Covered in Whitewash

24th St. Theatre's Tropical America a macroscropic view of silenced Latinos

By Hyun Joo Chung
Published on LatinoLA: August 20, 2003

Covered in Whitewash

I checked out the recent performance of "Tropical America" at the 24th Street Theatre near Hoover and 24th Street for the Latino/Chicano Theatre Initiative Teatro Nuevo at the 24th Street Theatre. If the future repertoire, assiduous acting and creative execution of Teatro Nuevo are anything like what I saw that evening, you must get yourself a seat at the 24th Street Theatre for anything else they do. And if you happen to live near the theatre, performances are free for the neighborhoods.

?Tropical America? written by Juan Devis and directed by Carmelo Alvarez consists of eleven vignettes starting from the conquistadors in 1538 ranging to diverse eras like 1948 Bogot? and 1978 Los Angeles.

The title implies succulent mangos, coconuts, colorful floral shirts, or even Cuban salsa blaring in this ?Tropical? piece. But ?Tropical? can also refer to the cut-up mangos, cantaloupes, melons, and watermelons sold in plastic sandwich bags drizzled with chile and salt each afternoon in Los Angeles.

The title ?Tropical America? is associated with Colombian-native playwright, Juan Devis?s same title of his online video game at www.tropicalamerica.com. More importantly the title refers to the mural entitled ?La Am?rica Tropical? by Mexican painter David Alfaro Siqueiros who painted the politically critical scene on the Italian Hall on Olvera Street in 1932 only to have it covered with whitewash.

The unabashed mural features a crucified Indian among the allegories. The work offended downtown corporations and political offices, including Christina Sterling, who wanted her Olvera Street to be a Mexican Disneyland, according to the online source (http://www.olvera-street.com). The Getty is currently funding millions to restore the work. The mural serves as the metaphor for the macroscopic history of Latinos whose own words have been silenced and erased and like the Getty, the play ?Tropical America? attempts to remove the whitewash from each influential figure featured in the eleven vignettes.

Before the first line, there is no curtain on the stage, which is at a level lower than the audience seats. Music is playing with unique beats flowing in a rhythmic harmony. In a circle of nine individuals, each one plays one instrument in the ensemble. There are several drums: conga, bongo, flute, palitos, and maracas. The music culminates louder and louder.

?I would like to invite you to listen to the sounds of the jungle,? interrupts the ominous man with a bagpipe in his right hand and a chain of bullets running diagonally from his shoulder to his torso. Also on the stage are three tranquil women. One has a headdress of leaves. Another has a headdress of feathers. The third one has nothing on her head except her long black hair extending to the back of her waist.

?To reason without reason.? Out comes a man with a metal helmet, a sharp foil, wearing a blue vest, thick black leather belt, and black pointed booted, folded at the top. His puffy ivory sleeves seep out of his blue vest.

?Who are you?? the man questions the three women in awe. ?Makes my reason shrink into nothingness?,? he pauses eyes wide of awe and questioning annoyance, ?with your? with your beauty,? he admits. ?Who are you?treacherous ones?? his voice turns ugly. ?I know who you are. I know who I am-Gonzalo Jim?nez de Quesada.?

?I am here to steal all of your gold!? he declares, ?Mine!?

The women pay no attention to the shouting. They tilt their heads to face the sky, ignoring Jim?nez. Only do they react when the foil slashes each of them one by one. So ends the first scene ?Sangre por Oro? in 1538 in the Americas.

One scene that remains powerfully remembered to the end is the ?La Primera Feminista? of 1694 Mexico. Four women in long black shrouds hold candles in the dark. A single woman stands in the center among the five.

?Silly you men,? she addresses, ?for faulting womankind. Not seeing the fault you place in women?s minds.?

She crouches, ?You still expect her to behave.?

She sheds her thick black cloak. ?It?s the tongue that misspeaks?it?s made possession by the laughs,? she breaks into ripples of laughter.

She pulls the rubber band, allowing her hair loose. She holds a single lock for everyone to see and then clips with small scissors. She drops the scissors.

?You men,? she chuckles, ?You sneer when you?ve been gratified. For coming, you call lewd.?

