Paying the 'Electricidad' bill

In an essay which she presents as an ofrenda to other writers, the incomparable Helena María Viramontes exhorts her readers (“makers” she calls them) this way: “Trust you can withstand the fire in your hands.”

Marisela Barrera is feeling the heat these days — her creative hands are ablaze. As director of the San Pedro Playhouse’s current production of Electricidad, Luis Alfaro’s retelling of the Greek tragedy Electra, Barrera has been grappling not only with the play’s ancient source, but also with Chicano culture, violence, local theater, and the dismal reality that is art funding, San Anto style.

A native of the Río Grande Valley, Barrera developed her theater chops at the other end of the state. “I worked and matured as a theater artist in Dallas, which had a hot `theater` scene,” she says. In addition to working at the Dallas Theatre Center, she served as artistic director of the well-regarded Cara Mia Theatre Company, which, she laments, is now only a specter of its formerly vital self. Barrera is quick to remind me that this cultural anemia is not endemic to Tejas: Too many Latino theaters around the country have either been shuttered or are foundering economically.

Since coming to San Antonio, Barrera directed the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center’s Theatre Program (“I thought I’d retire from there,” she’s often said) before coming up against philosophical differences with the Center’s board. Currently she multitasks as Producing Director of La Colectiva Performance Group, Program Coordinator at Conjunto Heritage Taller, and as an arts educator at Jump-Start Performance Co.

“I read Alfaro’s early draft `of Electricidad` and did lots of dramaturgy work,” Barrera explains. “But when I got my hands on a later draft, I kept asking, ‘What did he heighten?’” As she thought about the violence in the Greek original and Alfaro’s Chicano take on it, Barrera trained her directorial gaze at what she refers to as “the absurdity of the situation.” She notes that the cycle of violence, abuse, and murder continues to plague our communities. “We’re still there,” she insists. The unbroken line from the violence and death in Electra’s family to Electricidad’s East L.A. familia is clear and undeniable.

But Alfaro’s officially recognized genius (the vato’s a MacArthur Fellow, ese) is also responsible for what Barrera sees as a deft balance between horrific tragedy and leavening humor. And it is that humor that allows Barrera to feel a direct connection to a distinct teatro aesthetic, a Chicano aesthetic. Her embrace of the tradition is warm and unconditional, and she appreciates tracing the laughs in Electricidad to carpa’s often coded vaudeville. The use of stock characters and humor in those tent shows, and certainly in later, more overtly political forms, are integral to how we tell our stories, according to Barrera. She also points proudly to the aesthetic’s imperative that discipline-defined boundaries be blurred or even obliterated. Barrera notes that everyone who collaborated on the production is deeply committed to this philosophy. Artists Adán Hernández and Andy Benavides, as well as Sexto Sol musician Sam Villela, also lent their talents to the show. “I believe the audience sees this evidence of passion — they see that we all like working with each other,” Barrera says.

However, if the small but growing canon of Chicano plays depends on certain stock characters (think of the stalwart, lovable female characters in local staples such as Las Nuevas Tamaleras, Doña Rosita’s Jalapeño Kitchen, and Real Women Have Curves), do these characters represent Message rather than Human Beings?

Barrera contends that the characters in Electricidad actually defy easy stereotypes. She points to the sassy Abuela whose counterpart in some black plays is the all-knowing, ever suffering mama on the couch.

In a landmark essay published in The New Yorker in 1997, the preeminent African-American scholar Henry Louis Gates wrote that when black audiences laugh at themselves and their lives as represented in plays that tour the immensely popular “chitlin’ circuit,” there is an understanding that this is all entre nous. However, as soon as even one non-black person joins the audience, it’s no longer so easy to laugh at the foibles on stage. I mention this to Barrera, who is aware of the phenomenon. Presenting a play like Electricidad, with its chola/vato/vida-loca culture and language, is a challenge in a “mainstream” space. But she draws optimism from the example set by Teatro Visión in San José, California.

Could Silicon Valley’s economic resources be responsible, at least in part, for that success? Barrera, who recently returned from serving on an arts-funding panel in Austin, says that experience invites comparison. Austinites, she tells me, understand the importance of advertising and solid financial support for the arts. In her opinion, San Antonio “lacks the fire” to fund live theater adequately. This is reflected in the catch-22 of a relatively small audience base and a dearth of economic resources to address the challenge in a meaningful way. “San Antonio needs to embrace a philosophy of investing in the arts,” Barrera says. One need look no further than this year’s edition of TeatroFEST, which Barrera founded at the Guadalupe in 2005. The festival (the term is applied loosely here) comprises two plays, Electricidad at the Playhouse and Momma’s Boyz at the Guadalupe. The plays were selected independently, so there is no cohesive curatorial p.o.v. Even worse, Barrera explains that there was no advertising budget for TeatroFEST this year. Más triste.

After five years of struggling with San Anto’s sometimes difficult cultural terrain (she seriously considered heading elsewhere after the Guadalupe rupture), Barrera remains undaunted. She dreams of presenting challenging work year-round — in a Chicano house, fíjate. “I have hope that we’ll be able to do that one day,” she says. Ojalá, ’manita.

She beams when she mentions the roster of nationally recognized Chicana and Chicano visual artists, writers, and musicians who call San Anto home. However, that radiance dulls when Barrera also talks about opportunities missed. As if echoing César Chávez’s motto, “Sí se puede,” Barrera concludes: “I’m confident we can build a Chicano audience for `challenging` Chicano theater in this city, but it takes years to build that trust.” With fire-keepers like Marisela Barrera we may get there yet. 

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