Packing heat: Breath of Fire's Elsa Martinez Philips (left) and Sara Guerrero
Packing heat: Breath of Fire's Elsa Martinez Philips (left) and Sara Guerrero
Tim Melideo

Babies, Greeks and More at Breath of Fire Latina Theater Ensemble's New Works Festival

Stolen Babies! Ancient Greeks! Chicken sacrifices!
All this and more at Breath of Fire Latina Theater Ensemble’s New Works Festival

Only five miles separate South Coast Repertory’s luxuriant Costa Mesa digs from the Breath of Fire Latina Theater Ensemble’s humble space in downtown Santa Ana. But in terms of funding, prestige, physical facilities and history, they might as well be on different planets.

Next weekend, though, when BOFT presents the six staged readings from Latino playwrights that comprise its First Annual New Works Festival, this young theater company, which operates on an annual budget that probably wouldn’t pay the monthly electric bill at SCR, inherits a small part of its bigger neighbor’s legacy.

For 18 years, SCR produced the Hispanic Playwrights Project, one of the most successful development programs for ethnically themed plays in American theater. Over that time, 75 plays by emerging and established Latin American writers received readings or full productions. But in 2004, the theater ended the project, choosing to focus its resources on the larger, more inclusive Pacific Playwrights Project.

The next year, the Center Theatre Group, which runs the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, ended its Latino Theatre Initiative, meaning that in a part of the country where Latinos represent nearly half the population, no major nonprofit theatrical institution had an organized program to develop writers or plays speaking directly to that community.

“With [SCR’s Hispanic Playwrights Project] gone, there is definitely a vacuum that we hope to somewhat fill with our festival,” says Elsa Martinez Philips, BOFT’s co-artistic director and chairwoman of the New Works Festival.

“We felt it had been a great endeavor, and we were very sad to see it go, since Latino playwrights are so underrepresented as it is,” says Sara Guerrero, the company’s other co-artistic director, of SCR’s defunct program. “But we also sensed an opportunity that maybe we could give it a whirl ourselves.”

Three of BOFT’s six full productions have been original works written by company members. It has also produced plays by Arizona-based writer Jose Casas and Los Angeles-based writer/performer Monica Palacios.

But this marks the first time the company has reached out to Hispanic playwrights across the country. Not only does this help BOFT establish a national profile, but it’s also getting a full-scale production out of it: The six plays will be judged by a three-member panel, and the piece with the highest overall score will launch the troupe’s 2009 season.

Beyond the practical benefits for creating an annual new-works festival, it dovetails nicely with the company’s mission statement: to create work that “reflects, impacts and empowers the Latina/o experience.” What better way to achieve that than encouraging Latino playwrights to keep writing plays, especially since the well-funded nonprofit theaters have abandoned their developmental programs?

“We basically feel that until there is more representation of Latino writers, this is a way to support the effort and promote their works,” Philips says.

The plays chosen from the 20 submitted belong to writers with ample production histories. But outside of them all being plot- and character-driven, rather than experimental in nature, and a tendency to tackle weighty issues, no common theme or concern ties them together.

New York City-based Kimberly del Buston’s Hurricane In a Glass explores the effect of Alzheimer’s on three generations of Cuban-American women in Miami. Another NYC writer, Mel Nieves, examines religious faith and the notion of serving one’s country in a city still reverberating from the collapse of the Twin Towers in Midnight Mass. UC Santa Barbara theater professor Carlos Morton’s Brown Baby revolves around an Anglo couple in San Diego who adopt a baby stolen from its mother at the border.

Two of the plays step back in time: Austin-based Rene Solivan’s Miss Lebron explores the complex historical dynamic between the United States and Puerto Rico, while Albuquerque writer Patricia Crespin’s The Medea Complex is a loose, Latinized adaptation of Euripides’ ancient Greek classic, Medea.

Los Angeles resident Mercy Vasquez’s La Cancion De Los Pajaritos is the only truly local contribution.

Though this is obviously a Latino-centric festival, Philips says the reason these particular plays were chosen had less to do with ethnicity than with quality.

“There is a lot of diversity in the subject material and really good stories and compelling characters who would be interesting for anyone,” she says. “Take the play about Alzheimer’s. It’s really a play that anyone who has an ill family member to take care of could relate to. It just so happens that instead of Irish-Americans in Boston dealing with it, this play is about Cuban-Americans in Miami.”

Philips has a point: Great writing makes the specific universal. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that there are just some things that don’t translate across cultures. In the Cuban-American play, for instance, how many Irish-American households in Boston do you think ritually sacrifice chickens?

Breath of Fire Latina Theater Ensemble’s New Works Festival, 310 W. Fifth St. (Second floor), Santa Ana, (714) 540-1157; Midnight Mass and La Cancion De Los Pajaritos, Fri., 7:30 p.m.; Brown Baby and The Medea Complex, Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Miss Lebron and Hurricane in a Glass, Sun., 4 p.m. Fri.-Sat., $10; Sun., $15 (includes reception); entire weekend, $20.


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