Fes­ti­val looks to grow di­ver­sity in stage arts

Stages’ Sin Muros cel­e­brates Latino sto­ries and tal­ent

Houston Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By Wei-Huan Chen

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.”

In­te­grat­ing art

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?”

Steve Gon­za­les / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

Clau­dia Soroka, left, and Ana Scuse­ria per­form Thurs­day as part of Stages Reper­tory The­atre’s Sin Muros theater fes­ti­val.

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