Sunday, January 08, 2012

Cherríe Moraga: Q&A with Amelia M.L. Montes on World Premiere Play, NEW FIRE--TO PUT THINGS RIGHT AGAIN

Cherríe Moraga’s World Premiere: New Fire—“To Put Things Right Again”

La Bloga Readers—if you are the fortunate ones who live in the San Francisco, California area or are visiting San Francisco during this month of January 2012, I strongly encourage you to make one of your January nights (January 11 – 29) an evening at the world premiere of NEW FIRE—TO PUT THINGS RIGHT AGAIN at the Brava Theater (2781 24th Street). Also--there are matinee times too for those of you interested in going earlier in the afternoon (3p.m.).

From the Brava Theater press release: After a fifteen-year hiatus, Brava Theater is proud to welcome award winning writer and director, Cherríe Moraga, back to its stage to to celebrate its 25th anniversary. Co-produced with cihuatl productions, and conceptually created and designed by Celia Herrera Rodríguez, this new work follows the sacred geography of Indigenous American mythologies to tell a 21st century story of rupture, migration, and homecoming. Countering new-age apocalyptic predictions for 2012, NEW FIRE takes a mythic modern-day look at the conditions of our times.

Moraga was the first resident playwright at Brava and in the 1990s saw three world premieres of her plays produced by Brava. Of her return to Brava, Moraga states, “It’s about coming home, returning to the same place, but as a different person, a different artist. The world has changed so dramatically in fifteen years, and I, along with it. I am older, yes, . . . and the work, more mature, as well. I have, with my collaborators, discovered the poetry of movement, of visuals, the music of silence, even as I continue to write with words."

Cherríe Moraga

Along with the above Press Release announcement from the Brava Theater, I am very happy to offer you this Q&A with Cherríe Moraga. Cherríe was able to take time from rehearsals to sit down with me (via telefono) and answer my questions regarding this upcoming world premiere. Gracias Cherríe:

Amelia: What does it mean “to put things right again” which is part of the play’s title?

Cherríe: New Fire: To Put Things Right Again follows the sacred geography of Indigenous American mythologies. We tell a twenty-first century story of rupture, migration, and homecoming. It marks the moment in history when those much maligned female spirits return to the earth “to make things right again."

Amelia: Am I correct in saying that with New Fire, you are also inaugurating a new production company: cihuatl productions? How is this a different avenue of production from your three previous plays: The Hungry Woman, La Semilla Caminante, and Digging Up the Dirt?

Cherríe: Actually, we founded cihuatl productions with Digging up the Dirt. In the summer of 2010 we had worked with Breath of Fire Theater in Orange County/ Santa Ana. There, we coproduced Digging up the Dirt with them. In that process we formed cihuatl. It was clear that in order to produce the play how we wanted, we needed to use this as a launching pad for the production company. La Semilla Caminanate was a workshop production for New Fire. It has taken three years to bring all the elements for New Fire together—since 2009. With a series of jornadas -- talking with various indigenous communities and meeting them in ceremony—that part started as early as 2009. The first version was done in workshop – five shows—minimal production value. We ran those five shows in April of 2010. It was that collaboration that began shaping this production--pretty grand in scope. After the five shows, we then went into this new production which has become New Fire.

Amelia: “La Llorona,” “The hungry woman” has been the subject of your work from your earliest writings regarding mujeres, on feminism. How is New Fire continuing to develop this subject?

