According to local actor David Carrasco, persuading Colorado audiences to turn out for shows that include Spanish dialogue has always been a tall order.
“I have had so many actor friends tell me they don’t come out to see performances at Su Teatro [Cultural & Performing Arts Center] because of the language barrier,” Carrasco says. “They are so worried about not understanding every word that they don’t show up. One thing I always found funny about that is that when operas are produced, audiences are willing to sit through four hours of French or Italian and not understand a word of it. What is the difference with Spanish?”
Denver’s Firehouse Theater Company has been having these types of conversations ever since Debra Gallegos, a well-known Latina performer with nearly 50 years of theater and music experience, recently joined the group’s board of directors. Despite the challenges of staging a work in Spanish, the team agreed they couldn’t pass up the opportunity to stage the regional premiere of Charity: Part III of a Mexican Trilogy by Evelina Fernández.
“Debra knows the playwright and suggested we read some of her work,” says Helen Hand, Firehouse Theater’s board president and executive producer. “After we read the entire trilogy, we decided the third play would be the easiest to stage in the space. Charity is the culmination of this family’s story, and it was actually where Evelina began when she wrote the original trilogy. We decided to do Charity because Debra was enthusiastic about directing it, and the play reflects our desire to produce meaningful theater that doesn’t make you want to slit your wrists.”
Charity is the final play in Fernández’s sprawling epic following the Moraleses, a multigenerational Mexican-American family. The play takes place shortly after the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005 and juxtaposes his passing with the family’s own tragedies.
Esperanza (Yolanda Ortega), the family’s elderly matriarch, lives with Gina (Magally Luna) and Rudy (Phil Luna), whose son recently died in the U.S. invasion of Iraq. As Esperanza works to keep the family together, the spirits of deceased family members, including her husband and her late great-grandson, visit her with advice.
‘Another step closer’
Since Charity was different from anything Firehouse Theater had programmed in the past, they hosted script readings of the entire trilogy ahead of auditions. “We wanted to introduce our patrons to the play and reach out to the Latino community,” Hand says. About half of the actors who were cast participated in these initial readings, which gave them the opportunity to read various roles and decide whether or not they wanted to be a part of the project.
“The story really resonated with me,” says Ortega, one of the actors involved with the show since its initial script readings at Firehouse. “I grew up in a military family, so I saw a lot of young men who went to war, especially in the Vietnam and Gulf Wars, and what it did to them. Esperanza’s character is so multi-faceted and takes you on this rollercoaster ride. She gets emotional, is funny as heck and is also very real.”
When Firehouse Theater hosted the initial readings, one of the questions that Gallegos posed to the audience was whether or not the play should include subtitles. Though the majority of the script is in English, the creative team was concerned that without translation, audiences would miss out on things like jokes that only work in Spanish.
“We asked the audience, and pretty much everyone said, ‘Don’t do it,” Gallegos says. “I read some reviews of a production in L.A. that did have subtitles, and it sounded like it was more distracting than helpful. I wanted people to be able to connect with the characters without constantly looking away to read word-for-word what they were saying. Beki Pineda is our assistant director, and she helps by [letting us know] when something is not clear to an English speaker. If something doesn’t make sense, the actors add gestures or use a different inflection to clarify what they are saying.”
To that end, audiences at Firehouse Theater are urged to lean in and accept the fact that they might not fully grasp each and every nuance of what is being said on stage.
“Don’t be afraid of us as Mexican Americans,” Carrasco says. “Historically, Colorado audiences have been uncomfortable with our language … [but] I have seen a good response to this show online, and I am hoping that translates to butts in seats. It’s important to attend performances like Charity because it’s not the norm to see these stories reflected on stage. I appreciate Firehouse for taking a chance on a project like this, and I hope it’s another step closer to allowing people of color access to theater.”
ON STAGE: Charity: Part III of a Mexican Trilogy. Various times through July 1, Firehouse Theater Company, 7653 E. First Place, Denver. Tickets here.