Hartford Stage is opening the 2019-2020 season with the play “Quixote Nuevo” by Octavio Solis. And, this can be considered a homecoming celebration for him, because in 2009, Yale Rep in New Haven, presented “Lydia” A very moving story about a Mexican family living on the border of the USA and Mexico in Texas in 1970. Lydia is the young undocumented maid who takes care of Ceci, a teenager who is severely brain-damaged in a car accident. In her review in the New York Times, Anita Gates wrote that Lydia was an accurate portrait of people in pain. By now, Solis is the author of numerous plays, among them are “Man of the Flesh,” Pastures of Heaven,” “La Posada Mágica,” “El Paso Blue,” “Santos & Santos,” “El Otro,” “Prospect,” which in 2004, was also made into a movie directed by Solis, and others. “Quixote Nuevo” was commissioned by Bill Rauch artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
From 1992, when Octavio Solis received the Barrie and BC Stavis Playwriting Award, at the National Theatre Conference, to 2019, when he was awarded the Distinguished Achievement in the American Theater from the William Inge Center for the Arts, Solis has received a total of twenty-two awards and fellowships, including the Imagen Award for Consultant on Disney-Pixar’s “Coco” in 2018.
Aside from his playwriting Solis has also written “Retablos: Stories From a Life Lived Along the Border” a memoir, which has received great praise from writers like Concepcion de Leon, whom, in The New York Times, encouraged people to read it to find out “what’s life really like on the Mexican border.”Steven G. Kellman, gets to the essence of “Retablos” in his review in the Texas Observer, when he writes that “Retablos” recounts “a beautiful, messy youth on the border.” One of my favorite stories in the book is “First Day.” It describes the day when his father takes him to work at the “locally famous taco joint” where he works as a day cook. As I read it, I kept seeing it as a short film, because of the descriptions of the place, the workers, and the intense friendships they develop with each other.
Thanks to Hartford Stage Solis we will have the opportunity to attend one of his plays. I am very grateful that, even though Octavio Solis is in the middle of the stressful time of rehearsals for the opening of “Quixote Nuevo,” he has been so generous and willing to set aside some time to answer these questions.
IN CONVERSATION WITH OCTAVIO SOLIS
BR: I was really fascinated by so many aspects of your memoir “Retablos” particularly the portrayal of your parents who were so young when they got married. She was only 16 and pregnant with you. At one point in the book, you mention that “at 23 your father already had five children.” What was it like growing up in your house during your early years?
OS: My parents came into the US very poor, but with the help of my grandmother “Mama Concha”, they made connections for work and a living situation. Of course, they were very young and somewhat naive about their prospects, because, in a matter of a few years, there were five of us to feed and care for on the salaries of a short-order cook and a housecleaner. One of my brothers died in infancy from pneumonia and malnutrition. And due to the stresses of long hard labor during which both of them had to spend so many hours away from us, the tensions typical of low-income families took hold and there was violence and anger in our home, indelibly marking us. But for the most part, we leaned on each other for company and succor when our Mom and Dad were out. We helped raise one another, but we never gave up on our parents, even in their darkest days, when it seemed like it might be better for all of us to move back to Mexico. That faith was returned, my Dad and Mom changing radically to see us through the straits, and though they worked all their lives in greasy spoon diners and department stores, they saw us through our teen and adult years and now live proudly as full citizens in the little house it took forty years to pay off.
BR: In the story “Keening” you wake up late at night and find your mother helping an older man and a young woman with no shoes. They are shivering and practically frozen from crossing the border and walking in the snow. Your mother gives them blankets when they go, because they “are nice people who just need a little help.” even though at that time, your family did not have much money. Was she always like that?
OS: My parents have known poverty and they remember those who have helped them through it. They inculcated in us the notion of aid for the less fortunate from a very early age, mainly by demonstrating that spirit of generosity and kindness in their everyday lives. But in this instance, my parents, who realized they could be criminally liable for aiding this couple, felt even more compelled to do so because they recognized themselves in the starkness of this ordeal. This random couple stumbling upon their doorstep could easily have been my parents.
BR: “Retablos” takes us into the world of a child growing up who is frequently forced to confront his identity. In “La Migra” you wrote about a child in a red tee-shirt, being sought by the cops. You get stopped by them because you are also wearing a red tee-shirt. You refuse to speak Spanish because you are an “American” but, in the end, you realize that, because of your culture, you and the boy and you are the same.
OS: The boy in the red T-shirt was not being sought by the “cops”, but by the Border Patrol. The distinction is significant because it meant that the crime the boy was being sought for was simply wanting to live in this country. They questioned me not because I might be that same boy since they already knew I was American. They stopped me just to mess with me, to exert that power over me, to force me to question my allegiances and my identity. At the end of this episode, I am demeaned and made to feel like the fugitive boy they were looking for. Which, frankly, I am grateful for now, since it has deepened and expanded my empathy for the undocumented to this day.
BR: There is a sense of “longing” from the characters in your “retablos.” Your mother drives by a house she wishes she could live in; you drive by the house of a girl you have a crush on hoping to see her; Demon, one of your friends, wishes he had someone to care for him and goes to the cemetery to visit his grandmother, his only relative. Do you think as Latinos we feel that even though we have something to anchor us, there is also a sense that something else is missing or unreachable?
OS: This is an interesting observation. It might be that the longings expressed by the denizens of El Paso are simply a projection of my own deep ambiguous yearnings that haunt me to this day. But perhaps there is a kind of longing that pervades the Latino experience. Some might argue that it’s a longing for home, but that wouldn’t be true since we are home; this was our home before we were made to feel like aliens, and it always be our home. The longing might be for that distant pre-colonial time, but Latinos and nostalgia are not always ideal bedfellows. Perhaps the longing is for real agency in this world, for some control over our destinies. Life can be brutally fickle, and while some enjoy good fortune, others, most of us, I would argue, still seek a little more empowerment in a world that constantly calls into question our presence.
