El Teatro Campesino presents third installment of
Thursday, June 15, 2006
It’s illegal to run over chickens in San Juan Bautista. They roam freely through the downtown, protected by law. It’s always a surprise to discover that one of America’s greatest living playwrights will premiere a new work he wrote with his son in a theater nestled down one of San Juan Bautista’s sleepy, chicken-strewn streets.
Yet Luis Valdez chose San Juan Bautista as the home of his incomparable El Teatro Campesino for precisely the same reasons that those chickens can wander the streets.
El Teatro, which grew out of the farmworker’s movement of the ’60s, remains close to the fields and the people in San Juan Bautista. And Valdez’s new play Corridos!! Ballads from the Borderlands, which he co-wrote with his son Kinan, is evidence of how he has maintained his creative vitality by not straying far from his roots.
Like its award-winning predecessors Corridos! Tales of Passion and Revolution (1987) and Corridos Remix (2005), this show celebrates a uniquely Valdez brand of musical theater based on traditional Mexican ballads. This new Corridos installment fuses mariachi music, theater and dance while pushing the boundaries of the form out to encompass even wider, international territory.
The first installment of the series, Tales of Passion and Revolution, was made into a television movie for PBS starring Linda Rondstadt and won the coveted George Peabody Award for excellence in television. According to the show’s producer, Marilyn Abed, this new version of Corridos! explores the different borderlands of our times.
“The corridos are ballads which create narratives. This new production pushes out a little more. The source material is from all over the world. Some are Mexican, some are from China, some are hip-hop. Luis Valdez and Kinan have found this wonderful mix of traditional and modern,” Abed says. “It’s a kind of entertainment that transcends all nationalities.”
Opening with a traditional classic Mexican corrido, “Modesta Ayala,” the play shifts direction dramatically to explore contemporary narco-corridos on the border with “Contradando Y Traicion: Smuggling and Betrayal” and “La Banda del Carro Rojo: The Red Car Gang,” which are accompanied by a harder, brass-tinged rural banda sound. (Narco corridos is the Mexican equivalent of gangster rap, which some Mexican politicians have tried to ban because it glorifies the drug trafficking lifestyle.)
The show’s more universal sense of borderlands further expands with “Corrido de Fa Mu Lan: Ballad of Fa Mu Lan,” a ballad which explores the traditional Chinese folktale recently made famous in the Disney film Mulan.
Featuring 12 songs in all, Ballads from the Borderlands also hits upon politics with “El Circo: The Circus,” mines classic material with “Chonny El Pachuco: Johnny the Zoot-Suiter,” and tells traditional folk tales in new and startling ways with “La Muerta: The Dead Woman,” and “La Jaula de Oro: The Gilded Cage.”
According to Abed, the 12 ballads are thematically unified by the narration of El Maestro, played by none other than Luis Valdez himself.
“He’s a character in the play, a musicologist who’s like the storyteller,” she says. “His narration is integrated into the story he’s telling.”
Valdez headlines an ensemble of nine actors and singers and a live band led by Tim and Frances Thompkins, which includes piano, violin, bass and drums. Like every El Teatro production, Ballads from the Borderlands is a family affair. In addition to Kinan’s co-writing credit, Luis’ wife Lupe Valdez designed and created the production’s lush costumes.
“Each corrido has its own unique look,” Abed says. “[Lupe] must have 500 costumes that she’s creating. It’s really overwhelming. I thought Zoot Suit was going to bust open this playhouse, but this one...this one is going to be a riot.”
Not the biggest of theater spaces, the El Teatro playhouse only holds 100 people, a fact which tests the company’s creative energy while creating a very intimate, very inclusive experience for the audience.
Joe Cardinalli’s set design integrates projections to reveal the various locations and time periods of each of the corridos, in addition to presenting English translations to the audience as the songs are sung in Spanish.
It’s a wonderful opportunity to sit at ground zero for birth and development of great new Chicano theater. Valdez is a genuine American legend. In 1965 he led the company to national acclaim with an Off-Broadway Obie Award and numerous Drama Critics Awards in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Then in 1977, he wrote Zoot Suit, which became the first play by a Chicano to be produced on Broadway. The film version won a Golden Globe Award nomination for Best Musical Picture. In 1987, the year the first Corridos was written and produced, Valdez wrote and directed the critically acclaimed film La Bamba about Chicano rock legend Richie Valens.
EL TEATRO CAMPESINO will present special $12 preview performances of Corridos! Ballads from the Borderlands at the El Teatro Campesino Playhouse, 705 Fourth St., San Juan Bautista, this Friday and Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 2pm and next Thursday and Friday, June 22 and 23, at 8pm. Corridos! opens with a gala performance on June 24 at 8pm and runs through July 30. $20/adults; $16/seniors and students; $12/children. Tickets to the June 24 opening night gala tickets are $50. For more information call 623-2444 or visit elteatrocampesino.com.