Cherríe: La Llorona has always been in my work. Yes, she appears again here, but not as an actual image, but sort of metaphorically. The cry of the indigenous woman for the loss of her children is historical and about colonization. Of course it’s deeply intimate and particularly applicable now in terms of indigenous people and the immigrant experience, particularly today and deportations happening daily. That llanto that has to do with colonization, with violence against women. This play is a Llorona moment because it is about violence against Chicanas—external and intimate violence. There is a cry that has to come out of her. That cry always reverberates. Colonization—the women of Juarez—institutional misogyny that allows those mass murders to happen without any kind of retribution. Domestic violence and incest is not unique to our families, but among Chicanos, we don’t talk about it. And particularly in theater, you never see it. The structure of the play is an all-night ceremony to acknowledge the 52 years of the main character—Veronica (played by Dena Martinez). [Adelina Anthony also appears as "Coyote," the trickster]. Veronica is basically having a medicine ceremony—taking place all night. We’re using the structure of that ceremony to remember her past, remember the traumas that have happened to her. This is a very important turning point for her: when you move into this elder state. She needs to remember these traumas that have happened to her in order to get well and move on to get to this next state in her life so it takes her to her childhood, young adulthood, and it takes her to remembering traumas that happens to working class women. This is a political and spiritual path: You keep going back in time until you come out at dawn and then you’ll be able to move on. To arrive at a decolonized view of spirituality, not appropriated by the left—the ways we need to get well.

Celia Herrera Rodríguez

The play is happening on a mundane level and then it goes into the memory that brings the mythic component which is the Aztec Mexica tradition that serves her as guides in order for her to get well and they are as scary as hell. Itzapalotl and Tzitzimitl—these figure into the structure of the play in order to reclaim her.

Amelia: In your most recent book, A Xicana Codex of Changing Consciousness, toward the end, the chapter entitled “Still Loving in the (Still) War Years/2009 – on Keeping Queer Queer,” you write: “‘Ometéotl,” the Mexica (Aztec) Danzantes invoke the name of the divine, the sweet smell of copal smoke rising; the sound of the rattle, the tambor, the call of the conch shell. ‘Ometéotl.’ This is no monotheistic god the father, but something else so much more telling of an older world that sought an integral balance within each human being, not defined by opposite sexes. Ometéotl is la fuerza fundamental to creation—both the active principle and passive receptor, capable of conceiving as one entity. And thus, our world is possible.” This section seems to speak to your description of New Fire.

Cherríe: The whole conceit of New Fire—is in regards to the projects of the nation state, the United States, and all that goes with it: colonialism, American psychology telling us what we are as a people. Why do Chicanos have two choices: to either forget we were brown and we assimilate, or we stay brown and that means being poor and oppressed? We are given very few prospects or options. How to be able to live full and whole lives and not be broken by economic and social oppression? They only want us to do this by consuming and consuming more. When we have to get well, we keep looking for models outside of our culture. American psychology has caught on to this. But you can’t think yourself out of wellness. We don’t need to “think” therapy, we need revolution (and that’s in the book, A Xicana Codex of Changing Consciousness).

The conceit then of the play, New Fire, is to move beyond convention.

I’m going to be 60 next year. I’m raising children—I’m looking at everything that is happening to the human spirit. So partly this project of becoming whole people is that we can’t be looking to our oppressors for healing. It requires going home to our culture—learning from ourselves, from our people. For many years I have kept watching how we keep going away from our own healing.

Amelia: How have you structured the play to reflect these themes?

Cherríe: Even the structure of the play is not western. I’ve been teaching at Stanford for 15 years and this play challenges the conventions of playwriting to remind us that art can still wake people up not for the sake of defiance but to defy convention so that we can turn to our own sources.

This play is very demanding of the audience. My sense of it is that it’s not like a good time. I do believe it really moves and has the promise of moving the soul. And of course it’s entertaining—incredible music, dance, acting—but the intention is to move things around in the gut, the head, in the spirit.

There are a lot of people in the west who try to do this. My job is to hone my own cultural tools to do that. There’s a lot of pressure to do otherwise –

Amelia: Why is there pressure?

It’s not a great career move to do unconventional theater. If you’re really trying to make a living as a playwright, you want to write works that are mainstream and those kinds of plays that a subscriber base would find entertaining. Major regional theatergoers are over 60, white, upper middle class, and they are not our base. The cost would be great to create theater for them, to reach that audience—but that’s not my intended audience. I think they could be greatly influenced but I’m not interested. For example, I have Spanish in my plays and that already cuts off some potential audience. The fact that you have a Chicana as the main character, well, that already cuts you from mainstream theater. There are African American women who have transgressed those boundaries. But indigenous women (actors and directors)--this is virtually absent from the U.S. stage.

