want to get up and holler and clap and sing if you know the words.” The American Mariachi band also played at the beginning of a community conversation two weeks ago, “and it turned into a party,” Vásquez said. “That’s how I like to think of our play: It’s a good story — but and it’s also the best party you’ll come to this winter in Denver.”

Mariachi community conversation: Food, music, issues

NUMBER 2 American Mariachi Perspectives  Amanda RoblesSchool of mariachi. This production is made up of nine actors and five professional mariachis — and the actors all learned to play instruments along the way. Crissy Guerrero, for example, learned to play the vihuela, a guitar-like instrument from 19th-century Mexico with five strings (no E) and a vaulted back. The Mexican vihuela is tuned similarly to the guitar. The difference is that the open G, the D and the A strings are tuned an octave higher than a guitar, thus giving it a tenor sound or a higher pitch. Amanda Robles, a professional singer, learned how to play the trumpet from scratch — which González called fitting for this show, because his characters are also learning to play from scratch. Robles was surprised by how different she found singing mariachi to be, compared to traditional musical theatre. “In a typical musical, you are always thinking about singing higher,” she said, “whereas mariachi is more guttural. You need to double down and really sing your heart out.” (Pictured above, from left: Costume Designer Meghan Anderson Doyle, actor Crissy Guerrero and actor Amanda Robles.) 

NUMBER 3The train has left the station. The American Mariachi that opens tonight is a full hour shorter than the version that was read at the 2016 Colorado New Play Summit. It moves. “Jose has been able to really compact the story and the heart of the story,” said Guerrero, who was an original cast member. “A lot of painful decisions were made to cut things, I am sure. But we have always wanted to stay focused on the story we are telling.” 


Photo of the ‘American Mariachi’ mural designed by Regina Garcia. Pictured: Amanda Robles. Photo by Adams VisCom.

NUMBER 4 Plaza sweet. The action in American Mariachi takes place in multiple locations, so Scenic Designer Regina Garcia created a world that takes you inside a single home that grows into a community plaza with towers of residential windows and a stunning 60-foot brick mural. “In the spirit of collage, I decided to celebrate the Mexican arts in general with the mural, and that includes dance, cinema, spoken word, poetry, playwriting, civic leadership and community,” said Garcia. When González and Vásquez first arrived in Denver, they were taken into the DCPA scene shop where the mural was being created, “and we burst out crying, it was so gorgeous,” González said.

NUMBER 5 Why is the play set in the 1970s? Because the stakes were higher. “That was when women really started to push for their right to play this music here in the United States,” González said. “Here these women are trying to push open a door that has been closed to them. And this music has been closed to them. It’s been passed from father to son, not father to daughter. I felt it was the right time to tell a story about the empowerment of these Latinas.” 

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

Bonus: What is the derivation of the word mariachi? It’s a bit of a mystery, but it is thought to date back to the French invasion of Mexico in 1861. “It was thought that the word was connected to the French word mariage (or marriage),” Dramaturg Shirley Fishman said. Some say that’s because the Europe-born Emperor Maximilian of Mexico encouraged the music to be played at weddings. González’s theory dates back to the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés in the 1590s: “When Cortes arrived in the New World, his soldiers brought guitars, while the native people here played drums and flutes,” said González. “And soon a new kind of music evolved. You can hear the African, the native and the Spanish influences in the rhythms of mariachi.” Today the word mariachi can refer to a single player, a group, or the music itself.

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 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:
Photos, video: Your first look at American Mariachi
American Mariachi
‘s second community conversation: Food, music and tough issues
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

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