Miracle theater takes community on a cultural journey

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‘!Viva Pancho Villa!” shouts Pedro Gonzalez, relating the story of the Mexican Revolution to his son Albert Alcazar.  Photo by Russel Young

From the May 15 Street Roots.

Fifteen years ago, when Miracle Theater made the commitment to become a Latino-focused playhouse, its organizers worked to overcome the misconception that its productions were only in Spanish. In fact, the plays the small troupe produced from its earliest days were all in English, because that was what the Portland audience was prepared for.

Portland, and the audience, soon changed.

“It went from, ‘It’s in Spanish, we can’t come,’ to ‘Why isn’t it in Spanish?’” says Jose Eduardo Gonzalez, Miracle’s co-founder and executive artistic director. Today, 25 years into Miracle’s existence, the nonprofit theater is a platform like none other in Oregon that showcases the work of Latino playwrights, advancing a greater understanding to an audience eager to see original, compelling art.

“We saw back in the early 1990s how suddenly the demographics changed overnight. In the 1990 census, Latinos became the largest minority in the state,” Gonzalez says. “So we were very conscious that the community was changing. But there was no interpretive situation going on. It was just happening. So we thought this was a means of introducing that change to the community by showing the work of Latino artists and their ideas and sensibility on stage — that change that’s always influenced the way people thought.”

It is also a learning center for social issues that transcend geography and ethnicity. On the main stage now is “The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa” by the award-winning playwright Luis Valdez.
“It’s a crazy, crazy comedy about Chicano identity and whether you have to sell out to survive, or have to become a thief and a rebel to survive to maintain some dignity,” says Olga Sanchez, Miracle’s mainstage artistic director. “And neither path is true. There’s got to be a third path. But in 1961, when the play was written, it didn’t look like there was any path. This path, as funny as it is, is a really strong issue that is still maintained.”

Sanchez is using the context of the play as an opportunity to reach more young adults, particularly in the Latino community, where the issues of teen pregnancy and an alarming high school drop-out rate — some estimates have put it as high as 50 percent — are major concerns. She and the theater are making a push for high school students to come see the play.

“It’s funny. It’s entertaining,” Sanchez says. “I don’t need them to walk away just saying, ‘I’m empowered.’ They will be empowered by watching this play. This is the kind of play that you watch, and you get it, and you’re still laughing your head off.”

Miracle takes it beyond the stage. In connection with the production of “Pancho Villa,” the theater is hosting a series of lectures entitled “Seeds of Chicano Identity,” sponsored by the Oregon Council for the Humanities.

Visiting scholars Jorge Huerta, Phil Esparza and Diane Rodriguez will lead panel discussions on their experiences working with the playwright Luis Valdez, El Teatro Campesino and Latino-identified theater. It is a free and open event on May 10, aimed at better understanding the impact of the farm workers theater that emerged in California fields, educating and organizing farm workers in the 1960s and 70s around labor rights and political engagement. It was political satire, artistic, often humorous, and motivating.

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Left to right: Olga Sanchez, Omar Vargas, Jose Gonzalez, Danel Malan.

“That’s also how you got the flip side of the news,” Sanchez says. “The journalist would be putting out the party line, and then you would get what really happened from these shows that would go around the country.”

Miracle’s theater and offices are located in inner Southeast Portland, in a neighborhood where day laborers looking for work pepper the corners and sidewalks. It has become a cultural hub, with not only the theatrical operations, but also an educational center for actors, poets, playwrights and musicians.

Last year, on International Women’s Day, Miracle did a reading on the murders of women in and around Juarez, Mexico. The event was the setting for a serious dialogue about domestic abuse among the women in Portland. This year, the reading focused on the role of working women, from motherhood to career professional. A group of young women attended the event and became the objects of an intense lesson from the older woman on what they needed to know, Sanchez says.

“You have the piece of art that you watch, you’re touched, you’re open you’re moved your laughing, and then you can have a serious discussion about the issue,” Sanchez says.

The organization’s touring company and residency programs have cultural themes, but on the main stage at Miracle, art takes central focus.

