Worthy Theater

Rudolfo Anaya's play collection is compelling enough—but it does not stand up to his fiction

There's a folk-art quality to this new collection of Rudolfo Anaya plays—a sort of rough-hewn black-or-whiteness, in which the bad guys are really bad, temptresses can really ruin the day, and harmony can be restored with the lighting of luminarias and the serving of posole.

In his "Comments From the Playwright," novelist and short story-writer Anaya introduces the work as an invitation to readers to participate in theater. "Mainstream theater," he asserts, has shown little interest in the work of Chicano playwrights; his plays, particularly, have been produced only in Chicano theaters. "Here are (my plays)," he tells the reader. "You be the judge. You might get interested enough to act in one or direct one."

They do seem to be crafted for community theater.

The seven pieces in this collection were first performed over a period of nearly 20 years—1979 to 1998—and they reflect both personal and cultural concerns in Anaya's life. The first, The Season of La Llorona, came out seven years after his novel Bless Me, Ultima. In it, Anaya makes Malinche (the Aztec woman who translated for Cortés in his defeat of Moctezuma) the first Llorona—Weeping Woman. His becomes a Medea-like tale involving a conniving Spanish princess and Cortés' and Malinche's two young sons. According to Chicana director and theater historian Cecilia J. Aragón and Chicano studies scholar Robert Con Davis-Undiano, this play represents the betrayed and the "hybrid cultural identity" of Mexican Americans.

All of the other plays are set in New Mexico, and they all relate to some degree to tradition, time, change, assimilation, identity and basic human experience.

In The Farolitos of Christmas, a 10-year-old girl saves her ailing grandfather's dignity by transforming an old village (and Spanish) tradition of Christmas bonfires into New World luminarias. Who Killed Don José? weaves computer technology with dirty politicians ... in an Agatha Christie-lite situation.

You do see other allusions in these pieces: Hamlet, Macbeth, Edward Albee and even Ken Kesey resonate. Given those echoes and Anaya's capacity for complex and multilayered fiction, it's disappointing to see how rather clumsy the earlier plays in this collection are. Spectacle, however, can mitigate that.

Although the character development seems flat, and plotting is either predictable or exaggerated in Los Farolitos ... (1987) and the 1989 Matachines, they both include traditional festival scenes that could prove amusing. Los Farolitos ... has music and pageantry with the play-within-a-play Los Pastores, and Matachines includes a re-enactment of a traditional Indo-Hispanic dance and drama. It's a ritualized event including music, props and a dramatized face-off of Good, represented by Malinche, and Evil, the Toro, the Devil's stand-in; Anaya employs it to play out contemporary unrequited love and jealousy.

Different but still dealing with issues of culture and aging is the 1994 Ay, Compadre! Set in white middle-class suburbia (the family left the barrio for more space and better schools), two middle-age Hispanic couples at a dinner party play out issues of fading sexuality. It's entertaining enough, but the running metaphor on "charcoal too wet to light" needs snipping.

The title play of this collection is, however, a gem. Billy the Kid has energy, complexity and engaging ambiguity. The historical Billy the Kid was a folk hero in New Mexico (where he was known as a polite, nondrinking ladies' man who spoke fluent Spanish); here, Anaya presents yet another version of his life and death. He sets up an onstage dialogue between the official gringo historian Ash Upson, who ghost-wrote for Sheriff Pat Garrett (who shot the Kid), and a local named Paco Anaya, whose sister was Billy's last girlfriend. This portrayal of the Kid's life could make for dynamic theater.

Anaya's full work celebrates Chicano culture and central and northern New Mexico as it laments the damage inflicted on the land and its people. These plays are a vehicle to inhabit and sustain tradition. And—were it not for Anaya's standard lines of untranslated Spanish—I know a local community theater actor who'd probably love to play crazy Minnie ("911, get me outta here.") in his Cuckoo's Nest-in a-nursing-home play Angie.

These plays are fine—but they're not his fiction. To taste the beauty of New Mexico as Anaya has portrayed it, and feel the poignancy of the passage of time, there's still not a more luminous, transcendent passage in literature than the opening paragraph of Bless Me, Ultima.

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