Video: Colorado New Play Summit Spotlight: José Cruz González, 'American Mariachi'

Our interview, in video and words, with Colorado New Play Summit featured playwright José Cruz González, author of American Mariachi,  a piece set in Denver and inspired by women who started forming their own mariachi groups in the 1970s. “We interviewed a number of amazing women who were able to help us enter into that world,” González, said, “and we found an amazing group of artists who will play and sing in the piece.”

Here are highlights from DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore’s conversation with  ‘American Mariachi‘ playwright José Cruz González:

John Moore: How has the title of the play evolved?

José Cruz González: American Mariachi started with just the initials AM. It stands for three things: It’s one of the character’s names. And there is the musical style: American Mariachi. And also AM radio, which is where you might hear this music on the radio. So (DCPA Associate Artistic Director) Bruce Sevy said, ‘Why don’t we just call it that?’ And I said, ‘Ding! Of course. That sounds great. It’s so perfect.

American Mariachi. Summit John Moore: How do you like to introduce your play?

José Cruz González: American Mariachi is a play about music, and it’s the story of women who come to discover this music and adopt it during a time when that’s not permitted. The play is set here in Denver, and it’s the 1970s. In my research looking at women playing mariachi music in the United States, it’s been fascinating to see how these little pockets of musicians appeared throughout the country. And I thought, ‘Well, I’m sure there’s a story here. (Pictured: Elia Saldana and Sal Lopez. Phot oby John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.) 

John Moore: What challenges did these women face in playing mariachi music?

José Cruz González: We’re really looking at a tradition that is male-dominated. Men played mariachi. And so for women to enter into that world was a challenge for them on many many fronts. First of all, just being able to play the music. Men perceived that women couldn’t play it – that they didn’t have the music inside them. So it was very taboo. These women had to learn by finding themselves and finding ways for them to approach this music and to eventually perform it.

John Moore: This story is of such a specific time, place and situation. But the ides of it – women breaking into a male-dominated world – that theme couldn’t be more timeless.

José Cruz González: That’s right, it is a timeless story because these young women are challenged, and they come together because of their love of the music. And it’s all brought together because of one character, Lucha, whose mother is battling Alzheimer’s disease. One thing she discovers is that the mother comes alive suddenly whenever she hears this one song. So that begins the journey for this young woman to see if she can bring the music back to her mother.

Jose Cruz Gonzalez Quote Summit

John Moore: There will be an expectation that music will play a large role in any performance of this play.

José Cruz González: Music plays such an important role in this piece. First of all, it’s live and that sound of mariachi is so fantastic when you fill a room with people and you hear people singing. And these artists here for the reading, I have to tell you: I’m so impressed with them. We asked them before we came to Denver if they could play these instruments, and some of them learned to play for this. But we also found that most of our artists can play and sing, so it’s really a rich mix. It’s a beautiful sound and I love how it fits with these characters because in the story, they’re not supposed to be the best musicians in the world. So that fits with the story. But those voices are incredible.

John Moore: Let’s talk about your first experience in Denver when the DCPA Theatre Company back in 2005.

José Cruz González: Kent Thompson was coming to be the artistic director of the company, and he called me up to invite me to explore a play I had written called September Shoes. That was my first introduction to this amazing company. And subsequently I’ve come back with Sunsets and Margaritas, and now with American Mariachi. The Denver Center is really a home for me – an artistic home. It’s a place for artists to stretch themselves and tell stories in a place that’s conducive to creativity, to fostering and nurturing new work. I’m just happy to be here. I get up really early every morning to write before I go into rehearsals. I think on Monday, my day off, I spent 15 hours working on my play. To me, this is the best opportunity to hear your play with great artists, in a great location and in great environment. This is a place where audiences really come to experience something new.

John Moore: The three plays you have brought to the Denver Center could not be more different.

José Cruz González: For me, September Shoes was a play about the past and how these individuals, because of an accident 30 years ago, changes their lives and haunts them. I was fascinated by that world and how one picks up the pieces when their lives have been destroyed. With Sunsets and Margaritas, I had never attempted a comedy and I wanted to try that as an exercise for myself. And I think with American Mariachi, those elements of September Shoes and Sunsets and Margaritas both come into play here. Those two plays really helped inform me in terms of not only the pathos of the story but also the comedy in it. But the new wrinkle here is live music. For the last five years, I have been a student of mariachi myself. I have been learning how to play these instruments. But I also had the chance to interview mariachi musicians, both men and women. That helped me to tell the story. In fact this piece is dedicated to a mariachi woman named Laura Sobrino Cano, who actually came from my hometown – a little town on the central coast of California, and went on to become one of the premier mariachi women in the world. She trained the next generations of both men and women mariachi musicians. It’s personal to me because of those connections.

John Moore: How have you benefited having a second week of development time her at the Summit?

José Cruz González: Well time really is the key thing for new-play development, and so the luxury of having two weeks is huge. The play that we presented last week has changed considerably during this second week. It is now a much deeper play that explores these characters much further than we did in the first week. I am able to spend the day in rehearsal and then go back to my place and spend another four or five hours working. The we come back the next day and experiment and explore what that story is. I think audiences will be able to go, ‘Yes I understand it. It touches me, it angers me, I want to laugh with it and I want to sing along.

John Moore: When Kent Thompson slotted September Shoes in 2005, the Denver Center hadn’t done a play by a Latino writer in six years. What does his commitment to writers of color mean to you?

José Cruz González: I have to take my hat off to Kent for his commitment to new work and to the different voices that need to be reflected, I believe, in this country. And we don’t see that in a whole lot of places yet. I think what he’s doing here is important and I hope that our colleagues around the country will pick up the ball and do what needs to be done. Because when you think about the stories that are being told, it’s really a small group of people who are telling those stories. But there are a lot of stories that are not being told. We need variety, and we need those hidden voices. I think that’s what Kent is doing. He is giving us an opportunity, and a place here where we can tell our stories.

American Mariachi. Summit

American Mariachi:
Cast list

José Cruz González, Playwright
Rachel Bowditch, Director
Cindy Flores, Musical Director
Shirley Fishman, Dramaturg
Elia Saldana, Lucha
Olivia Espinosa, Bolie
Vivis Colombetti, Amalia/Dona Lola
Sal Lopez, Frederico
Rosalie Rodriguez, Isabel
Sol Castillo, Mateo/Beto/Hotel Striker
Vaneza Calderon, Gabby
Crissy Guerrero, Soyla
Daniel Valdez, Mino
Carlos Hidalgo, Stage Directions/ Musician

2016 Colorado New Play Summit: Ticket information

Second weekend (Festival Weekend): Friday, Feb. 19, through Sunday, Feb. 21
303-893-4100 or INFO

Previous NewsCenter Coverage of 2016 Summit (to date):
Summit Spotlight video: Lauren Gunderson, The Book of Will
Summit Spotlight video: José Cruz González, American Mariachi
Summit Spotlight Video: Tira Palmquist, Two Degrees
Summit Spotlight Video: Mat Smart, Midwinter
DCPA rolls out the welcome mat: It’s Summit weekend
2016 Summit playwrights introduce their featured works
Three major Summit events to be streamed live
Featured playwrights named for 2016 Summit
Audio: Colorado Public Radio on the 2016 New Play Summit

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