Orange County made the news in a big way during the 2018 midterm elections. Political journalists around the country marveled over our blood-red region’s dramatic and decisive turn toward the Democrats.
Underlying and driving that sea change is a demographic shift, which also received its share of attention. A county with a 78.6 percent white majority in 1990 has become 55.2 percent Hispanic or Asian, according to the latest numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau.
While our political transformation was reflected emphatically at the ballot box in 2016 and even more so in 2018, the effects of O.C.’s increasing diversity haven’t been felt everywhere.
The local theater scene, for example, reflects only part of the new demographic reality.
Asian plays and playwrights have been produced with more frequency on major O.C. stages, and the best have drawn large audiences and positive critical reaction.
South Coast Repertory has enjoyed a long-term relationship with David Henry Hwang (“M. Butterfly”), one of the country’s best-known Asian-American playwrights, and the Costa Mesa theater has contributed crucially to the rise of Qui Nguyen, the Vietnamese-American wunderkind who’s already made his mark in TV. Two of his plays were developed at SCR; “Vietgone” achieved national prominence and New York awards.
And artistic director Oanh Nguyen at the Chance Theater in Anaheim Hills has made a lasting impact on theater in Orange County.
For Latinx theater, the local picture is more mixed. It was arguably healthier in the past, when South Coast Rep annually hosted the popular theater/comedy group Culture Clash regularly between seasons and sponsored ambitious initiatives such as the Hispanic Playwrights Project that resulted in significant productions and important exposure for up-and-coming playwrights.
But HPP was eliminated more than a decade ago, and Culture Clash’s current visit to South Coast Rep, “Culture Clash (Still) in America,” is a relative rarity compared to years past. SCR made a pledge after the dissolution of HPP that Latinx plays and playwrights would appear regularly on its two principal stages. Other than the current Culture Clash show, only one play with Hispanic characters by a Hispanic playwright has a part of SCR’s mainstage programming since the 2008-09 season: “Destiny of Desire” by Karen Zacarías in 2016.
The situation is the same for shows at the Segerstrom Center and the line-up at the Laguna Playhouse. Those seeking plays by and about members of Orange County‘s large Hispanic community have to look smaller companies like Santa Ana’s Breath of Fire, which is now celebrating its 15th year – a small group consisting mostly of Latinas that’s defined as much by its gender focus as anything else.
Bringing quality Latinx theater to the community at a grassroots level is a constant struggle, as Breath of Fire co-founder Sara Guerrero discovered, which is why her group has few peers. “We are still the only Latina theater company in Southern California, potentially even all of California,” she noted. The problem, Guerrero said, is always the same – not a lack of interest, but a lack of funding. “It’s always money. I feel like we’re just as important as other better-funded organizations that are newer than us and haven’t proven themselves like we have.
Operating a theater company on a shoestring takes its toll, Guerrero said, especially when the larger community doesn’t acknowledge the group’s efforts. Despite producing work that is often well-reviewed and draws appreciative audiences, Breath of Fire has never received significant financial support from the community or a major foundation. “In 2011, we kind of went dark,” Guerrero said. “We went on a hiatus … a lot of our ensemble members were a little burned out. So was I. You just get tired of doing it all every night, from selling tickets to cleaning toilets.”
‘If We Don’t Change, We Die’
Latinx theater is thriving in many other communities around the country, according to Jacob Padrón, a national leader in the movement to highlight and promote the work of Hispanic theater professionals. Padrón is plugged into many different parts of the theater scene: he’s the founder and artistic director of the Sol Project, an initiative that showcases Latinx playwrights and artists of color, a founder of the newly formed Artists’ Anti-Racism Coalition, and he was recently named artistic director of the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn.
Padrón thinks Orange County is an anomaly – an affluent community with an active theater scene and a large, dynamic Hispanic population that’s nevertheless lagging behind similar places in other parts of the U.S.
“I think there is a larger trend of inclusion and representation across the country that has really taken hold,” Padrón said. “Many theaters are trying to be more actively in sync with the communities they serve, even though there’s still so much work to do.”
One of the purposes of the Sol Project is to encourage cross-cultural pollination by acting as a creative “matchmaker,” Padrón explained. “At Sol, we introduce (Latinx) writers to different New York theaters and encourage them in various ways to collaborate.” In many cases, plays get produced, Padrón said. “We just did a world premiere in partnership with Yale (Repertory) and we’ve been successful with Off-Broadway (theaters) in New York. So we’re getting some traction.”
Outside of New York and the northeast, Padrón notes similar progress. “I’ve seen renewed commitment to (Latinx theater) throughout the country. In L.A., (Center Theatre Group artistic director) Michael Ritchie programmed a major revival of ‘Zoot Suit.’ In Chicago, Steppenwolf has made a growing commitment to supporting Latinx voices. So has the Goodman Theater.” Many smaller places like Tucson, Ariz. have a culturally integrated theater scene, Padrón pointed out.
Padrón said one of the biggest challenges that well-meaning theaters face is fully committing to a permanent change in programming philosophy because that would mean finding new audiences and potentially alienating existing ones. But if it’s done correctly, Padrón thinks that the outcomes of such a shift could be overwhelmingly positive.
“We have to combat the perception that Hispanic culture isn’t part of American culture, which it obviously is. When you actually program the right things, people will come – all kinds of people. You can’t just do it once in a while. It’s a relationship that can only be cultivated if you establish a regular rhythm.”
Every art form has benefitted from inclusiveness, Padrón said, and theater is no different. “Theater thrives on new ideas and challenges. If we don’t change, we die.”
Paul Hodgins is the senior editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at [email protected].