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A Chicano Twist to a Classic Tragedy: Playwright Luis Alfaro's 'Oedipus El Rey'

by Carmen Pelaez /
The company of Oedipus El Rey, written by Luis Alfaro and directed by Chay Yew, running at The Public Theater.Joan Marcus /

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When playwright Luis Alfaro picked up a a book of 10 Greek plays for $10 dollars in Arizona, he thought he was getting a deal. But he never imagined it would lead to three successful adaptions of the classics through the Chicano experience.

In his third play, Oedipus el Rey, which just opened at the Public Theater in New York City and is showing through Dec. 3, Alfaro is exploring new kingdoms through the ancient story of Oedipus, taking on the American prison system and questions of fate and identity, all while challenging audiences to be part of the conversation. It's one in which after experiencing his theatrical creation, they'll all be willing to partake in.

We talked to the playwright and University of Southern California professor about his "road to Ithaca" and his role as a theater maker.

Telling a Chicano story through a Greek classic is genius because they are both ultimately ancient cultures. But it seems you’re aiming even higher. Why did you choose to add this story to your ‘Greek’ series?

It’s hard to see yourself reflected very often. We see our humanity in other people. But when do we get to see ourselves on the stage? Every night I see all these Latinos on stage and I think ‘Oh my God. How cool is that?’ They’re speaking in an elevated language. They’re speaking the language of the people but I’m also trying to create archetypes. I’m also trying to say we are this and we are also the possibility of that. We can tell an ancient story, because we are of a great tradition and it freaks everybody out.

 Playwright Luis Alfaro, author of Oedipus El Rey. Jenny Graham

I’m trying to set he record straight on how all of these social ills in some way are a way of oppressing the individual.

When you deny people their culture, you’re creating a genocide of culture, a way of seeing yourself. Young people who don’t see themselves in their fullness. They only see themselves in their darkness, in their negativity and it’s only by highlighting this, by showing this young man, who at the end of the play he says to his father “Don’t you see I wanted to tell my story my way?”

The moment when the audience gets a glimpse of that, when you hear them gasp through that notion, when they see themselves reflected, is exciting to me.

There’s a way of looking at these classics, there’s a way of looking at this work that’s bigger than us.

 Joel Perez, Juan Castano, Brian Quijada and Reza Salazar in Oedipus El Rey, written by Luis Alfaro and directed by Chay Yew, running at The Public Theater. Joan Marcus

If I was just doing a Mexican-American play I’m not sure everybody would come. But when you position it in a classic form the audience thinks ‘Oh my God, Oedipus, I know that story.’ Which is kind of the way I’ve been building it and it’s had very interesting success, as I’ve watched how it goes around the country.

Do you ever get any blowback from the Latino community?

People come up to me every night and say ‘You know I feel bad. I feel a little awkward saying this to you, but why do you have to focus on the bad things in our community?'

I say, 'Listen, if you want to enter the larger discussion it means you have to show your good side and your bad side and your challenging side.' That’s the complication of character. The complexity of who we are as Americans, we have to own that.

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We have to own that a gigantic number of our young men are being killed and being put in the prison systems and the drug trade. We have to take responsibility and the minute somebody in the audience goes from you or them, to ‘us’, you know something switched. The minute they become our boys, our children, a part of the essential fabric of our own experience, then change will really happen.

 The company of Oedipus El Rey, written by Luis Alfaro and directed by Chay Yew, running at The Public Theater. Joan Marcus

I have a chorus and they say “Look upon this man. Are we doomed to suffer the same oppressions are we going to break the cycles?”

The coro is saying to them, do you agree with this? Is this the way you want to live your life?

I love what happens when the audience is confronted with having to really think about what we’ve done to the prison system, the amount of money we make off the recidivism rate. More than half of all the men in prison are there for non violent drug possession. So then you think ‘OK, can we deal with drugs in this country in a way that’s realistic and humane?’

We created a caste or slave system that has replaced what we once thought of as slavery with cheap labor. I love it when a little play can ask the big question.

Tell me a little bit about about what you’re doing in terms of fate versus choice?

