Jose Rivera (1995)
I have always thought of the arts as representing the better half of human nature, so it is a little shocking to me that the arts community — and particularly the theater — would have the problems it does with cultural diversity. It’s disillusioning to hear that people have to debate it.
As far as I’m concerned, this is like worrying about the sunrise. The United States has always been a diverse society, even if that has not always been recognized by some groups. There has never been a monoculture here. As a result, I believe that all stages in all places ought to be open to all voices. It’s as simple as that. Those that aren’t should get hip and come into the 20th Century before it is over.
Of course, it doesn’t appear to be so simple in practice. I’m not sure why. In the theater, everybody seems well-meaning and many good intentions have been expressed. Still, with the decision-making power that some people do have, it is a wonder that our stages are not more diverse as a matter of course: that actors of color appear routinely in plays of all kinds, that writers from diverse cultures have their plays staged throughout a season, and so on.
For Latinos, this lack of representation is pronounced. There is the perception among many decision-makers that there is no audience for theater among Latino communities — when these communities are perceived at all. Despite the fact that significant populations of Latinos exist in nearly every state, we remain largely invisible. This has a lot to do with class and economic clout. I have found the greatest acceptance for my plays in cities such as New York or Chicago where the presence and power of Latino communities is more widely recognized.
The situation for Latinos in film and television is much worse. Racism towards Latinos is far from subtle in Hollywood. When we are portrayed at all it is still as the gardener or the maid, as gang members or heroin addicts. Or as some sexual fantasy stereotype. Ironically, in the few films such as Death and the Maiden or House of the Spirits where there have been attempts at more rounded Latino characters, they are usually portrayed by non-Latinos.
I have tried to address these issues in my writing in different ways. Two of my first plays, The Promise and Each Day Dies With Sleep, were depictions of the Puerto Rican experience through the lens of magic realism. They are passionately subjective. These plays were a response on my part to the prevailing tendency in Latino drama at the time I wrote them towards gritty realism and urban drug culture. Instead, I wanted to incorporate more of the life I knew. I wanted to discuss Latino culture in a small town, semi-rural environment — with an emphasis on family, sexuality, spirituality, and the occult.
In my later writing, I have tried to include what I have known into a broader vision. Marisol was the first of my plays to aspire to this. Inspired by my uncle’s homeless experiences, it shows us not so much an interior nightmare, but a social one. It was also the first play I wrote that didn’t have an all-Latino cast.
My most recent play is a Ulyssian journey through Los Angeles and involves Korean, Latino, Black, and Armenian characters, thirty-seven in all. I have found it very exciting to create roles specifically for people of different cultures. As there is a female sensibility or a Latino sensibility, there is a sensibility that is different for each different culture. Speech patterns, vocabulary, energy, rhythm all differ. It is a challenge to try to capture these differences.
I would like to see more writers writing outside their particular racial or cultural identities, trying to include a greater variety of people and cultures into their work. I think it is one of the best ways to address the issue of diversity in theater. It requires that we truly recognize the differences between people and that we keenly observe others — and ourselves. It is also good for actors. Many of my Latino actor friends, for instance, have only had experience acting with other Latinos. Working in casts that are diverse by design is an exciting experience for them, too.
I think it is important to look at diversifying the audiences for theaters as well. Playing to audiences that are lacking in diversity, culturally and economically, as many theaters’ are, can affect the quality of work. There are times when I have thought, “My God, I’m a terrible writer,” because the response isn’t what I imagined. At another theater, all that is in the play will be understood because the audience has more in common with it. Unfortunately, not every play is lucky to get that second production.
The trouble with cultural diversity as it stands now is that it seems to be debatable. It isn’t. Not for me, or any other person of color. It is a defining feature of our lives. It should be for everyone.
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