LUIS ALFARO, born and raised in the Pico-Union neighborhood of Los Angeles, is a Chicano writer renowned for his work in poetry, theater, short fiction, performance, and journalism. His connection to theater is deep and includes six seasons as the playwright-in-residence at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (2013–2019); an association with the Ojai Playwrights Conference since 2002; being a member of the Playwright’s Ensemble at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theatre (2013–2020); and serving as a resident artist at the Mark Taper Forum (1995–2005). Luis spent over two decades in the Los Angeles poetry community, and toured North and Latin America as a performance artist. He is a professor of dramatic writing at the University of Southern California.
Luis has been duly recognized for his literary achievements. He is the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, popularly known as the “genius” grant; the PEN America/Laura Pels International Foundation Theater Award for a Master Dramatist; and the United States Artist Fellowship and Ford Foundation’s Art of Change Fellowship, to name a few of the honors. His many plays and performances include Electricidad, Oedipus El Rey, and Mojada (known collectively as his Greek Trilogy), as well as Delano, Bitter Homes and Gardens, and Body of Faith.
My first personal encounter with Luis happened in May 2020 on Twitter, of course. We were two months into the shuttering of schools, restaurants, gyms, houses of worship, and — of course — live theater. I had forwarded to Luis one of my tweets about an essay I had written a few months earlier for LARB, “From Dystopia to Absurdity: On Being a Chicano Writer in the Age of Trump.” In it, I explained why, after 20-plus years of writing fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, I was inspired to write my first full-length play, Waiting for Godínez, to address then-President Trump’s zero-tolerance immigration policies that resulted in the separation of families and the caging of children. Luis thanked me and said that he couldn’t wait to read it, but first he had plays to grade since he was a professor at USC. Then, a couple weeks later, I sent him another DM to share the news that Playwrights’ Arena had selected that play for its Summer Reading Series with nine other plays, including one written by Luis. We celebrated this mutual news. Ever since, we have DM’d each other on a variety of matters, both personal and theater-related. In all those communications, Luis was thoughtful, kind, and ever supportive.
It is surprising to me that Luis and I had not connected (pre-pandemic) in person much sooner. He and I are about the same age, and he grew up a few miles from my childhood home. We even reminisced about local establishments such as Peter Pan Market which still operates in its original storefront on West Pico Boulevard across the street from St. Thomas the Apostle Church where my siblings and I all received our First Communion and were confirmed. The old neighborhood has made its way into my fiction and poetry — not surprisingly. It is also no surprise that Luis has mined and explored many of the same landmarks in his own writing.
Luis is simply one of our most important living playwrights, and that fact is no better illustrated than by the recently released The Greek Trilogy of Luis Alfaro: Electricidad; Oedipus El Rey; Mojada (Methuen Drama/Bloomsbury). In these plays, Luis brilliantly transplants Sophocles’s Electra and Oedipus and Euripides’s Medea into the modern-day streets of Los Angeles and New York. In doing so, he gives voice to the rich, complex lives of the Chicanx and Latinx communities and neighborhoods that he knows and loves. This book is a must-own for any student and lover of contemporary, American plays.
This volume is edited by Professor Rosa Andújar, who is the deputy director of Liberal Arts and lecturer in Liberal Arts at King’s College London. Professor Andújar offers an impressively annotated introduction at the beginning of this volume, and each of the three plays begins with a separate introduction that contextualizes the work. And there is more: this book includes the plays’ production histories, a glossary of the Spanish and Spanglish terms, and an interview with Luis.
Professor Rosa Andújar observes in the introduction that to “reduce Luis Alfaro simply to ‘playwright’ is to do a major disservice to a vastly talented artist, who is also a successful performer, director, producer, journalist, filmmaker, educator, and social activist.” I enthusiastically agree with this assessment. I would also add that many people — former and current students, colleagues, fans of theater — would say that Luis is big-hearted, kind, and always curious about what makes a neighborhood a community. I venture to suggest that these attributes are the foundation for his great literary talent and successes.
Despite a hectic schedule teaching, writing, and theater-making — all made more complicated by the pandemic — he kindly agreed to answer a few questions for LARB about The Greek Trilogy of Luis Alfaro.
DANIEL OLIVAS: What inspired you to write your own version of three renowned ancient Greek tragedies?
LUIS ALFARO: To be honest, like most of my work, it is never about me! It is usually a community need/want that fuels my desire to tell a story. I never create alone. I am usually creating alongside my activist work. I was on a journey for a number of years where I was doing residencies around the country in different cities. I was in Hartford, Connecticut; Houston, Texas; and in Tucson, Arizona; among many places, working with a wonderful community-based theater called Borderlands. As part of my political/community-building work, I offered an “ofrenda” — an offering, to teach, lead a story circle, etc., and at that time I was working with teens in a correctional facility. Someone offered a story about a young woman who had killed her mother because she had put out a hit on her father, who was a drug dealer in the community. That night, after the workshop, I went to the Arizona Theatre Company to see a play and they have a little bookshop. They had a collection of 10 Greek plays for $10. I had not read the Greeks. And I thought, “Dollar a Greek, pretty good,” so I bought the collection. The first play I read was Electra, the story of a young woman who murders her mother to avenge her father’s death. The parallels were amazing. Here is a story over a thousand years old and we are still living in its themes and ideas today. I decided to adapt it as best I could, using most of the same beats, and see if I could bring not only my Chicano self to it, but also a sensibility around L.A. that could live in the play. I was studying with my mentor, the Cuban playwright María Irene Fornés, at the time, and she encouraged a wonderful theatricality, to see worlds, to let them find their own sense of largeness, humor, and expression. So that was how I collided with the Greek myths. I think I was looking to dream bigger as a playwright, to reach for something outside of my own conventional thinking.