There’s a moment in the play, where Jocasta looks at Oedipus and says, “Look at us. Look at our face, look at who we are. We’re the stuff underneath the cement, we’re ancient.” and every night the audience always goes ‘ooh right!’ You start to imagine your indigenousness, but you’re also imagining you’re a part of something grander and truer, a great tradition.

"We have to own that a gigantic number of our young men are being killed and being put in the prison systems and the drug trade."

"We have to own that a gigantic number of our young men are being killed and being put in the prison systems and the drug trade."

When you have a young person in the theater and you’re wrestling with the notions of who you are and it’s a play about a young man who doesn’t know who he is, who doesn’t know how great he is, his possibilities lead to the moment where the audience is able to grasp that we are not only a gardener or gang banger or maid — it gets them to thinking of the fullness of character, the complications of character are amazing.

Jocasta says, 'Hey, we’re like puppets on a string, you think you got here on your own? No. This is God's story. This is just the story that’s already been told, we’re fated.'

So the audience questions destiny and fate and love.

 Juan Castano and Joel Perez in Oedipus el Rey, written by Luis Alfaro and directed by Chay Yew, running at The Public Theater. Joan Marcus

Is mine a story that's already been told? Am I just a puppet? Or is it possible for me to recreate myself into something I haven’t yet seen in the world?

It’s an empowerment piece to some degree that is challenging the audience and young people to say ‘How much of this can I change?’

It almost seems like Jocasta is the Chicano population and Oedipus is the American dream. Was that intentional?

Totally. We’ve built this story around a young man that’s never known love because he’s always been in the system. Oedipus comes into this play and says “I’m going to make a new world that doesn’t let me in.” And you almost wish that he does and it’s a transgressive love story. The audience is cheering them on and they know they’re wrong, but they want them to find love.

 Sandra Delgado, Joel Perez, and Juan Castano in Oedipus El Rey, written by Luis Alfaro and directed by Chay Yew, running at The Public Theater. Joan Marcus

We don’t talk about the arrogance of another generation that wants to reinvent itself and take it farther. We’ve created a pathway that doesn’t allow people to be seen, or is it that education is just too expensive or elusive, making it easier to fall into prison or to fall into what’s illegal in terms of a career.

This actor says, 'I didn’t know, I thought this was the way I could do it; why didn’t you guys tell me that I couldn’t do it the way I thought I could do it? What stopped you?’

"I find that the joy of making work is that you’re not just making art, you’re making community."

"I find that the joy of making work is that you’re not just making art, you’re making community."

We all have to be accountable for what we do to our children for how we damage our children sometimes and how we’re afraid to let them go, for good reason. It starts to unravel in a beautiful way.

When it unravels, how can we move forward?

We get these kids, we put them in the system; at 12 they go into the adult system. We don’t rehabilitate them, we just introduce them to a new society. This young man who I interviewed and was the model for my Oedipus spent 16 years in something called ‘shoe’ —solitary. Sixteen years of his formative years are spent in silence.

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You want to say that he spent it in contemplation, but he said he spent it in rage. He told me he so angry at the world, until a young guard took him under his wing and took him to the library every day and gave him books on the Koran and Buddha and talked to him every day.

Somebody opened the door for this guy. After 16 years in the system there was a possibility that he could see things in a different light.

We know we can change. Even living an entire life with the poverty of violence and education —we know we can change.

And that’s the part that gets interesting for me. How can I tell an artful story and not preach and still have the audience go ‘Aha!’?

You are an established playwright making theater, but you usually spend a lot of time in the cities you work in. Why all the extracurricular activity?

Our job in the theater is not just to write plays. I bring the audience with me. I’m spending a year in the ‘problematic’ cities I work in because I’m trying to change the theater itself. I ask, who's on your board? Do you have a Spanish language person in the box office? Who does your marketing? How does this community see an image and how does that image sell a ticket and how does that community identify with something true? What are the means of communication for our community?

 Reza Salazar and Juan Francisco Villa in Oedipus El Rey, written by Luis Alfaro and directed by Chay Yew, running at The Public Theater. Joan Marcus

I find that the joy of making work is that you’re not just making art, you’re making community. It’s a lot more work that we set out to do and that others don’t do but the access it gives us, that’s the privilege of doing theater.

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