Bilingual play gives voice to La Raza

Miguel Ortega writes in his director's

notes, "I've found that I don't have

much respect for theater anymore due to its pretentious, self-indulgent nature. Live theater in this town and across this occupied country has become elite and isolated." Ortega and award-winning Tucson playwright Silvania Wood return theater to the community in the premiere of Wood's "Caras y Mascaras: A Drunkard's Tale," commissioned by Borderlands Theater.

"Caras y Mascaras" translates as "faces and masks" and as "faces and more faces." However, it is just as easily a play about voices. Wood is known for her full-length bilingual plays, mixing languages to give voice to her characters. "A Drunkard's Tale" contains Spanish, English, Spanglish (English and Spanish mix) and a little spice of Calo a form of language code switching that outsiders find difficult to understand. Her masterful use of language combined with Mexican folktales and song, excerpts from Greco-Roman epics, and allusions to Steinbeck and Shakespeare culminate in a drama that is accessible to everyone.

Set in the backyard of a typical Chicano barrio, Wood weaves history, politics, and folktales through this yarn about generations and memory. It is a story that spans decades, from the '40s to the '70s, and historical turning points, from World War II to the Chicano movement events seen only through the memories of the characters. Wood reminds us of the lives affected by the events, the humanness both compassionate and fallible behind the scenes.

Wood's play is also a commentary on theater. We first encounter the actors preparing to don their roles, warming up their voices. They transform into the play's six characters and introduce us to their lives. The actors' facial exercises and laments over unpronounceable lines are comedic. They invite us in, with the admonition that "it's only theater, my love."

But is it? Through her character Ignacio Robles, Wood quotes Shakespeare: "The play's the thing." However, she never finishes the famous line "in which to catch the conscience of the king." In "Caras y Mascaras," she attempts to catch the conscience of the audience, for her tale is an artistic expression of real happenings, real events. We are reminded that our country is occupied land, that Mexican-Americans fought and died for it in World War II, and that political agendas and ethnocentrism have tried to subdue the Chicano Movement's crusade for equal rights.

We hear Ignacio "Nacho" Robles' soulful songs of pain; he is more than the local barrio drunk, toaster repairman and crippled WWII veteran. He reads Steinbeck and Hesiod, Shakespeare and Homer. He is much like Shakespeare's Prospero: a magician who holds sway over the flux of the play and the characters' lives.

A cornerstone to his community, Nacho gives wings to his goddaughter, Roshanda, and her generation (Hector and Carlos), teaching them to read and telling them folktales. They become the idealists behind the Chicano movement, and they create the seventh character of the play El Centro. It is an old, abandoned building resuscitated as a place to organize, a place that (unlike the dominant establishment) fills the barrio's needs.

The cast also includes a hippie from California, Moonbeam, who volunteers to help Roshanda, Hector and Carlos with El Centro, as well as Hector's mother, Helen, who voices her opinions against the idealist generation. Nacho calls Helen a hoarder: she hoards her memories like she hordes her cans of tuna and rolls of toilet paper. Helen tells us that "pain is what you feel when you remember." This play forces us to remember or, if we did not know in the first place, to learn.

"Caras y Mascaras" reflects the hypocrisies of our segmented world, but it is also a reminder of the power of grassroots organizations. Wood, Ortega and the talented cast complete with a long list of credits have invested their energy into the Tucson community and into theater that does not compromise the Chicano Movement, the Chicano language or the continuing struggles to achieve equal rights. "Caras y Mascaras" is not an elitist escape from reality but an urging to take action.

After growing up in the Tucson barrios and serving twenty years in various community agencies, Wood portrays the struggle of Chicanos in their own words. At times it is hard to keep up with the pace of this bilingual play, but Wood brings vitality to her characters through the language. Ortega delivers a thought provoking production permeated with prevalent concerns that "cannot be dealt with in the comfort of theater or afterwards while sipping decaffeinated cappuccinos." This is not theater for the elite. It is well worth spending an evening and $6.

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