Friday, February 29, 2008

The Play's The Thing


A founding member of Teatro Campesino. Henry Reyna in the movie Zoot Suit, for which he also wrote the music. Producer of La Bamba. Songwriter: Primavera; Brown-Eyed Children of the Sun. Linda Ronstadt and Canciones de Mi Padre. Playwright. Actor. Musician.

The list of Daniel Valdez’s accomplishments reads like a dictionary of Chicano Culture. He's done it all: Movement theater to Hollywood productions; sentimental love ballads to re-imagining Mexican mariachi classics; edgy drama to slapstick comedy. Valdez has provided more than thirty years of political entertainment. In many ways he is an artistic conscience for the Latino generation that came of age at the beginning of the farm worker union organizing movement in the mid-sixties, matured through the antiwar struggles, and that continues to push a progressive agenda.

His latest endeavor is Ollin – an art performance piece that had its world debut in Denver on February 21 at El Centro Su Teatro (last show is March 29.) I had the chance to speak with Daniel for a few minutes during his hectic schedule while he was in town for the premiere. It was supposed to be an interview, but anyone who has ever talked with Daniel knows that the Q&A format isn’t big enough for what happens when Daniel gets going. Here is my impression of a few of the things he touched on when I began the conversation with the simple query, “What’s Ollin about?”

Ollin refers to the Fifth Sun – we are still in the time of the Fifth Sun of the Mayan prophecies. Ollin actually means “movement.” The piece is about the Conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards. Valdez sees that episode as a “cosmic clash” – he referred to a “big bang” theory of history between the Spanish and Indio.

The story is told through the perspective of Cortez, and the audience learns his ambitions and his struggles. His story is contrasted with that of Moctezuma, the Indio King. Moctezuma was aware of the prophecies and he looked at the conquest as fate; it had been predicted by Quetzalcoatl. The piece also gives us Malinche, forced to be in the middle, she has the third point of view. Valdez suggests that “she saved lives” by her involvement and influence. She was the bridge between the other two, the symbolic mother of the first mestizo.

The narrative starts 800 years before the conquest, with Quetzalcoatl. Ironically, Cortez arrived on the day that Quetzalcoatl had predicted his own return. Many Indios thought Cortez was Quetzalcoatl because of the prediction, but only 300 Spaniards conquered 500,000 natives, so something else was going on – “destiny.” Valdez imagines Moctezuma as believing that the conquest was destiny, fate, inevitable. And the numerous tribes that were unhappy with the Aztecs – the smoldering dissension - added to the clash. There was no way to avoid what eventually happened.

The piece started as a radio show back in the 1980s for National Public Radio. Valdez wanted to bring “light and understanding” to the conquest. He wrote what he thought would be a 2-3 page poem but that ended up being 22-23 pages, the beginning of the narrative for the current piece. He realized then that he needed to expand his vision for the poem.

Valdez told me that Ollin is more of an art performance piece than a play. It incorporates dance, music, and spoken word, and is presented in a poetic format. He calculates that eighty percent of the piece is music, with several pre-Colombian dance episodes. The play is primarily in English with some Spanish and Nahuatl.

Kids can understand the history. Valdez's intent is to bring “clarity to the conquest." Teachers at an early performance told Daniel they liked it and that they thought it would be excellent for children.

This is Daniel Valdez's third collaboration with Tony Garcia, Artistic Executive Director of El Centro Su Teatro, and the Su Teatro company.

As for future plans, Valdez said that he would love to take Ollin on the road, if the opportunity presents itself. Meanwhile, here in Colorado, he is scheduled to get involved with a project to produce an oratorio about the history of Pueblo, Colorado, a unique community with a long and proud Chicano working-class presence.

At the end, after he finally took a breath, he encouraged people to bring their kids to the performance; he insisted that the piece is family oriented; that it is a fun play; and that it can bring generations together. It should be "shared by a family."

He concluded, with a laugh, “Ollin is a poor man’s version of Cirque du Soleil.”

Written and Directed by Daniel Valdez
February 21 – March 29, 2008

Major players: Bobby LeFebre, Jesse Ogas, Felicia Gallegos Pettis, Valarie Castillo, Lara Gallegos

Joaquin Liebert, David Carrasco, Anthony Saiz, Jose Guerrero, Natalia Romo

Tony Silva (Musical Director), Angel Mendez Soto, Robert Gale, Rogelio Ransoli

El Centro Su Teatro
4725 High Street



Written by Octavio Solis
Directed by Juliette Carrilo
The Ricketson Theater, Denver Center for the Performing Arts
January 18 - March 1

This superb play highlights a mini Golden Age of Latino Theater in Denver. Since the beginning of the year, Denver audiences have been treated to Las Chicas Del 3.5" Floppies (Luis Enrique Gutiérrez Ortiz Monasterio); a special reading of Sunsets and Margaritas by José Cruz González; Ollin (Daniel Valdez); José Mercado directing Comedy of Errors; and the world premiere of Lydia. We could get spoiled and expect this all the time. Which will happen if the audience is there. Support these events, gente.

Lydia has an excellent cast: Carlo Albán, Christian Barillas, Stephanie Beatriz, Ricardo Gutierrez, Catalina Maynard, René Millán, Onahoua Rodriguez - not a lightweight in the bunch, all with extensive experience although several are making their Denver Center debut. Under the precise direction of Carrilo, Soliz's story of family warfare rips the audience and movingly exposes the characters' fears, ambitions, and mistakes. The program summarizes the story this way:

"Ceci Flores introduces her family: her father Claudio, a Mexican immigrant working as a cook in El Paso; her mother Rosa, whose dream brought her family to the U.S.; her tough-acting elder brother René; and her more serious younger brother Misha. Ceci herself has brain damage, and although the audience understands her, she cannot communicate with her family or anyone else -- until the new maid Lydia arrives, fresh from Mexico. Ceci's cousin Alvaro has recently returned from Vietnam; his appearance, along with Lydia's knack for interpreting Ceci, dredges up secrets from the past and reveals the desires that could bring the family together or tear them apart."

This is heavy, as they used to say. It's encouraging to see such a broad range of themes and formats in these plays. The courage displayed by the writers as they confront controversial and sensitive topics should inspire us all. The pen continues to be a powerful force to beat back society's demons.

Finally - Feliz Cumpleaños to Rudy Ch. Garcia. This is a big one, dude. Time to drag out all the bromides about age. Here's one to get you started; it's schmaltz but I think you respect the source:

It is not true that people stop pursuing dreams because they grow old, they grow old because they stop pursuing dreams.

Gabriel García Márquez



msedano said...

rudyg: apio verde to you, brother.

Ollin needs LA and LA needs Ollin. When's Daniel bringing it west? I was in the audience when the Taper's New Theatre for Now debuted Zoot Suit. I knew that would be an historic event. Hope Ollin conveyed the same feeling for you gente who were there.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the birthday wishes, song and Marquez's words, Bloguistas.

For La Bloga world's information, Ramos--older than me--is about to turn the big 60 and probably wants everyone to know and celebrate it.

Ramos, may your next 60 be as unassuming as your first.

Corina Carrasco said...

Not only does L.A. need Ollin, I would love to see it tour all over. Bring it near me, to San Francisco and I'll take everyone I know to see it!

I think Daniel Valdez is truly one of our "golden" treasures. I hope he is able to take Ollin on the road. We all need to see it, especially now, in the time of the Quinto Sol.