Festival looks to grow diversity in stage arts
Stages’ Sin Muros celebrates Latino stories and talent
A comedic scene between two dueling women, performed entirely in Spanish. A drum ritual originating from the indigenous people of Mexico. A family tale of Latino-American identity and machismo.
These were the scenes Thursday at Stages Repertory Theatre during an arts event focused on Latino identity that, in a city with one of the highest percentages of Hispanic people in America, one might expect to be a common occurrence.
It isn’t. In a city that regularly brags about being the most diverse in the nation, its theater community is predominantly white — in programming and in the people who op-
erate the city’s premier theater groups.
But Sin Muros, a Latino theater festival taking place at Stages through Sunday, is trying fill a cultural void by giving equal treatment to Latino theater and growing the diversity in Houston’s performing arts community.
Unlike other cities in Texas, Houston does not offer Latino theater on a regular basis, says Trevor Boffone, Sin Muros associate producer and University of Houston professor.
San Antonio has the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center and Teatro Audaz, Austin has Teatro Vivo and Dallas has Cara Mía Theatre Co. and Teatro Dallas, all examples of organizations that regularly produce Latino theater, Boffone says.
Despite the existence of cultural arts centers such as Talento Bilingüe de Houston and MECA, Houston’s Latino theater scene remains lacking, advocates say.
“Those cities have full yearround companies presenting Latino stories,” Boffone says. “Houston doesn’t have that. That’s what the festival’s aim is, to fill in that gap.”
In early 2017, Stages formed a task force, consisting of local advocates and artists, to address the lack of diversity on the Houston stage.
The 10-person group created the Sin Muros (“Without Walls”) festival, which Stages plans to support as part of its year-round programming moving forward.
The festival marks a change in how to approach diversity in Houston theaters. Rather than producing a one-time event supported through a one-time grant, Stages is committing to producing the festival every year by drawing from its annual budget, a move that treats Latino voices as an integrated part of an established organization’s yearly investment.
For instance, Stages is one of Houston’s several professional nonprofit theater companies with a year-round season that strikes a balance between a variety of genres. The company produces works on two stages that range from new, serious plays about life and death and
fun, beloved musicals. But the Latino stories that it offers, such as 2017’s “My Mañana Comes,” were one-time occurrences.
“It’s is an opportunity to pause and listen to what voices are out there, what we haven’t heard before,” says Brian Herrera, assistant professor of theater at Princeton, who was invited to give a talk on the history of casting for the festival. “It’s an auspicious moment to listen to Texas writers. There’s an abundance of Latino writers right now.”
Sin Muros draws from Latino writers across the country, featuring playwrights such as Bernardo Cubría, Mando Alvarado and Tanya Saracho, who was raised in McAllen. But it was a local writer, Josh Inocéncio, who showed that Houston theater companies can cultivate locally Latino stories in addition to importing existing material from out of town.
Show the diversity
Inocéncio’s “Purple Eyes” is a real-life account of the history of his family, told in a casual blend of English and Spanish. Using a stage populated with various costumes, he changes from one outfit to the next and similarly adapts his speech and body language to fit his characters. The transformations speak to his complex identity, which includes Mexican, Austrian, Appalachian and indigenous heritages.
But as Inocéncio riffed on identity, not to mention Montrose’s gay scene, native Mexican folklore and Harris County law enforcement, the knowing chuckles that accompanied his performance showed that identity crisis — and identity celebration — is very much part of the Houston DNA. Inocéncio looks white but identifies strongly with his Latino heritage. His Mexican-American uncles married white, blonde American women. Latinos are “machismo” and obsessed with being straight and masculine, yet his family has accepted queer identity.
During a post-show questionand-answer session, audience members thanked Inocéncio for presenting a performance that was rooted in the idea of embracing a complicated heritage.
Sin Muros also celebrated existing Latino theater in Houston. Gente de Teatro, a nonprofessional theater troupe that performs plays entirely in Spanish, received the inaugural Premio Puente award Thursday night. The award will be given each year to an organization that has made an impact in “building bridges” across cultures and communities, said local performer Jasminne Mendez, who presented the award.
But more efforts like Sin Muros are needed if Houston is to claim its badge of diversity, says Philip Boehm, writer and director of “Alma en Venta,” a play about a Latino artist featured currently at Stages through Feb. 11 as part of the Sin Muros festival.
“We all know this is the most diverse city in the country,” he says. “But where is the reflection of that?”