The Past, Present, and FuturX of Latinx Performance in Austin
The current surge of Latinx theatre and dance in the city speaks to both tradition and pioneering new directions
This past Friday, I was talking with a fellow theatregoer at the Mexican American Cultural Center about how that evening alone, we had a plethora of excellent options for Latinx performance and were struggling to see them all: Teatro Vivo's Real Women Have Curves, which we were at the MACC to see; Ground Floor Theatre's premiere of There and Back by Austin playwright Raul Garza; (Un)Documents, a new work by local performer/poet Jesus I. Valles, which was the anchor for the inaugural FuturX, a festival of Latinx performances that in its four-day run also offered an improvised sci-fi telenovela by the troupe Prima Doñas; a program of burlesque and spoken word featuring the Queen of Texas Burlesque, Chola Magnolia; a program of short works by Florinda Bryant, Heather Maria Acs, and Dillon Yruegas; and readings of new plays by Krysta Gonzales and Brian Oglesby.
And this was just weeks after ProyectoTeatro had mounted its latest Spanish-language stage production, Persiguiendo al Dragón (Chasing the Dragon); Latino Comedy Project had hosted a free reading of new sketch material; and A'lante Flamenco had premiered the dance work Anochecer (Nightfall), and just weeks before Aztlan Dance Company's revival of its production of The Enchilada Western; Roy Lozano's Ballet Folklórico de Texas' presentation of its Noche de Folklor 2018 on the Zilker Hillside; Shrewd Productions' opening of its National New Play Network rolling world premiere of The Madres, with an all-Latinx cast; and Glass Half Full Theatre's workshop of its next production, The Cucuy Project. Now, this land has been home to storytellers, dancers, and performers of all kinds for as long as humans have lived on it, from the Native peoples thousands of years ago to their descendants of recent centuries, many of whom identify as Native American, Mexican, Mexican-American, Hispanic, Latino, and Latinx. We can't be sure of what they did for most of that history. However, Latinx theatre and dance have documented roots in Austin going back 45 years, and many performing arts companies have shared Latinx narratives throughout the city (well, maybe more on the Eastside) during that time, but in this era having so many brown stories and brown bodies onstage in such a concentrated period of time is unprecedented.
So what's going on?
A closer look at this surge in Latinx performance reveals a convergence of the scene's past, present, and future. The past is represented in companies that were created on the foundation of tradition. In the mid-Seventies, Maria Salinas and Roy Lozano each established dance companies that focused on traditional dances of Mexico. Salinas' Ballet Folklorico Aztlan de Tejas and Lozano's Ballet Folklórico de Texas schooled Austinites in Mexican cultural heritage and helped keep it alive in this community, and Lozano's company still does so today through its School of Dance and public performances such as the free Noche de Folklor (Sat., Aug. 25, 7:30pm, Beverly S. Sheffield Zilker Hillside Theater). Two decades later, Ana Maria Tekina-eiru' Maynard added to their ranks with the Puerto Rican Folkloric Dance school and company, which will throw a picnic next month celebrating its 21st anniversary (Sun., Sept. 9, 2pm, 701 Tillery).
The present can be seen in companies such as Aztlan Dance, which evolved out of Maria Salinas' folklórico company under the stewardship of her son Roén; Latino Comedy Project, which got its start in 1997; Teatro Vivo, founded by Rupert and JoAnn Reyes in 2000; and Olivia Chacon's A'lante Flamenco. Their productions are contemporary in style and the world they present, even when the forms they use may be traditional. The Enchilada Western (Aug. 23-26, Thu.-Sat., 8pm; Sun., 4pm, Santa Cruz Theater) is a modern take on mythic characters from Mexican culture, set in the Texas desert of today. Real Women Have Curves takes place inside a small sewing factory in Los Angeles where an enterprising but undocumented young woman is trying to launch a business without being spotted by ICE. And it doesn't get much more up-to-the-minute than the LCP's 2017 production, Gentrifucked. These are the companies that have spent the last two decades showing Austin what life is for brown people in this city, this state, and this country now.
But blazing onto Austin's arts scene now is a new generation of writers, performers, and directors who are leading the way into the future, among them Jesus I. Valles, whose (Un)Documents speaks to both his experience as a Mexican and as a queer person of color; the Prima Doñas, an all-Latinx improv troupe, whose next show, Latinational, views politics through their particular comedic lens (Sept.29-Nov.17, Sat., 8:30pm, ColdTowne Theater); the artists of Glass Half Full Theatre, whose original works such as The Cucuy Project (Sept. 14-22, Fri. & Sat., 8pm, Dougherty Arts Center) create magical spaces for Latinx narratives by incorporating puppetry; and writers such as Krysta Gonzales, Florinda Bryant, and Dillon Yruegas. In this future, there is more Spanish-language theatre, as with ProyectoTeatro, which produced Persiguiendo al Dragón with a cast of Latinx performers all under the age of 18, and Pedemonte Productions, soon to present Toc Toc (Sept. 27-Oct. 12, Thu.-Sat., 8pm, Austin Scottish Rite Theater). In this future, also more historically white theatre companies will be telling brown stories as Ground Floor Theatre did with There and Back and Shrewd Productions is doing with The Madres (Aug. 31-Sept. 15, Thu.-Sat., 8pm; Sun., 5pm, Santa Cruz Theater).
In 2000, I recall eagerly awaiting the next Latino (pre-Latinx) performing arts offering because at that time, there were only a few venues and companies offering any brown performance. Companies were known for the genres of performance they offered – classical, traditional, experimental, original – and anything that was other than white, e.g., African-American theatre or dance, or Latino theatre or dance, was a genre. No more. We're moving toward an acknowledgment of many genres within that which is considered theatre of color in Austin.
This summer's surge of Latinx performance demonstrates more than a trend. For one thing, it doesn't include longtime Latinx companies and artists such as Ballet East, Lotus Contemporary Performing Arts, and Sharon Marroquin. And it doesn't take into account the fact that come January, the Latinx Theatre Commons will produce the 2019 Sin Fronteras Festival and Convening, held at the University of Texas at Austin and the Mexican American Cultural Center (in partnership with Teatro Vivo), showcasing Latinx and Latin American theatre for young audiences. And there are surely other performances, companies, or festivals that I have missed (for which I apologize). The fact is, Latinx theatre and dance is happening in Austin, faster than we can write about it! What a perfect problem.