Amelia: How then do you reach out to a base that is not upper middle class, over 60, or white?

We have a whole range of affordable community tickets and discounts for groups. The price of the ticket is reasonable, not inaccessible, ranging from $10-$30. The real issue is that our community doesn’t go to the theater. The wonderful 1960s and 70s teatro—that theater went to them and right now there are some grass roots “theater of the streets” that is happening. That’s an important component emerging out of a political movement. The project of this play is that we can’t do this on a street corner. In terms of Raza—we have the right to have these really great, experiential productions made manifest in real theater houses. That’s my job at this moment. This is what we are doing with cihuatl productions and this intention is already happening.

This is part of our manifesto—because many of us have over 30 years of work in theater—with queer youth of color, immigrants, early 1980s and 90s, also doing grass roots.

Amelia: How are you planning to continue to develop cihuatl productions beyond New Fire.

Cherríe: So partly our job is training people to teach. There are two generations of teachers that are coming after me. For example, there is Silvia Rodriguez who was working theater at the grass roots level and is now at Berkeley. Cihuatl is doing that—teaching creative writing and playwriting. There’s a way to do that. I think of all those MFA programs. It’s good to get those degrees. It helps us but the way they tend to teach is so damaging for us. They don’t hear our voice so then our voice becomes imitative of them. What I really hope to do is to establish ways of teaching so it can be handed down—developing an academy of the arts. How do you direct a Chicano body differently from an Anglo body? We can consider what’s beautiful to us rather than what’s beautiful to an Anglo body.

It’s unfortunate that in the 1960s, Teatro Campesino was also limited due to its patriarchal way. We offer something different. The students—they carry hundreds of years of DNA and it hasn’t been tapped. I’ve been teaching this way for years. As I move out of the academy, I want to do this kind of theater but differently and then pass it on. There are so many other teachers—arts practitioners we can tap. That’s really the goal of the arts academy: to produce works that are more local, smaller and more intimate—a close relationship to the local community.

Amelia: Are you also interested in multimedia in your productions?

Cherríe: Yes—film is one. This is an idea—because we’ve been bringing in a lot of film—even in this play we have a lot of filmic elements—multi-media elements. The ability to have easy access for people to film makes this very viable. How one visualizes for the stage is different but film is still visualization. I can see things in a more filmic way. When you’re working with actors—the great thing about film is that they only have to get it right once. At my age—and I write a lot of work that is filmic--- there are simply very few Chicana actors doing that kind of work—for us to be able to think about film in our productions is exciting.

Amelia: Is there anything else you would like to tell our La Bloga readers about the world premiere play of New Fire—To Put Things Right Again?

Cherríe: If people are within driving range of the play—they should come. It’s only playing for three weekends. Theater is ephemeral—it happens and it goes. I will publish the play but it’s nothing like seeing this incredible ensemble of play actors.

We have Charlene O’Rourke who is Lakota. She has composed original music—the songs are incredibly powerful. There are people on stage who understand ceremony—they’ve been walking the Red Road including Celia Herrera Rodríguez and Arnita Dobbins (playing Cedar Woman). We’re bringing in key people from our communities [such as KULARTS Artistic Director and award winning choreographer, Alleluia Panis (tribal Pilipina), choreographer and indigenous music composers and performers Stephen Cervantes (Xicano/Chumash) and Charlene O’Rourke (Lakota).]

What’s really important to me—and I’ve been feeling this for a long time—with the death of Gloria [Anzaldúa], and sisters who have begun to pass—this play on a certain level is trying to honor what it really means to be elders in a community and it recognizes what that road looks like to get there. That is what really feels important to me. This play is the realization of a lot of thought—this is a manifestation of those ideas. This play takes us through the rebirth of human consciousness—a hard road politically. I came of age in the late 60s.—a lot of these prophecies mean that there is a change of consciousness happening. This play can be some sort of gesture in that direction.

New Fire—“To Put Things Right Again” opens on Wednesday, January 11th at 8p.m. Brava Theater, 2781 24th St. (at York), San Francisco, California Tickets: $10-$30 Brava Box Office: 415-647-2882 /

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