The Denver Center for the Performing Arts (DCPA) hosted one its largest community conversations on record Jan. 11, when about 100 local Latinx and others gathered to talk about the many possibilities and challenges afforded by the Theatre Company’s upcoming world premiere of the musical play American Mariachi.
And several admitted they came looking for a fight. One was Reynaldo Mireles, program manager of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center of Colorado.
“My first thought when I received the invitation was that I want to go down there and fight with some gringos,” Mireles said to laughter. “I thought, ‘Well, I never got an invitation from the DCPA to have a conversation about us being Latinos before,’ so I was really coming in with that fighting energy.”
But he quickly softened after arriving at the DCPA’s Newman Center for Theatre Education. And for two reasons, he said: “There was cena … and there was musica.” Dinner and music.
The latter was a rousing, 30-minute performance by the American Mariachi house band led by Cynthia Reifler Flores, described by director James Vásquez as “one of the leading female mariachis in the world.” The musical demonstration, led by Flores’ singing, moved legendary, five-decade Su Teatro actor Yolanda Ortega to spontaneously tell Flores: “You sing with your heart and with every little fiber in your body. I’m your new groupie.”
Attendees represented a wide range of metro cultural, business and civic groups including the Mexican Cultural Center, Telemundo Denver, Mi Casa Resource Center, Museo de las Americas, The GrowHaus and the Denver mayor’s office, along with individual artists, teachers and students. Also representing was the entire cast of American Mariachi, José Cruz González’s story of a young woman in the 1970s who becomes determined to form an all-female mariachi band in a desperate attempt to connect with a mother lost in her dementia. The play, a co-production with the Old Globe Theatre, moves directly to San Diego for performances there after it closes in Denver on Feb. 25.
Others admitted to their cynicism as well. But after 90 minutes of blunt and constructive conversation about the sustainability of the DCPA’s aggressive commitment to communities of color both during and after American Mariachi, any opening clenched fists changed to handshakes.
“We are here to support you, and I am really excited about bringing more GLBT from our community to the play,” Mireles said at the end of the evening. “And of course, our niñas, because I am wanting them to see what they could actually become one day.”
How did Mireles and others move so far in such a short period of time? In part because DCPA Director of Strategic Projects Flora Jane DiRienzo came clean.
“We’ve got some work to do,” DiRienzo said flatly. Not so much onstage: The Theatre Company has in recent years staged three world premieres by González as well as new works by Karen Zacarias, Octavio Solis, Rogelio Martínez and other Latinx playwrights.
“We have always had a longstanding commitment to diverse voices on stage,” she added. “But in some ways that has fallen a little bit short because we have make sure that our audiences are just as diverse as those voices that are onstage.”
Suggestions from the community included making sure bilingual employees are positioned at the front door of the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex to welcome all first-time patrons who need help finding their way around. Others hope that translated supertitles like you see at the opera are made available for non-English-speaking audiences. Others wondered if a performance or two might be presented entirely in Spanish. The director and his cast committed to both exploring those possibilities, and to making personal appearances at any local school that asks them.
The primary, systemic barriers to attendance at major arts venues by communities of color are not unique to Denver: The price barrier, getting the word out to the people who might be most invested in a given story, and the cost and general intimidation of downtown parking.
One of the most moving testaments to that reality came from Bianca Acosta, a young, single mother who is working to becoming a teacher at Bryant-Webster, a dual language Denver Public School that happens to house Mariachi Juvenil de Bryant Webster — the first after-school elementary mariachi group in the DPS system. She said:
“I was not going to come tonight because my grandfather passed last night in México. The last time I came here, I got lost for almost an hour looking for this building because I am not familiar with driving downtown. And if I pay $10 for parking — that’s my budget for gas for an entire week. Those are real things. Denver is such a beautiful city, and I am so in love with it, but it’s expensive. But I am here to represent my community.
“When I first heard this play was happening, I was so excited, but then when I saw the price of the tickets, I said to myself, ‘I can’t even afford to bring me, much less my family.’ I see my family every day struggling to survive. When we talk about theatre, it doesn’t even cross their minds because it is so out of our reach.
“That’s why I wanted to come tonight: To tell you that our communities deserve to have the experience to see this play just like anyone else. So how can we make that happen? Is there a way to raise money to bring as many families, especially Spanish-speaking families, to the play? I imagine that many of those people who come will be going to be in a theatre for the first time. I can imagine their kids being blown away by seeing their culture and their music portrayed on the stage. How can we make that possible?”
DiRienzo told the crowd the DCPA is committed to ensuring that everyone who wants to see the play has an opportunity. “It’s possible,” DiRienzo told Acosta. “Yes, it’s possible.”
DCPA board member Patricia Baca told Acosta and others in attendance that the DCPA has scholarships and corporate underwriting that can make it affordable for families with financial hardship to come to the DCPA not only to see its plays but to participate in classes offered by the Education Division. And she made it plain that the DCPA’s commitment to Latinx and other communities of color is neither new nor fleeting.
“The Denver Center is for everybody,” she said. “And this is not the first or last play we will ask you to come in and give us your thoughts about,” Baca added. “And we will not only ask you to give us your thoughts on Latino-oriented plays. We want you here for the multitude of offerings, and we want to know what you think and feel.
“The conversation cannot end here. The conversation needs to continue. The suggestions you have made have been noted. And we will take action on as many of those as we can.”
Here is a roundup of other comments from the community conversation:
American Mariachi director James Vásquez: “My full name is Pedro James Vásquez. My dad was born in México, and my mom in Southern California. I look very much like my mother, while my two younger brothers look very Mexican. I don’t have a Spanish accent, so growing up, I got made fun of by a lot of my cousins for the way I spoke. So I just stopped speaking. American Mariachi is about reconnecting people to their culture. It’s about being given permission to reconnect with your culture and attempt to start speaking again. And I am grateful for that.”
Tina Walls, DCPA Board member: “My big passion is bringing the arts and culture of the underrepresented to the broader community, and bringing the under-represented, especially the kids, to this wonderful cultural footprint that we have in this community.”
Patrick Elkins-Zeglarski, DCPA Associate Director of Education: “People don’t get any whiter than I am, and no more devoted to mariachi. And I can tell you that mariachi saved my life when I was growing up. I came from a very violent high-school experience, but we would stop everything when my peers would bring out their instruments and bring us all together in the halls of our high school in Northern California. So, I am very much a witness to the story you are telling. Could we have any greater Valentine to our community than this play?”
Jesse Ogas, Su Teatro and Fire Fly Autism: “We are seeing bigotry and hatred and ugliness in our community that I have not experienced in my lifetime — but my parents did. And to watch them now as elders having to relive that just infuriates me. What you are doing right now with American Mariachi is extremely important at this particular time in our history because you are portraying who we are as people — and to celebrate us in this way really is important. It takes courage.”
Patty Baca, DCPA board member: “This play is going to be one of the delights of our community this year. I believe so strongly in this story, especially for our children so that they can see our people on the stage. See our people writing the play, directing the play, designing the play — and knowing that those are all possibilities for them as well.”
Info for American Mariachi: Performances of American Mariachi are January 26 – February 25, at the Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex. Tickets are available online at dcpa.org, or by calling 303-893-4100 or at the Box Office, which is located in the lobby of the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex lobby, at the northwest corner of the Denver Performing Arts Complex at Speer Boulevard & Arapahoe Street, tickets start at $30.
John Moore is an Award-winning arts journalist and is the Denver Center Performing Arts’ Senior Arts Journalist.
For More Colorado News: elsemanariocolorado.com
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