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Wednesday, August 12, 2015

“The Passion as Told by Antígona Pérez” — New Version of a Classical Greek Tragedy Examines Humanity in the Digital Age

The press release from a Seattle organization called Thriving Artists, about a play called The Passion as Told by Antígona Pérez, intrigued me. So did the comments of Director Arlene Martínez-Vázquez. In addition to translating and directing this important play, written by Puerto Rican playwright Luis Rafael Sánchez, she also founded Thriving Artists as a way of promoting, through example, the widespread acceptance of the idea of living wages for those who choose to work in the arts. The play will also feature an all-Latino cast in the roles of citizens of a fictitious Latin American dictatorship. Within minutes of reading the release, I arranged an interview.

Inspired by the Greek tragedy Antigone, written by Sophocles in 442 B.C.E., Sanchez wrote La Pasión según Antigona Pérez (The Passion as Told by Antígona Pérez) in 1968 with the leading role of Antígona based on the life of Olga Viscal Garriga (1926–1995). Martínez-Vázquez updated it to be a multi-media production relevant to today in world in which the technology people embrace, and have been made to believe is indispensable, can compromise, enslave and endanger them and society, if not used responsibly. Tragic themes rooted in politics, the media, distortion of information, disturbing world issues and the courage it takes to do the right thing will all be explored when this play opens at 12th Avenue Arts in Seattle at 7:30 p.m. on August 14. This production will run through August 30, Thursday-Sunday each week.

photo by Marquicia Domingue

Interview with Director Arlene Martinez-Vázquez — 

Candace Brown for Good Life Northwest: Please tell me about this production and its roots.

Arlene Martinez-Vázquez:  The Passion as Told by Antígona Pérez is the Puerto Rican adaptation of the great classic of Antigone. What makes this adaptation unique is that the author has converted the Greek chorus into a chorus of news reporters who you can see being manipulated by the way the dictator feeds news to them. Then you can see the crowds reacting to what they are being fed through the news. And what makes my version of it unique is that we have recorded all these news reporters and they are all being projected through video and the crowd reaction and they are also being projected through animation of Facebook, Instagram and Tweets. 

So, it is a comment on the overwhelming information we have access to all the time, through social media, and what our responsibility is, as global citizens, to be searching for the truth and being responsible for whatever it is we are accessing and sharing.

GLW: What is your background in theater? 

Martinez-Vázquez: I am from Puerto Rico originally, so I did my BA, in Puerto Rico. After that, I went to London for two years to do my master’s degree in theater directing. After that, I stayed in London for two years. I was a member of the CASA Latin American Theater Festival for its first two years. Then I moved to Seattle to start a theater career here. Ever since I moved to Seattle I actually focused on children’s theater and teaching artistry, because when I moved to Seattle it was very important to me to prove I could make a living out of my degree. And luckily I was very successful at that. I was Education Director at Stone Soup Theater for four and one-half years, which was a great experience. I directed musicals at high schools, and I was working full time as a teaching artist. Then I also directed a couple of fringe plays. I did some stage readings of Latino playwrights. After that I was just feeling that there were a lot of stories that I wanted to tell and I couldn’t tell in the avenues I had at the moment. So I decided to do The Passion as Told by Antígona Pérez and start Thriving Artists.

photo by Marquicia Domingue

GLW: How long has Thriving Artists been in existence?

Martinez-Vázquez: It actually has only existed since January 2015. This will be our inaugural production.

GLW: What was the concept that shaped it and how does it function?

Martinez-Vázquez: For a lot of years, I’ve been pondering how you can you make theater thrive in a capitalist society. While I was getting my degree, I always heard a lot about theater and social justice, which is really important, and about making theater accessible, which I also absolutely believe in and work towards on all my projects. But I never heard about how to make theater thrive in a capitalist society. 

Organizations, and corporations create all these products that people don’t really need, and they just create the need to sell them. Then everybody thinks they can’t live without them. So how can you do the same thing with theater? 

