Monday, November 30, 2009
"In reality, Octavio Solis mines a new vein"
The family drama 'Lydia' is 'the kind of play that I said I would never write.'
Playwright Octavio Solis has become an overnight sensation, and it took only 25 years. Long respected in theater and Latino arts circles, the writer is having breakthrough success with his play "Lydia."
Set in El Paso in the 1970s, "Lydia" portrays the saga of the Flores family, whose teenage daughter, Ceci, has been disabled in a horrific accident. Into this household of troubled souls and buried secrets enters an undocumented caretaker who shares a mysterious connection with Ceci.
With recent productions at Denver Center Theatre Company, Yale Repertory Theatre and Marin Theatre Company, the drama opens Wednesday at the Mark Taper Forum, directed by Juliette Carrillo. "Lydia" has also been submitted for consideration for the Pulitzer Prize and is a finalist for the 2009 Harold and Mimi Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award.
"Lydia" is a breakthrough and a departure for Solis, known for poetic, lyrical language in plays typically not tied to any one setting. The heightened language is still present in "Lydia" but so too is realism.
"It's my first real true family play inside a house," the writer says during a recent visit from his Bay Area home. "This is one where everything is happening inside four walls and within a compressed period of time, often real time. I've written the kind of play that I said I would never write.
"This is probably my most personal work," adds the soft-spoken playwright. "I felt compelled to write about a family in the realistic language that I grew up with."
"Octavio Solis strikes a beautiful balance in writing from his head and his heart," says Bill Rauch, Oregon Shakespeare Festival artistic director, who has commissioned Solis to write an adaptation of Cervantes' "Don Quixote." "His work is smart and passionate."
That combination of the emotional and the intellectual, the intimate and the dramatic, is what some feel gives "Lydia" its power. "It's a domestic drama, but the language and the theatrical idiom are anything but domestic -- the way the combination of Spanish and English in the play is both comforting and jarring; the shifts in tone and mode are exhilarating, and the mysteries of the story stay with you long after you've read or seen it," says James Bundy, dean of the Yale School of Drama and artistic director of Yale Repertory Theatre. "It's one of the most important plays of this decade."
The writing bug
Considering the stylistic divide between Solis' earlier works and the giants of American realism, it's easy to understand why the playwright might be puzzled by some of the response to "Lydia." And yet, writing intimately about a family's domestic life as well as the darker side of the American dream, Solis does share a thematic kinship with great U.S. dramatists of generations past.
Opining about the play's Colorado premiere, Denver Post theater critic John Moore described "Lydia" as "very much the Latino cousin of 'Death of a Salesman.' " And actor David DeSantos, who has performed in Solis' "La Posada Mágica" at South Coast Repertory, seconds the analogy.
"I can only compare Octavio Solis to a modern-day Arthur Miller," says DeSantos, currently acting at OSF. "His unflinching take on the human condition, as Miller embraced, is one of Octavio's strongest assets." In "Lydia," says DeSantos, Solis "found a story so dark and tragic. It is desperate and painful but layered with so much love."
From an actor's point of view, another similarity is the psychological richness. "Octavio gives actors a road map to a truth that is terrifying and exhilarating in the same breath," DeSantos says. "In the same way that you open up Odets, Miller or Williams and find a treasure chest of layered honesty, when you open an Octavio Solis play, we actors have a raw, visceral experience."
Yet even among those who have worked with Solis for years, there is disagreement over whether "Lydia" is a new type of play for the writer. To Carrillo, who also directed the Denver and Yale outings of the play, "Lydia" is less of a departure than a continuation.
"It certainly brings in many of the themes he's been working with -- broken relationships, violence, secrets, passionate love, death," says Carrillo, who first worked with Solis in the late '90s, when she was running SCR's Hispanic Playwrights Project. "But what is profoundly special about this play is how close to the bone he is cutting. It comes from a very deep, personal well."
That personal well is, in many respects, where "Lydia" is set; Solis grew up less than a mile from the Rio Grande, near El Paso. "So the border has always been a presence in my life and my psyche," he explains. "It looms large in most of my works that I set in Texas.
"There will always be that dichotomy between the first world and the Third World, right there in our backyard. For it to be poignantly expressed as a body of water, a river, where I lived, just makes it more mysterious to me."
