Luis Alfaro, playwright of 'Oedipus el Rey,' on mission to change face of theater

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 20, 2011;

When Luis Alfaro came to town recently, he got right down to his job as a playwright. Which for him meant getting out of the theater.

His journeys took him to a class at a YWCA on Ninth and G Streets NW, where 25 adults studying for their GEDs listened raptly as he talked about the new play of his that they had just read, "Oedipus el Rey," in which a woman of the barrio unknowingly has sex with her son. It had shocked them: "It's severe subject matter, and none of them were familiar with the original Greek tragedy," says their teacher, Jessica Wabler.

But hearing him describe the life of a writer, as he attempts to distill anguish into dramatic action, had a profound effect.

"The class hung on his every word," she recalls. "He spoke of the trials and triumphs and struggles that led him to be an artist, and that was something they were just, they were impressed by and touched by. They have all seen a lot of trials and struggles in their own lives. Somebody who is able to speak beautifully about it and to see what value it lent to his life was very powerful to them."

So they're coming to see the play, which is being staged a few blocks away, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, and Alfaro could not be more pleased. Awakening people to the galvanizing possibilities of drama - people who ordinarily don't look to a theater box office as a gateway to exhilaration - has become a mission for him, one almost as intense and personal as the act of creation.

"I'm trying to change the face of theater in some way," Alfaro, 49, declares. Howard Shalwitz, Woolly's artistic director, sees Alfaro's outreach as a trailblazing paradigm for finding the new audiences theater desperately needs. "It's a different way to think of the role of the playwright," Shalwitz observes. "It's in the way he fuses his sense of social purpose with his sense of playwriting. It's all one and the same for him."

As the California-born son of Mexican American farm workers who were adherents of the magnetic organizer and union leader Cesar Chavez, Alfaro got an immersion in social purpose from an early age. That ethos clearly stayed with him as a grown-up: He says that after being awarded a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant in 1997, he gave it all away, including $150,000 to the Los Angeles Free Clinic, a dispenser of free medical care. (If he won the half-million dollars today, he adds with a laugh, he would keep some.)

The impulse to draw into his professional orbit people from backgrounds not considered traditional sources for theatergoers - troubled teens, ex-offenders, members of disadvantaged minorities - leads him to make connections that theaters don't ordinarily think of. When, for instance, he was in residence at the august and picturesque Oregon Shakespeare Festival, he says, he took on the challenge of bringing in a Latino crowd, a demographic with which the company was having little success.

"Bill gave me some money," Alfaro says, referring to artistic director Bill Rauch, "and I brought in the best taco truck in [nearby] Medford." He says he hired a band to play music in the open air and generally threw out a lively welcome to the community. As a result, he says, "we filled 4,000 seats with Latinos."

You detect in Alfaro's plays, too, an avid desire to make plain the relevance of the theater to the currents of everyday life, to show the uninitiated how even classical theater can be an exciting mirror. In "Oedipus el Rey" ("Oedipus the King") the playwright links as clearly as one could imagine the starkness of "Oedipus" to the tragic inevitability of a life of violence on inner-city streets. He transfers the setting to modern-day Los Angeles, and to North Kern State Prison in Delano, the town in California's Central Valley where Alfaro was born. The Greek chorus here becomes a "coro" of heavily tattooed Latino inmates.

His adaptation of "Oedipus" developed out of practical concerns, too. As he had in his previous play, "Electricidad," based on "Electra," the poetically inclined Alfaro turned to Greek tragedy after having heard too many times that muscular plotting was not his forte. "The Greeks offer you structure," he explains. "They offer you wonderful, compact stories, and 11/2 hours of life to deal with."

They also provided a potent platform for the purging of traumatic images from his experience growing up in a rough, impoverished section of Los Angeles, where his parents moved when he was a youngster, and where, he says, the family could hear the drive-by shootings. "We would get in a circle on the floor, holding hands and saying a little prayer," he recounts. When he was 10, he says, a man died in the street in front of his house with a pool cue protruding from his stomach.

"And the next day I go to school and write a five-page essay about it," he recalls. The descriptions were so disturbing to school officials that Alfaro says they asked that he get counseling.

Alfaro grew up in a home with strongly religious parents, and their combination of faith and political commitment deeply affected him. So did the first theater he ever saw, an outdoor production of "Othello" by an inner-city cultural center. "Terrifying and amazing," he says. "Once I got hooked, I saw a lot." As a teenager, he interned with Los Angeles theaters, on one occasion, serving as gofer for playwright Lillian Hellman during a production of "The Little Foxes." "That's the introduction not just to theater as a play, but theater as a life."

His plays have been produced at, among other prominent places, Chicago's Goodman Theatre, and the Kennedy Center. But perhaps because the advances in his career have come from the ground up - he never went to college - he's retained a kinship with nontraditional audiences.

"Oedipus el Rey," which had its premiere at San Francisco's Magic Theatre and is his first play for Woolly Mammoth, radiates rawness and immediacy. In addition to the bloody depictions of knife fights and prison beatings, the dramatist has added to the story an explicitly sexual scene: the consummation of the attraction between gang kingpin's wife Jocasta (Romi Diaz) and ex-con Oedipus (Andres Munar), the son she believed to have died as a baby.

"He can see the beauty of the darkness of the human condition," the Y's Wabler says.

Alfaro also subscribes to a view of the playwright as a kind of ambassador, rather than simply the disembodied voice in a script. Part of that comes from his time in the administration of Los Angeles's Center Theatre Group, where he spent several years running the company's new-play workshops. "I began to bring into the theater writers who made up the diversity of the city," explains founding artistic director Gordon Davidson, who ran the group until 2004. "Luis was a force; he had an energy, a joie de vivre. I thought it was important to bring people like Luis to the table, not to have them remain outside."

Alfaro now takes that energy on the road. Accepting a playwriting residency at Hartford Stage, he asked the artistic director, "How can I help you get an audience for my plays?" He says he ended up interviewing dozens of locals, "from the mayor on down." His first stop at a regional theater doing his work is not the dressing rooms, but the box office, because, "they're the kind of gossip central of the company, and the marketing is how they relate you to the rest of the world."

Of late, the world is getting to know Alfaro a little better; his screenplay for the new romantic comedy "From Prada to Nada" - adapted from Jane Austen's "Sense and Sensibility" - is his first to reach movie theaters. Yet he remains more tickled by motivating cultural consumers, one class at a time. The day after his visit to the Y, Wabler based a writing assignment on Alfaro's talk, asking the students to describe a moment that had changed their lives. Now, in their own experiences, they looked for inspiration. And, Wabler reports, "they did phenomenally."

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