I don’t really have the answer to that yet, but what I am trying to do with Thriving Artists is to use a capitalist model to fund the not-for-profit theater company. After this project, the next step will be to figure out what the for-profit business of Thriving Artists would be, and I have a very concrete idea. I just need to do some more market research and raise funds. That business would donate the profits to Thriving Artists. 

The model for Thriving Artists would be to have almost all full-time employees who go at nine in the morning, expand their training and rehearse, and are done by 6 p.m. I would like to start with one or two artists as full time employees, just so they are able to really dedicate their time to their art.  And I would love to be able to offer them all the benefits. I think that’s very important to be able to really live from your art without having to do a very specific type of for-profit theater, like the big touring musicals.

GLW: Do you think this can happen in Seattle?

Martinez-Vázquez: Seattle is a city that really values art. Seattle is very liberal, very progressive. There is a big cultural scene in Seattle. I think a lot of people love going to the theater and love supporting arts and artists, yet the fringe scene is larger than the professional scene. You can probably count with your two hands the amount of artists who actually make a living out of being an artist. It is very normal in Seattle for artists to have day jobs to be able to live. So I find it kind of worrying that in a city that really values art there is not really a culture of prioritizing artists, of making sure that artists get paid. There’s this big expectation that because you love doing your art you shouldn’t be getting paid for it. 

photo by Marquicia Domingue

GLW: How can you change public perceptions and help people understand how great a need there is for this kind of support for artists in our society?

Martinez-Vázquez: A lot of what I’m trying to do is to be very clear about what it takes to put on a show. Our play’s program is three pages, partly because I have all the bios of my cast and crew, which is really large. I built fund raising on this play for two years. I had two fund raising events, received four grants for it,  and did a Kickstarter campaign. All of that is in the program. So there’s a clear notion of “You are here today, and this is really exciting, and these are all the people who had to come together for this to happen,” because I think a lot of people don’t know. A lot of theaters don’t really communicate it clearly either. A lot of theaters just say, “Ticket sales don’t cover the cost of production. Please donate today,” and people don’t know what that means. I think a big part of it is educating people and letting them know how much it really costs to put on a show.

GLW: Please share your thoughts on why it was important to have an all-Latino cast.

Martinez-Vázquez:  I was assisting the Intiman Theatre Festival in summer of 2013, and as part of the emerging artists showcase that they do, I staged two scenes of this play. One of the things I noticed in that is that I really needed Latino actors to tell this story, because it is told from a Latino point of view.

Here is a story that is relevant to this. I was directing A Child’s Christmas in Wales quite a few years ago and I was feeling very awkward about it, because I am Puerto Rican. What do I know about Christmas in Wales? So I was kind of really wracking my mind about the cultural gap and pondering if I should change the setting of the play to make it more culturally accessible to both me and my audience. I asked Valerie Curtis Newton about this and she said:

 “You can change the setting of the play, but the play was written to be set in Wales, and before you change the setting, you need to ask yourself, ‘What is Welsh about this play that is going to get lost when I change the setting?’ And be intentional about that.” That was a big eye opener for me, because I had never asked myself that question before. 

So going back to when I staged the two scenes of The Passion as Told by Antígona Pérez, I staged it with white actresses and they really did a fabulous job with the text and the characters and they understood what it was about. But everything that is Latino about that play got lost. There was no way they could have portrayed it or even known it was getting lost. So I thought, I need to do this play and I need a full Latino cast. 

Then the other piece of this that I am very excited about is the opportunity to make a play that features an all Latino cast that is not about being Latino. It is not about being an immigrant and not speaking English and all this immigration stories. That is not to say that those stories are not important, because I think they definitely need to be told, but I also think Seattle is ready to see a very universal story that is simply told from a Latino point of view. I think it is very important for audiences and artists alike that you can tell a universal story that features an all Latino cast, that “universal” is not white any more. So I am very excited about that. 

Good Life Northwest thanks Director Arlene Martinez-Vázquez for sharing her time, insights, and inspiring ideas for a better world.

For more information about this production or to get your tickets, please visit  or

Please donate to the play's Kickstarter campaign.