Solis, 50, was born in El Paso to Mexican-born parents. He attended college in San Antonio and received an MFA in acting at the Dallas Theatre Centre, when Trinity University had its graduate program off site there. Fresh out of school, he was cast in a production of Eric Overmyer's "Native Speech" in Dallas. It proved a turning point. "Instead of thinking I wanted to act in plays like this," Solis says, "I started to think I wanted to write plays like this."
Solis produced some experimental writing at a bar where he was then bartending -- when he wasn't teaching high school. That situation lasted until the late 1980s: "My wife made me quit those jobs and said, 'Look, we'll live on my income.' She's an attorney."
In 1988-89, Solis was accepted into a workshop with playwright Maria Irene Fornes as well as South Coast Repertory's Hispanic Playwrights Project, then run by playwright Jose Cruz Gonzalez.
Solis thus became part of a budding movement that would change American regional theater. The late 1980s saw the blossoming of multiculturalism: a proliferation of culturally and ethnically specific workshops, playwriting labs and other development initiatives, supported by government and private sources.
"I'm lucky in the sense that I was a product of that," Solis says. "I think the artistic directors who embraced it all believed in it, and they had tremendous funding for it. But when the money dried up, it became very hard for the theaters to continue."
A planned trilogy
Sustained by personal and institutional sources, Solis has finally made it to the A-list of regional theater. His current commissions include Denver Center Theatre, SCR, Yale Rep, OSF and California Shakespeare Festival.
"Don Quixote" will mark Solis' third play at OSF and the first since Rauch was appointed artistic director in 2006. "As a language-based theater, we embrace writers who use language in extraordinary, fresh and beautiful ways," says Rauch, formerly of L.A.'s Cornerstone Theater.
Yale Rep will get the sequel to "Lydia," Part 2 of a projected trilogy, currently titled "Yolanda." The play takes up the story of Alvaro, one of the minor characters in "Lydia," 30 years later. Says Dean Bundy: "He's a good writer for the Rep because he has a distinctive voice and an adventurous aesthetic." And the third play of the trilogy might go to Denver.
Yet Solis is not immune to the recession. His "La Posada Mágica," which has been staged as a holiday season event at SCR for the past 15 years, has been canceled for the first time.
Still, Solis' star is rising fast. "In these hard times, I have to admit I'm doing well," he says. "I've always had a backup of five commissions. And most theaters have said, 'Write what you want to write,' which gives me the artistic freedom to explore. I have to count my blessings."
By Jan Breslauer
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
San Juan, Puerto Rico (CNN) -- The suspect in the brutal slaying of a gay teenager in Puerto Rico was charged Wednesday with first-degree murder and four other counts, the prosecutor in the case told CNN.
Juan A. Martínez Matos was arrested late Monday in connection with the slaying of Jorge Steven Lopez Mercado, whose decapitated, dismembered and partially burned body was found Friday afternoon on a road in central Puerto Rico.
In addition to murder, Martínez Matos was charged with three weapons violations and one count of hiding evidence, prosecutor Yaritza Carrasquillo said.
Prosecutors are weighing whether to recommend that Martinez Matos be charged under federal hate crimes law, Carrasquillo said. That decision was not expected to come Wednesday.
The U.S. gay community is asking authorities to investigate whether the slaying was a hate crime, said Pedro Julio Serrano of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
"The brutality of the slaying and the fact that he was openly gay leads us to believe it was very possibly a hate crime," Serrano said Tuesday.
Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, which means federal agencies have jurisdiction.
The U.S. Attorney's Office, in consultation with local officials and other agencies, would determine whether the slaying will be prosecuted as a hate crime.
"It's at a very preliminary stage," Lymarie Llovet, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office in San Juan, Puerto Rico's capital, said Tuesday. "There's the potential for a federal investigation."
Martinez Matos, 26, was arrested late Monday at his home in the Mogote de Cayey neighborhood, said Wilson Porrata Mariani, another spokesman for the Guayama police district.
Police impounded two cars and also are investigating a home in another neighborhood, Huertas del Barrio Beatriz de Cidra.
Lopez Mercado's body was found on Puerto Rico Road 184 in another part of town, Barrio Guavate de Cayey, police said.
Authorities are investigating whether the killing involved sex, Hector Agosto Rodriguez, police commander in the town of Guayama, told CNN affiliate WLII TV.
