Last year, Milagro Theatre executive artistic director José González made an agonizing choice: to cancel a new virtual production of A Xmas Cuento Remix, a Christmas Carol-inspired saga written by his daughter, playwright Maya Malán-González.
“We rehearsed the show, we filmed it on Zoom and then we got into the editing process and realized that it just wasn’t going to be good enough,” González says. “That was sobering.” (A 2019 archival video of the play was released instead.)
Despite his dismay, González says the experience reminded him why Milagro—which is the only Latinx theater company in the Pacific Northwest—exists. “In an interesting way, it brought home the value of what we do—that we are practitioners of live theater,” he says. “How do you convey meaning to a stranger? How do you convey emotion to a stranger? That’s what we do in theater.”
THE REBUILD: OREGON THEATERS COMING BACK
Starting with its annual Día de Muertos Festival, which continues through Nov. 7, Milagro will begin reconnecting with strangers who relied on their virtual offerings for entertainment and enlightenment during the pandemic. The company’s thirty-eighth season offers a slate of provocative productions, including Duende de Lorca, a play about Federico García Lorca, and City Without Altar, which examines the 1937 Haitian Massacre along the northwest Dominican/Haitian border.
When I spoke with González and Milagro artistic director Dañel Malán, who are married, they sounded both pragmatic and optimistic. “It’s so important that we continue to do the work because if we don’t do the work then who’s going to do it?” Malán says. “We’re the only Latino arts and culture center in four states, so we need to always be out there because there’s so much racism happening now.”
Below are my conversations with both González and Malán, who discussed the projects that helped them survive the pandemic, upcoming plays, and the triumphs and trials they’ve experienced creating Latinx theatre in post-Trump America.
ARTS WATCH: Was there a moment during the pandemic when you realized, “We can still do what we want to do, just in a different way”?
JOSÉ GONZÁLEZ: We were able to pivot [to virtual productions], and I would say moderately successfully, given our inexperience in the world of film and the technology and the process. I applaud Dañel because I think she was just a hero in terms of being able to get Blast Off [a play by Maya Malán-González that was inspired by Dr. Ellen Ochoa, the first Latina astronaut] and Huínca and Huelga on a virtual framework and be quite good at it. I was not.
You have Season 38 starting. Is there a mission for this season? It definitely seems like there’s pressure on theater companies to ask, “What do people need from theater right now?”
I think one part is, “Is it too heavy? Is this what one should be doing during a pandemic and a worldwide crisis? Should we be more, like, putting on USO shows, like in the middle of World War II, to keep spirits up?” But at the same time, I’m going, “There’s these realities that have come to the surface that we were ignoring or shoving to the side during the pandemic that we need to talk about, that we need to face. We need to have a sense of experience.”
[Antigone at the Border] seemed right, particularly because it speaks to our culture directly—and particularly on an issue of immigration and acceptance of young people, the DACA [recipients] who are here because they had no choice. [City Without Altar] gives us an opportunity to look at colorism and anti-blackness in the Latino community and to try to better understand that, as well as the tragedy of this massacre that took place back in the thirties.
We do comedy every now and then, but mostly, we’re looking at pretty serious content that hopefully will change the way people think about things and offer new perspectives, particularly on how people think about the Latino community and its diversity.
What does it feel like creating something to honor Día de Muertos right now? Death is always part of the human experience, but it feels more intense right now, because we’re all feeling the pain of all these deaths globally.
In a way, it’s the soul of Milagro. It represents not only a culture, but in a sense, an important ideology about life and about death. And I’m often the one that says that it’s not really about death when we reverence others who have passed away. It’s really a celebration of life. It’s just named Day of the Dead because that’s the time we set aside to focus on that, to remember, to celebrate those who have passed before us. So we just have to do it.
It’s not about COVID. It’s not saying, “Okay, let’s just spend our time talking about all the people who have died as a result of COVID,” but it’s not going to eliminate that from the conversation and we’ve invited the public to send us remembrances.
In terms of being an executive director, is it challenging to respond to the constant changing of the wind in terms of pandemic-related logistics and precautions?
I think what’s really challenging is [the struggles of] all of my colleagues who have, for the last 18 months, day and night without rest, full of anxiety and concern, kept their ships afloat. That’s a huge toll on people. It’s wearying in so many ways. I think that’s what you really want to focus on—the heart and soul of the individuals who are keeping [Milagro] alive.
ARTS WATCH: In January, Duende de Lorca, which you wrote, is coming.
What I did in the rewrite is that I bookended the play by setting it in a jail and really wanted to have that be, “Here’s the harsh reality on the outside edges and here’s our dream in the middle,” maybe slightly influenced by shades of Kiss of the Spider Woman, because it’s a play we did years ago. We haven’t exactly decided how, but there’s going to be some strong video elements in the play too.
Are you waiting until Duende de Lorca opens in January to solidify what kind of social distancing you want to have?
I’m afraid that we’re going [to be asking for proof of vaccination] for a while. Unfortunately, because it’s become so politicized, it’s going to take longer than it needs to. We met some people out in Idaho who used that terrible term, “the China virus,” and that was kind of shocking, because we thought we knew these people. I would like to say that most Portlanders that come to the theater are a little more progressive, but it’s hard to tell until you actually get there in the moment, and it can be very surprising.
It seems like there’s a sense among Portland theater companies that, “Yes, it’s been a painful last year and a half, but we want to offer more than just escapism.”
People have been emboldened by our past president to assume that it’s okay to do racist things. I mean, one of the school districts that I have to figure out how to get our group into is Newberg [where the school board has controversially banned any sort of political displays, including Black Lives Matter and Pride flags]. We’re not going to be like, “Oh, we hate that school.” That’s exactly where we need to go.
Just by the very nature of being a Latino-identified theater, we are being political in our messaging, because representing the Latino community in a big way makes us a target. We always get extra fines from the fire department when they come to do their annual inspections. We have to document all our workers and check their legal status. But that’s just par for the course when you’re doing this kind of social justice work.
These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.