“We’re not issue-oriented — we’re art-oriented,” Sanchez emphasizes. “If it’s well done, it will reach our audience no matter who they are. It addresses a universal experience through a culturally specific lens. That’s the work that we do.”

Gonzalez founded The Miracle Theater 25 years ago with his wife, Danal Malan, who created and is now the artistic director of the bilingual component of Miracle, Teatro Milagro. Teatro Milgro’s residency program works with schools across Oregon to reach an underserved population with the empowerment of theater. The plays are original, written by Malan and other Latino playwrights, and for two weeks, they work with the students to develop the production into a performance for their school and community.

The topics in the plays have ranged from environmentalism and indigenous rights, to the empowerment of the Zapatistas and the work of Frida Kahlo. In the process, Teatro Milagro is developing a complete hands-on curriculum — not just around the performance, but also the lessons of sustainability and the possibility of “utopia,” Malan says.

For Latino students in small schools, the opportunities for culturally specific art and theater are severely limited, and often reduced to stereotypes and token pandering, Malan says. She’s even been told at one school that they can’t have Latino accents in American plays. “You hear the ‘they’ a lot. As in, ‘they’ can’t meet the requirements,” Malan says. Over the years, she says, she has seen some of the barriers broken, with schools requesting Teatro Milagro’s involvement and mentoring of their students.

This year, Malan is working on a more personal play, one centered on a search for the American Dream, and where each of us fits in.

“When we’ve been working with these students in class, and asking them what’s important and making a list of issues – bullying is always number one,” Malan says. “Now they’re making laws, saying this isn’t cool. When you looked at it statistically, the majority of people who are bullied are gays, immigrants and girls. Now it’s not just a matter of sloughing it off. There are kids committing suicide. People have dropped out of school because they couldn’t take it. And what can change that? You can make a law, but people don’t respect laws. You have to go the extra step. You have to find that way.”

The precaution is to not preach. Kids don’t like to be told what is right or wrong, or what to do with their lives. Rather, theater channels the students to the positive options before them. It’s a powerful thing, Malan says, and she has seen the transformation before her eyes as the final audience arrives for the students’ performance.

“They go from zero to 100 percent in an hour, and they become these stage performers,” Malan says. “That’s when you know it’s working. These kids get it, they’re having fun, and for this time on the stage, these kids who are probably picked on because they don’t speak English very well -— suddenly they’re super cool. Their peers now suddenly hugely respect them.”

Omar Vargas is an actor, he says, not a teacher. But the roles merge in his work as education and outreach coordinator with Teatro Milagro. Originally from Ecuador, Vargas is an accomplished thespian who shares his knowledge with at-risk students in the program, and extends his outreach to include not just other programs and institutions, but down to the day laborers in the neighborhood. He also works with Malan in developing productions for the Miracle’s professional touring company that travels to other states every year for performances at schools and universities. A rarity in U.S. productions, these performances are all bilingual, so, Vargas says, “if you don’t speak any Spanish, you will get the play, and if you don’t speak any English, you will get the play.”

The connection with young Latinos is at the core of Vargas’s work. He is a student and participant in Augusto Boal’s movement, theater of the oppressed, which began in Brazil as an organizing tool and has spread around the world. It’s a forum that blurred, if not altogether eliminated, the line between actors and audience to create a new dynamic of interaction, empowerment and radicalization. Boal died on May 2.

“(Boal) said theater is not just for an audience that has money to go to the theater,” Vargas says. “It’s something we can do for the community by our community.”

And that’s part of the miracle, as they say at the theater, and each person expresses it in their work.
“We feel like we have a dual thing going on — a cross that we bear, more or less. Everybody in the arts bears the cross of being an artist, this ideal aesthetic. And that we share with everybody – we want everything to be perfect. But we also have this other side of the cross that we feel very strongly about, where the theater connects with the community, and there’s a responsibility there, heightened by our Latino centricity to make a difference in the community, to expose things or to launch a conversation, or educate people. That’s a tension that we have between the two, because some cases, one thing may outweigh the other.” Jose said. “It’s a good thing to have because it keeps us honest and it keeps us asking questions.”

Story by Joanne Zuhl

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