(This post is a part of the Diversity & Inclusion blog salon led by Online Curator Jacqueline E. Lawton for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas. Check out further Diversity & Inclusion interviews on Jacqueline’s blog.)
TCG Online Conference Salon: Diversity and Inclusion Program Arc–Latin@ Theatre series
JACQUELINE LAWTON: First, tell me about the work you do as a theatre artist or administrator.
RAMONA PILAR GONZALES: I have done a variety of work in Los Angeles theater since 2001: I was an administrator for Casa 0101 for one year I’ve written and produced plays and sketch comedy shows; I also performed in most of them. I’ve acted in productions I haven’t written, mostly new works. I’ve Staged Managed, House Managed, ushered, and even helped with costumes in a few. I’m the current Editor in Chief of pLAywriting in the city, a theater review blog that is expanding into an arts magazine. I would say I’m pretty familiar with how the sausage gets made in small community theaters of color.
JL: How do you identify in terms of race, ethnicity, culture, and heritage? How has this identity influenced the work that you do?
RPG: I use the term California or California Native. My family has a multi-generational history in the U.S., so to say I’m Mexican isn’t exactly accurate. It’s obvious when I’ve gone there that I’m not from there. My Spanish isn’t great; I didn’t grow up with Sabado Gigante or Pedro Infante. But my parents, who were born in California (mom) and New Mexico (dad), were migrant workers when they were kids. My mom is from the Salinas Valley. We lived there when I was a kid, then we moved to LA. I went to UC Davis and spent about five years in that area. My name, Ramona, has literary roots in California. I’m not from anywhere else. Since ethnicity seems to be tied to country of origin, I claim California because there is no other place in the country like it. And everyone else in the country ends up coming here anyway.
I was raised in Los Angeles, the capital of the world’s myths. I grew up an only child so I read, watched TV, and listened to music. My work is very influenced by popular culture, a lot of which has been fueled/influenced by cult culture (i.e. culture that develops a cult following). The fiction/narrative/storytelling writing that I do is very heavily influenced by archetypes and myth creation and deconstruction.
The goal with my creative work is to shift the perspective of Mexican-Americans, Chican@s, Californi@s, to go from being talked about and represented by someone else, to talk for myself, represent myself and my experience and those who are similarly in what Gloria Anzaldua called nepantla, the in between space; ethnically Mexican and culturally American, generations deep. I don’t write about The Immigrant Narrative because I know nothing about the struggles of coming to another country and trying to assimilate. I do know what it’s like to be told to go back to Mexico, to be called a nigger, to be called ugly, to wish I had blond hair and light skin so that people would stop making fun of me. You can still be “othered” even if you speak English better and get better grades than everyone else.
The goal with my critical, nonfiction work is to write about different aspects of life through my point of view, which isn’t one that I see all that often. I wrote a piece on a recent production of Melancholia at the Los Angeles Theatre Center which included a review of the show, but also addressed what it is like to be someone from Los Angeles and not be taken into consideration as an audience member in larger run theater houses.
In short, my ethnic background and my family history in California is in the work I do because I cannot be separated from my point of view.
JL: How has this identity impacted your ability to work in the American Theatre? Have certain opportunities been made available to you owing to “who” you are? Have certain doors been closed to you?
I have definitely been fortunate enough to be involved in a few productions based on “who I know.” Whether or not certain doors have been closed is hard for me to say. There are a lot of doors I haven’t even tried yet. This is a great question! (I’m thinking as I type this) I wonder if I haven’t tried any of the doors because I just assume they’ll be locked. And if they’re not locked, that the expectations will be to fit a particular mold, to be something “understandable” and digestible. One of the reasons I stick to working with theater companies of color is because my skin color is never brought up. I grew up being called “dark” – I went to grade school with predominantly white kids, and my melanin stuck out. In communities of color it’s rarely, if ever, a topic of conversation.
A Film Studies professor once told me, “Don’t worry about ‘Them.’ They’re not going to listen to you because they don’t have to. You do your work for you and your community.” It blew my mind because I was all set to upset the mainstream. What he said made sense to me and that’s what I’ve done; I’ve worked in my community and other communities of color. I’ve had opportunities to work with true hustlers – dedicated artists – who care as much about their work ethic as they do about their art. And now “They” are beginning to catch up.
JL: Do we need racial, ethnic and gender based culturally specific theaters? What is gained by having stories of a certain community told by artists of that community?
I think I inadvertently answered this question in the previous question! Yes! Absolutely! In same way that different regions of the U.S. have different dialects, inside jokes based on cultural history and weather, so do the different cultures and ethnicities in the U.S. Within the “Latino” moniker there is a huge variety of experiences – people who migrated versus people whose families have been in one country for generations, East Coast versus West Coast versus Texans versus Chicago Latinos, Latinos from South America who have come from privilege and those of us born here whose parents came from less than nothing. Each culture has a whole mass of different perspectives, different lenses through which they see the world. There’s absolutely room for all of those experiences to be explored and shared.
JL: What is the current state of Latino/a Theatre? (This can address recent offences and/or great accomplishments.)
It’s starting to get reeeeally interesting from where I’m sitting. Especially when it comes to Social Media. For example, the TCG 2.0 makes it easier for people to organize, communicate and mobilize and feel accomplished, more so than ever before. In Los Angeles, at least, smaller 99 seat theaters that began in the early 2000s have evolved and are finding their groove as far as programming and branding. It’s an exciting time!
As far as larger, regional theaters selecting or producing Latino work, I look forward to them producing work outside of the familiar cultural stereotypes. Greek tragedies retold as gang stories are still gang stories and “barrio life” on stage. While those issues continue to be prevalent and need to be addressed, those issues are not the only issues. On the other hand, while I may not be the target audience for that sort of thing, there is a target audience for it. And getting produced is getting produced at the end of the day.
JL: What can theatres do to better serve a larger and more inclusive community?
Developing mentorship programs for young and emerging artistic professionals, like the now defunct theater labs at the Center Theater Group, would be wonderful. The idea of having a home base, working with people with a shared history and knowing that you would be professionally paid for your work was something wonderful to look forward to when I was growing up in LA. Opportunities are still there in other ways, and, since there is a template, there’s no reason that programs like that can’t happen again.
Ramona Pilar Gonzales is a writer/performer and native Californian. Her nonfiction work has been published in LatinoLA, CreepyLA, La Revista Magazine, the Highland Park News and more. She has also written and produced several short plays and films. Her dramatized essay, Del Plato a la Boca, El Ritmo te Toca, received a grant from La Plaza de Cultura y Artes Foundation. She is a founding member of the theater performance group Tongue in Chíc*ana. Ramona has a B.A. in Film and Cultural Representation from UC Davis and an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University, Los Angeles.
Jacqueline E. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener fellow. Her plays include Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: Love Brothers Serenade, Mad Breed and Our Man Beverly Snow. She has received commissions from Active Cultures Theater, Discovery Theater, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History, Round House Theatre and Theater J. A 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color, she has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center. She resides in Washington DC and is a member of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena. jacquelinelawton.com