A feminist by definition is certainly not a man-hating person, much less a man-hating woman. The ?men? she refers to her acerbic addresses refers only to the men who ?pay money to sin? and for their male tendencies to withhold the double standard for the women who they choose to sin with.

But the whitewashing voice interrupts out of nowhere: ?Silence! Shame on you filthy women.?

The lyric poet Juana In?s de la Cruz drops to the floor to retrieve the dagger to her wrist, hidden from her dropped cloak. After piercing her wrist with the sharp point, she crouches on the floor to use her blood as her ink.

Juana In?s de la Cruz offered the greatest laughs but the bitterest chuckles came from the vignette ?Escape del Mozote? from the United States/Mexico border in 1980. Everything from crosses, toys, to piggy banks are waved. ?One dollar! One dollar!?

Another woman offers ?Chicles? Chicles??

A woman with a hollow camera approaches a man sitting with a blanket enfolded around an infant, ?Excuse me, sir. Do you speak English??

She wears tan well-fitted slacks pants and a canvas Abercombie shirt and thick canvas colored boots on her feet. ?I come from Los Angeles. I?m doing a piece for TV.? Her overly sugar smile looks ridiculous next to the man with the man.

?Tu pareces gringa.?

The man moves a candle and sits down, always careful to embrace the baby.

Is healthcare free in ?el norte?? he asks.

?Sort of,? is the devil-may-care answer.

?If I cross?? the man begins.

?I don?t think you should do that,? she firmly shakes her head continuing to film with her hollow camera. ?Why do you wanna leave??

?I never want to leave,? he answers, ?Mira,? he hands her a photograph, ?Es mi familia.?

?Nice family,? she enthusiastically nods, ?That?s where you?re from??

She takes the photograph. ?Oh my God! What happened??

?El army,? he begins, ?mataron a la todos.? He repeats solemnly: ?Todos.?

He explains the reason he must go to the United States is only for healthcare for his child, to not to live there.

The woman feels sorry; she reaches inside her backpack.

?No quiero dinero.? the man insists. ?I?m no begging.?

He hands his infant. ?Help, please.? Healthcare, not cash.

But the woman flees.

?Gracias por nada.? he frowns.

The scene is a microscopic demonstration of United States historic policy of aiding conservative and right-wing groups in many of the countries in Latin America and elsewhere, only to abandon the nations in post colonial shambles and guerrillas constantly throwing coups after another. Such was the case of the massacres in El Mozote, the Salvadorian village in which the Atlacatl Battalion, a group organized, trained, and funded by the government of the United States, tortured and massacred all persons on December 10, 1981.

Not every play can use effective imageries so well like a film. There is a strange but agreeable connection from the repetition of the scenes from women in black cloaks in the vignette featuring ?La Primera Feminista? to the black flags silently but triumphantly waving behind Jorge Eli?cer Gait?n in 1948 Bogat? in ?La Lucha por la Libertad Nunca Morir?.?

There is an uncanny and witty similarity between the thunderous, dreadful knock interrupting the music in the prologue, loud knock outside interrupting of the singing Chilean women sewing a quilt in 1975 Santiago in ?Los Desparecidos,? and the loud inflicting shot that removes the life of Colombian elected president Jorge Eli?cer Gait?n.

There is a connection between the rich attire of the rich television journalist in 1980 in the Frontera EERR/M?xico to the puff-sleeved conquistador of 1538.

The Latino Chicano Initiative Teatro Nuevo at the 24th Street Theatre is a successful example for producing creative work, in their own words, ?from inception to realization, with local communities.?

Check out the website 24th Street Theatre (http://www.24thstreet.org) to find out what else is going on with Teatro Nuevo. For information or to request a brochure call (213) 745-6516. Always inquire for FREE neighborhood passes if you live near the theatre at 24th Street and Hoover in the City of Los Angeles. Also, if you like an artistic performance, it is recommended to support businesses that help it. 24th Street Theatre has had promotional help from a local business Ragazzi Room on 2316 South Union Street; stop by and get an Iced Frapp? for a performance.

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