Antígona - Javonna Arriaga
Aurora (Antígona's mother) - Maristela Díaz
Creón - Carter Rodríquez
Pilar (Creón's wife) - Angela Maestas
Irene (Antígona's friend) - Ashley Salazar
Monsignor Bernardo Escudero - Steve Gallion
Ensemble - Jazzy Ducay, Adrian Cerrato and Robin Strahan
American News Reporter - Emily Shuel
French News Reporter - Meg Savlov
Turkish News Reporter - Duygu Erdogan
Japanese News Reporter - Keiko Green
Latin American News Reporter - Fernando Cavallo

Director/Translator - Arlene Martínez-Vázquez
Assistant Director - Marquicia Domingue
Production Manager - Noah Duffy
Stage Manager - Rojo Davis
Lights - Tess Malone
Costumes - Fantasia Oslund
Sound - Eric Santiago
Video - Yomarelis Lorenzo & Sarah Rici

Props - Bethany Hystad

Sunday, August 2, 2015

"Hold These Truths" at ACT Theatre Hits Close to Home With This Reviewer

Actor Ryun Yu in the role of Gordon Hirabuyashi at ACT   Photo: Michael Lamont
When I attended the press opening of  Hold These Truthsa play by Jeanne Sakata about the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII—my body might have been at ACT-A Contemporary Theatre, in Seattle, but my mind was in the strawberry fields across the road from my childhood home. We lived on nearby Vashon Island, and our Japanese-American neighbors owned those fields. 

By my early teens, I was aware of the fact that this fine family, the Matsudas, had spent time in internment camps during WWII, even while their son served in the 100th/442nd Regimental Combat Team, but none talked about this during the 1960s when I picked strawberries on the Matsuda farm for a summer job, alongside my siblings and friends. It was not a topic of conversation in our home either, although initially it must have deeply upset my parents. I knew they thought it wrong. I was born as next to the youngest in a large family, but the Matsudas had always been friends, good neighbors, and went to the same church. I was brought up to respect them. I could tell that this past, the years when their modest farm house stood empty, represented a touchy subject, carrying a sense of embarrassment and shame, but it was before my time. If there had been any outrage in the community over this injustice, little trace of it remained evident during my youth.

As an adult, I read a book published in 2005 by a member of the Matsuda family, Mary Matsuda Gruenewald. She gave it the title of Looking Like the Enemy-My Story of Imprisonment in Japanese-American Internment Camps. Mary was a teenager when she, along with her parents and brother, were abruptly evacuated from their island home, as were as many as 120,000 other Japanese-Americans on the West Coast. After I read her book, I loaned it to my father, who was by then in his nineties. I will never forget how profoundly it affected him. When he read about how the Matsudas purposefully destroyed their precious family heirlooms and photographs to avoid any appearance of loyalty to Japan, he felt extremely sad, saying if he had only known he would have gladly stored and protected their belongings for them until the war's end. Whether of not it occurred to my parents or others in our community to dig into the truths of our neighbors horrible and unjust experiences, or whether or not they stopped to imagine the sacrifices involved, I cannot say. I know my father and others seemed to believe the internment actually might have protected the Japanese from violence, but who can say? Surely that protection could have been provided in a more humane way. 

My father was old enough to remember the arrival of Japanese families on the island during the 1920s and how well they were accepted, how their children and the island's other children happily attended school together and became good friends. By 1936, 37 Japanese families lived on Vashon. All contributed to and participated in that small society. The attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the anti-Japanese prejudice that followed, would change everything. That it was a time of confusion and uncertainty for all does not erase the horribly wrong acts that followed.

Ryun Yu as Gordon Hirabayashi
Photo: Michael Lamont 
That change in how the government and society viewed Japanese-Americans and how it impacted the life of a young Seattleite and University of Washington student named Gordon Hirabayashi (1918-2012) is the basis for the play Hold These Truths, which opened on July 17 and runs through August 16. In this one-man show, actor Ryun Yu, in his role as Hirabayashi, tells the true story of how his character came to be one of only three Japanese-Americans to openly defy the government's orders. He refused to report for evacuation to an internment camp. For his defiance, he found himself behind bars. His first conviction was for a curfew violation in 1942 when he stayed at the university's library to study, like other students, instead of going home by 8 p.m. He turned himself in to the FBI and served 90 days in prison. Then, in 1943, his case was appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which ruled against him, resulting in his year-long incarceration in a federal prison. 