In footage aired on Telemundo-Puerto Rico, Martinez Matos was asked by a reporter if he was gay, to which he replied no, and added, "(Lopez Mercado) tried to kill me."
According to Telemundo and other local reports, Martinez Matos confessed to authorities that he picked Lopez Mercado up from the street, thinking that he was a woman.
When he realized that Lopez Mercado was a man, Martinez Matos said he regressed to an incident when he was sexually assaulted during a prison term, Telemundo and local reports said.
That's when a conflict started between the two, authorities said, leading to the teen's death.
The slaying has reverberated through the gay and lesbian community in the United States, where supporters started a Facebook page called "Justice for Jorge Steven Lopez -- End Hate Crimes." The group demands an investigation by Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuno and prosecution of the case under the federal hate crime law.
The Federal Hate Crimes Law was enacted in 1969 to guard the rights of any U.S. citizen who is targeted because of race, color, religion or national origin, or because of an attempt to engage in one of six protected activities, such as voting, going to school or attending a public venue.
President Obama signed into law last month the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which extends federal protection to illegal acts motivated by a person's actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.
If Martinez Matos is charged under the hate crimes provision, it is believed it would be the first such case under the latest addition to the law.
Journalist Nuria Sebazco contributed to this report.
Friday, November 20, 2009
Over the weekend the brutalized body of gay teen Jorge Steven López Mercado was found by the side of a road in Puerto Rico. The police investigator suggested that he deserved what he got because of the "type of lifestyle" he was leading.
Mercado According to an iReport by Chrisopher Pagan: "On November 14 the body of a gay 19 year old was found a few miles away from the town in which he was residing in called Caguas. He was a very well known person in the gay community of Puerto Rico, and very loved. He was found on the site of an isolated road in the city of Cayey, he was partially burned, decapitated, and dismembered, both arms, both legs, and the torso. This has caused a huge reaction from the gay community here, but its a difficult situation. Never in the history of Puerto Rico has a murder been classified as a hate crime. Even though we have to follow federal mandates and laws, many of the laws in which are passed in the USA such as Obama’s new bill, do not always directly get practiced in Puerto Rico. The police agent that is handling this case said on a public televised statement that 'people who lead this type of lifestyle need to be aware that this will happen'. As If the boy murdered Jorge Steven López was asking to get killed..."
Jorge Here's a report on the murder (in Spanish) from PrimeraHora.com. Said activist Pedro Julio Serrano: "It is inconceivable that the investigating officer suggests that the victim deserved his fate, like a woman deserves rape for wearing a short skirt. We demand condemnation of this investigator and demand that Superintendente Figueroa Sancha replace him with someone capable of investigating this case without prejudice." (my translation, please suggest a better one if you can).
Monday, November 2, 2009
Latinos and Education: Explaining the Attainment Gap
by Mark Hugo Lopez, Associate Director, Pew Hispanic Center
Nearly nine-in-ten (89%) Latino young adults ages 16 to 25 say that a college education is important for success in life, yet only about half that number-48%-say that they themselves plan to get a college degree, according to a new national survey of 2,012 Latinos ages 16 and older by the Pew Hispanic Center conducted from Aug. 5 to Sept. 16, 2009.
The biggest reason for the gap between the high value Latinos place on education and their more modest aspirations to finish college appears to come from financial pressure to support a family, the survey finds.
Nearly three-quarters (74%) of all 16- to 25-year-old survey respondents who cut their education short during or right after high school say they did so because they had to support their family. Other reasons include poor English skills (cited by about half of respondents who cut short their education), a dislike of school and a feeling that they don't need more education for the careers they want (each cited by about four-in-ten respondents who cut their education short).
Latino schooling in the U.S. has long been characterized by high dropout rates and low college completion rates. Both problems have moderated over time, but a persistent educational attainment gap remains between Hispanics and whites.
When asked why Latinos on average do not do as well as other students in school, more respondents in the Pew Hispanic Center survey blame poor parenting and poor English skills than blame poor teachers. The explanation that Latino students don't work as hard as other students is cited by the fewest survey respondents; fewer than four-in-ten (38%) see that as a major reason for the achievement gap.
This report was prepared for the Latino Children, Families, and Schooling National Conference sponsored jointly by the Education Writers Association, the Pew Hispanic Center and the National Panel on Latino Children and Schooling. The conference was held on Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2009 at the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington, D.C.