BR: By now you have written over twenty plays and directed a film, I am always interested in how people decide to dedicate their lives to the theater. While doing a reading of the play based on “The Diary of Anne Frank” when you were in the drama club of your school, you felt that “the world vanished for a few hours.” Was that experience what opened the curtains of the stage for you?
OS: Yes, it was a pivotal time in my life, one that determined what I would pursue as a career. I had no idea that one could turn a child’s game like “playing make-believe” into an art form, but that’s what this initial theatrical experience demonstrated to me. Even more importantly, it’s how acting out “a lie” on stage, using fake walls and costumes and props that function only on-stage, how all that falsehood could be in the service of essential truths. Revelations that could make you cry. Creating people whole-cloth who could reveal things about yourself that could shake you to your foundations. Yes, I knew that movies and TV were already doing this, but to have it happen live before you in a room was startling and magical. It still is.
BR: The first professional play you saw, what did it mean to you?
OS: The first professional play I saw was the national touring production of “A Chorus Line” in San Antonio. It was my first year in college and we went on a field trip to see it. I was stricken with awe at the power and spectacle of the production. But I was especially taken with the sparseness of the stage. The production amounted to a company of actor/dancers, a bare floor, music, and lights. The rest was in our heads. It was a key lesson for me in the power of theatre and its contract with the audience.
BR: What made you decide to become a playwright?
OS: I was studying to be an actor all through my college years, but upon leaving grad school, I sought theatre work and generally failed at it. Still, I was offered a teaching job at the local Arts magnet school in Dallas, which I accepted with some reticence. Now I see that that assignment served to formulate my vision of what new plays should aspire to. Eventually, I started writing plays to feature my acting prowess (such as it was), and thereby found my real love. As demand for my plays increased, I gave up my acting career.
BR: You participated in the production of Pixar’s animated film “Coco.” Not only by being the voice of the “arrivals agent” but also as one of the three cultural consultants hired to ensure the authenticity of the story. Was this your first time working in animation? Did you expect this film with an all-Latino cast to be such a record-breaking film earning over 800 million dollars?
OS: Working on Coco was a singular experience. Nothing like that had ever come to me before. I never expected to be working with Pixar/Disney in this way, nor had I any expectations of how I should participate in the making of the film. It was all so new. What I did expect, however, was that Pixar would deliver a blockbuster film that would break as many records as it broke hearts. It’s par for the course for them. They are a hit-making machine!
BR: In an interview in PBS “Newshour” you said “using the Quixote spine, I was able to tell a new story about the border, and the border patrol, and the immigration issues that we are dealing with today. I feel it incumbent on me that, in these times to address the issues that I feel are endangering Latinos in this country.” A book written four centuries ago is still relevant and has inspired you to create a story about immigrants in the USA. How long did it take you to write this play and which aspects were the most difficult?
OS: Truthfully, “Quixote Nuevo” is the culmination of three separate versions of the Don Quixote story that I have produced over the years. My first attempt came about ten years ago when I adapted the novel for the stage of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival; it was as faithful as I could be to the spirit of the Novel (Book 1), and contained events that only occurred in the book and in Cervantes’ Spain. It was tremendously successful. Then a number of years later, I further altered this version for Shakespeare Dallas, updating the story to current times and setting it along the Texas/Mexico border. The language contained more Spanish and more modern colloquialisms but generally adhered to the earlier play’s structure and intent. Also, a successful run. Then in 2017-18, I tried a third adaptation for the California Shakespeare Theatre, except this time, I feel like I truly pried the play from Cervantes’ Old World clutch, and wrote the play that was inside me. With the guidance of my director KJ Sanchez and Eric Ting of Cal Shakes, I hammered out a completely new play with its own structure and content within 5 months. This draft went through numerous revisions during rehearsal and subsequently opened last summer. So in about 12 years, I have traveled with Quixote from Spain to Texas to home.
BR: Your next project?
OS: I have several projects I am working on. A play inspired on a brief symphonic piece by Jean Sibelius called “Scene with Cranes” for the California Arts Institute. Another play is a kind of sequel to “Mother Road”, presently running at the OSF. That new work will be for the San Francisco Playhouse. Another play is a commission for the Arena Stage on the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which determined the Rio Grande as the new and permanent border between Mexico and the US. All of these works and others compete for my attention when I’m not thinking of “Quixote Nuevo.”
QUIXOTE NUEVO AT HARTFORD STAGE
The play is directed by KJ Sanchez, Veteran TV and stage actor Emilio Delgado” best known for his role as Luis on the popular “Sesame Street” show, leads the cast in the title role of Mr. Quijano who becomes “Quixote.” The play, a Tejano music-filled reimagining of Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” will run from September 19, until October 13. Visit www.hartfordstage.org or call 860-527-5151 for information on dates and ticket prices.
Special Events: Numerous events have been scheduled to be presented during the run of the show. Here is some important information: During the play, people can use the cards from their own town libraries to get books from the display at the Hartford Stage lobby.
- On September 23 at Mark Twain House, former Courant theater critic Frank Rizzo will lead a conversation Playwright Octavio Solis about Quixote Nuevo and his book “Retablos”. Mark Twain House & Museum, 351 Farmington Avenue, Hartford. 7 p.m.–9 p.m. Tickets: $10.
- On September 29. There will be a panel discussion with artists and scholars at the theater immediately the 2 p.m. matinee. Free.
- AfterWords is a series of discussions which will take place on Tuesday, October 1; Wednesday, October 2; and Tuesday, October 8. Following the 7:30 p.m. performances or after the 2 p.m. Wednesday matinee.