The U.S. Court of Appeals Ninth Circuit finally overturned Hirabayashi's conviction in 1987, by which time the revelations of previously hidden documents proved that there had never been any military reason for Executive Order 9066, which deprived Japanese-Americans of their rights and freedom, even for those who were born here and had full citizenship. That order, by the way, could have been applied to Americans of German or Italian heritage too, but never was. The majority of the Japanese, naturally law-abiding, complied with the order, just as the majority of non-Japanese citizens also felt the government could not be opposed, even it they truly wanted to oppose it. Then, like now, many seized the opportunity to justify their prejudices and exploit the misfortunes of others. Sometimes even good people, in difficult situations, do not know how, or if, they should become involved, regardless of their beliefs. That is why Hirabayashi, who boldly lived his beliefs, was a hero.

In addition to becoming more educated about American history, those who attend this play will experience being in another's shoes, a reminder of how we humans are far more alike than we think we are. Yu does a fine job of bringing into our consciousness the young Hirabayashi, who was no different any other college student, except for his ethnicity and perhaps the fact that he likely had more knowledge of the Constitution than his peers, and loved it. He was proud to be American born, a citizen, like them. He worried about his grades, wanted to have fun, fell in love, like them. He also became a Quaker and pacifist. 

Ryun Yu as Gordon Hirabayashi
Credit: Michael Lamont 
It cannot be easy to be the sole actor on a stage set with nothing but three wooden chairs for props and enhanced by some dramatic lighting, both designed by Ben Zamora, but Yu manages to stimulate the imagination to the point of painting his own scenery with words, under the direction of Jessica Kubzansky. At times, he uses the voices of others with whom he has conversations, and that aspect was the cause of my only slight concern. The accents he used were right on for some of these invisible characters, but as a native of the Northwest, I was puzzled when a milder version of a southern drawl, or perhaps a Hollywood cowboy western drawl, seemed to tint his renditions of our Northwest dialect. Someone else, I know who saw the play more recently did not notice this.

I highly recommend Hold These Truths for its ability to both move us deeply and enlighten us, through personalization, on the topic of one of our nation's most shameful and ugly periods. The seriousness of the subject made the play's many moments of humor surprising and a relief. Yu is convincing as Hirabayashi and will cause you to go home with respect and admiration for this hero, his courage and convictions. 

Ryun Yu as Gordon Hirabayashi
Photo: Michael Lamont 
Writing this, my memories of three generations of the Matsuda family swirl through my head. No finer, more honorable, members of our community ever existed. I am a better person for having known and worked for them during my childhood. In fact, my father always said, "The Matsudas helped me raise my kids," referring to their examples of a strong work ethic, commitment, fairness, and other virtues. When some other kids quit picking as the summer heat came on and the berries grew smaller and the fields dustier, we stayed, taught that employment was a two-way street. The Matsudas paid us for picking, but they also counted on us to be there to help bring in the crop. Even though our government had let them down, our parents were not about to let us do the same, even on such a small scale.

In the prologue to Looking Like the Enemy, author Mary Matsuda Gruenewald, who was nearly 80 years old when she wrote the book, penned words she might have said to her innocent four-year-old self as seen in an old photo, a happy and secure child. 

"Have faith in your family and the ultimate goodness of people," would have been her advice. "Especially have faith in yourself to survive the catastrophic events yet to come. In spite of all the terror, pain, depression, and tears in your future, you will reach a final hopeful conclusion."

I am so glad I saw Hold These TruthsThe real facts of history, like a strawberry on a vine too close to the ground, sometimes become soiled with dirt that hides the truth. Only when we brush it away, turn it over, examine it's shiny redness in the honest light of the sun, then taste it for ourselves, can we perceive whether it is bitter with decay or filled with sweetness. The lives of all people, and the nations they live in, always contain a portion of both.

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