Your Chicanx versions of the Greek chorus are innovative, powerful, and — at times — hilarious. Could you talk a little about how you created your choruses that are in the form of the vecinas with their brooms (in Electricidad), the shapeshifting coro (Oedipus El Rey), and the viejita, Tita (Mojada)?
I love the chorus in all three plays. The chorus is the voice of the audience. Many times, it’s conscience. When I started to play with building the Coro in Electricidad, I was thinking about my own upbringing, the women, las mujeres, with their brooms, sweeping, sweeping, sweeping. I have always loved that sound. The sound of community, connection, storytelling. I wanted them to comment on the action, tell the history of both our culture, but also Los Angeles. To question the audience about their own complicity in the violence of poverty and our ability to not only weather it, but also allow it to flourish. I grew up in Downtown Los Angeles. In an area called Pico-Union. A very poor and violent neighborhood butting up next to the Convention Center. I was trying to make sense of who I was. I believe a play does that. It allows you to ask questions, like the Greeks do, and the audience has to wrestle with the answer. I always come to a play with a question, a fact, an obsession and then build on my need and desire to answer it for myself in some way. I read that more than half of all young men in California who go to a state prison will return at least once more in their lifetime. The recidivism rate, the return to prison rate. It disturbed me so much. Are these the new kingdoms where we find our young kings? I imagined that the play was a pageant being performed by these young men in prison, and that is how the Coro of inmates came to be. I was becoming a more confident writer and I wrote the first draft over a week, with a company of longtime actor collaborators, at the Getty Villa in Malibu.
By the time I got to Mojada, I had read a fact that more than half of all undocumented women who cross the Southern border into the US are assaulted. What a price to pay to come to this country. I knew that I wanted to play with a single chorus member, in the form of Tita, Medea’s attendant. I wrote the play as a poem. The form of the play stayed that way until it started to get produced and collaborated on by the team of artists. I was very committed to the monologues in the play as they are imagined in the original text, and then slowly I started to make the play my own. I love that moment when a writer has to make a play completely their own. The tradition calls and we start a new one. Adaptation has been a gift. An opportunity to learn form, structure, etc.
I recently watched online the readings of your Greek trilogy that were presented by The Getty and Center Theatre Group. There are actors and directors with whom you have worked over the years, many of whom were in these online readings. Did your collaboration with these theater-makers shape the works themselves and your understanding of what these plays mean to your audiences?
Actors are the translators, the interpreters, the channelers of our work. I love writing to an actor’s strength and letting an actor show me how to write the play better. This happens in the playing of the language. Finding the truth in the piece. I listen and move toward the thing that needs me the most, through these experiments that the actor is doing in creating their character. Working with artists I know is not only making family, but also getting to a shorthand in our creative attempts. I also mix it up with new folks into our tribe, so that change becomes our normal. Writing a play is being constantly in the act of change. Studying the Living Theatre, Viewpoints, Artaud’s theories, helps a lot in being able to stay in the moment, in the same way that an actor does. I approach playwriting in the same way, and use the same language. I center myself, work from my core, use sense memory, etc. So, yes, many of these actors I purposely wrote the original scenes for, to their instincts, the way they use words. At the start of a play, I am looking for authenticity, in story, language, and environment.
Professor Rosa Andújar of King’s College London edited the recently published Methuen Drama edition of The Greek Trilogy of Luis Alfaro. What does her scholarship and contextualization offer in terms of an understanding of your plays?
I love Rosa. We met years ago at an ATHE (Association for Theatre in Higher Education) conference. I went to a session where she was talking about my work. It was the most surreal experience. But she was unpacking the plays in the most wonderfully thoughtful and profound ways. She asked if I would give her permission to pitch the plays as a collection to a number of publishers. She did all of the heavy lifting in making the book happen. I am extremely grateful to her for the work, but also for the focus and direction. I loved that there was a Latina scholar living in England and talking about the work in another part of the world. As the pandemic approached, there was a lot she had to do very quickly, and I completely trusted her in making it all happen.
Olivas’s Beckett-inspired play, Waiting for Godínez, will be featured in The Road Theatre’s Twelfth Annual Summer Playwrights Festival and will stream on Sunday, July 25, 6:00 p.m. PT.
Daniel Olivas, a second-generation Angeleno, is the author of nine books including, most recently, The King of Lighting Fixtures: Stories (University of Arizona Press), and Crossing the Border: Collected Poems (Pact Press). He is the editor of the anthology Latinos in Lotusland (Bilingual Press), and co-editor of The Coiled Serpent: Poets Arising from the Cultural Quakes and Shifts of Los Angeles (Tía Chucha Press).