By Cesar Arredondo
Special to the San Fernando Valley Sun/el Sol
More than three decades ago, the Frida Kahlo Theater opened up its doors in Los Angeles to feature plays in Spanish and challenge the local perception that Spanish-speaking Latinos lack appreciation for the arts. To date, the small venue has featured more than 300 works. Now, a current 35-year multidisciplinary retrospective pays tribute to the little “Teatro” that could and does.
“Disrupting the Mainstream” is a month-long retrospective featuring excerpts from their plays, a documentary that explores how this theater company survived the pandemic while so many others closed, and exhibits through its installations their years of trailblazing productions.
For anyone who dares to claim there are few Latino actors, this exhibit includes hundreds of headshots of Latino actors who have proudly trained and performed on the Frida Kahlo stage.
“Disrupting the Mainstream”, however, isn’t located at the Frida Kahlo Theater, for this powerful exhibit, they are breaking yet another barrier, by locating and collaborating for the first time with the Goethe-Institut Los Angeles, a non-profit German cultural association.
The series title is itself a reflection of the theater company and a defiant statement about the power of Latino artists to affect the arts in the nation’s second-largest city, according to Rubén Amavizca-Murúa, director of the independent theater located in Westlake, west of downtown.
“People in the local arts scene think that we Latinos don’t have arts nor theater,” he says. “We tell them, “No, we are here and we have art, we are artists.”’ Nowadays, producing Latino plays in Spanish in this city founded by pobladores, when California was part of Mexico is a tall order due to scarce funding and other systemic limitations, the pandemic notwithstanding, according to Amavizca.
“It’s a revolutionary act to be a Latino artist in this city,” he says.
“We’ve done theater for 35 years and will keep doing it,” he says with pride. “We weren’t the first ones to do it, nor will we be the last, never asking for permission to do our job.”
To be sure, there are other venues and companies that feature Spanish-language plays such as the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts and Plaza de la Raza, both in Lincoln Heights, Latino Theatre Co. at Los Angeles Theatre Center in downtown LA, and 24th Street Theater in South L.A. However, Amavizca states, Frida Kahlo Theater is the “only one focused on teatro en espanol,”, and also underscores that all productions focus on historical, political and social themes relevant to LA’s Latino immigrant community.
However, it is to be noted that the theater also sporadically features Latino plays in English or bilingual versions of some works.
The opening night of “Disrupting the Mainstream” on Aug. 19 featured the staging of several scenes from the English version of “The Women of Juarez,” about the unsolved murders of hundreds of women and girls in the namesake Mexican city bordering El Paso, Texas.
The heart-wrenching story is based on interviews with family members of victims who have gone missing, many of whose bodies have been found raped and tortured, according to Amavizca, who wrote and directed the play. “The Women of Juarez” is among the Latino theater’s most popular works and has toured the U.S. and Mexico. It has also been presented in Europe.
“The Women of Juarez” is one of four works whose excerpts are being staged at the Goethe-Institut. The Goethe-Institut promotes the study of the German language and international cultural exchange and relations in more than 100 venues worldwide. Its LA location opened one year ago in a neighborhood popularly known as Little Central America, also in Westlake, the community where the Frida Kahlo Theater is located.
For this production, the Goethe-Institut built a floor-level stage, which shares the venue’s space with an exhibit of 30 posters representative of the nearly 300 works produced and presented at the Frida Kahlo Theater. They include all the plays whose excerpts are part of “Disrupting the Mainstream.”
“Sentado en un Árbol Caído” (“Sitting on a Fallen Tree”) deals with the ongoing genocide perpetrated by the Guatemalan government against the indigenous Maya Quiché community since the 1970s, according to Amavizca. Written by LA-based Emanuel Loarca, the play tells this tragic tale using actual transcripts of the trial concerning the Black River Massacres from the early 1980s. It centers on the powerful testimony of a survivor who was a 10-year-old boy at the time of the mass murders. The performance will be followed by a question-and-answer session with actor Manuel Chitay and director Loarca. “Sentado en un Árbol Caído” will be presented in both Spanish and Maya Quiché Sept. 2.
The third play excerpt will be from “Soldaderas,” another Spanish-language work written by Amavizca that pays homage to the women fighting in the Mexican Revolution. Scheduled for Sept. 9, it follows four women who fought as equals, soldiers and companions alongside men during the civil war that spanned from 1910 to 1917. “One hundred years later, women are still facing injustice, not only in Mexico but here in the United States, too,” says the director.
The last play excerpt will be from the Spanish version of “Frida Kahlo,” another work written and directed by Amavizca. It tells the story of Frida Kahlo, told in the words of the renowned Mexican painter, based on correspondence, interviews, and newspaper articles from when she was alive. The play has been produced in Mexico, the U.S., Belgium and Latvia. It’s arguably the small theater’s most popular play, with about 700 performances. “Frida Kahlo” is slated for Sept. 16.
The multidisciplinary series at the Goethe-Institut will also feature a documentary made by USC filmmakers about the two Latino theaters during the pandemic, one of which is the Frida Kahlo Theater. The film will be screened on Aug. 26 at 7 p.m., followed by a discussion with its filmmakers.
The program will also highlight two of the classes, Photography and Acting for Youth. The William Reagh Photography Center, which shares the Frida Kahlo Theater space, has been active since 1960 and is reportedly the only community-based photo lab in Los Angeles, according to the series organizers. Photos from six current photography students will be part of an exhibit at the Goethe-Institut. A panel discussion will follow, featuring photo and youth theater instructors.
All performances and exhibits are free to the general public.
The Goethe-Institut is located at 1901 W. 7th Street, Suite A/B, in Los Angeles. For more information on “Disrupting the Mainstream,” call (323) 525-3388, email email@example.com or visit www.goethe.de/ins/us/en/sta/los/ver.cfm
For more information about the Frida Kahlo Theater visit www.fridakahlotheater.org.