A musical about the history of Tex-Mex culture is playing at the Public Theatre, and for once, this Tejano playwright feels like his culture is valid.
by David Davila (playwright / songwriter)
I finally saw Michael John LaChiusa and Sybille Pearson’s new musical, GIANT, at the Public Theatre on Sunday night and I was a blubbering mess. Not because the story was particularly sad, but because it was the first time in my entire life, as a Tejano, that I saw the Tex-Mex culture, my culture, and my heritage, portrayed in popular arts and entertainment. It was the first time I’d seen the history of my people, Texans, shared on a world stage for an audience of theatre lovers, culture consumers, historians, and elitists.
The blubbering started in the second act when a mix of rich and poor, white and brown, English and Spanish speaking people celebrated together at a traditional Tex-Mex wedding – just like the one my parents had back in the seventies. The tears came down uncontrollably.
There have been a couple of plays about Tex-Mex culture produced in NYC before, in small Off-Off-Broadway venues that very few people saw. Relegating us to black boxes and short runs that no one gives a crap about; but people are talking about GIANT. People are watching, and the Public Theatre recently announced an extension due to its success.
Be sure to catch BASILICA by my fellow South Texas playwright, Mando Alvarado next Spring. It's about a famous Catholic shrine in our hometown that is confronted by scandal. It plays Off-Off-Broadway's Rattlestick Theatre this May.
To me, that wedding, on that stage, in the middle of NYC means that the stories I have to tell about the history and culture of my people have validity in the history and fabric of American art. My tears were tears of hope.
Back in my days as an undergraduate studying opera performance at The University of North Texas, I did a research paper on Claude Debussy. That paper changed my life. Debussy was a nationalist, and championed the culture of his homeland; France. I learned from Debussy that no one would ever succeed in the arts unless they championed the culture and art of their homeland. This was puzzling to me at first. I didn’t understand what was unique or valuable about my Tex-Mex culture. It seemed pretty ordinary and plain to me back then. It was a dull reality that I was desperate to escape. It wasn’t until I was detached from the enchiladas and Tejano music for so long that I began to miss it. I began to yearn for it like a mother’s embrace.
That's what made me start my theatre company, Lone Star Theatre, dedicated to bridging the gap between Texas and New York theatre and spotlighting Texas playwrights and stories. It’s funny that the man who inspired me to embrace my Tex-Mex heritage, Claude Debussy, was also used as the center of inspiration for one of the characters in this folk opera as well. When the character of “Uncle Bawley” tells Bick about his travels to France, and his wild nights of inspiration taking shots with Debussy, my vision as an artist came full circle.
To me, it was one of those small signs the universe sends to tell you you’re on the right track. For years I’ve been telling people about the unique cultural landscape of Texas. People don’t understand unless they’ve visited. I’ve told you a bit about the cuisine before, but there’s so much more to it than that. I started writing my “Tex-Mex Plays” because I wanted to give a voice to the people of South Texas. I wanted, and still want, the entire world to know about our little corner of the galaxy where little old ladies make tamales and say rosaries as the sun goes down. I want people to know about the duality of the Tex-Mex culture, and what it means to be a Tejano.
Since arriving in New York, I’m often asked the question “What are you?”
People want to know if I’m Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican, Italian, Irish, Jewish, Lebanese, Persian, Albanian, Spanish, Iraqi, and anything else they can think of. I always say “I’m Texan;” and that pisses people off. They don’t understand the history of the culture I was raised in. My family (like the Benedicts in GIANT) owns a ranch in a small South-Texas town called Falfurrias, and my ancestors were all born, raised, and died on ranches all over Texas. We’ve owned land in Texas for centuries.
Technically my biological heritage is Spanish, Italian, Irish, and Mexican (which is itself a blend of Native-Mexican-American and Spanish also called Mestizos). Growing up we called ourselves Mexican-Americans but most of my family lived in Texas when Texas was Mexico, and when it was independent, and became US citizens when the state was annexed. My great-great-grandfather Raymond McMurray was never allowed to marry my great-great-grandmother Ramona Davila because she was Mexican. That’s why we’re Davilas and not McMurrays.
It’s for that reason that I’m never able to quite give people the answer to that popular question; “what are you?” In order to understand what I am you’d have to understand the history of my people. You’d have to understand the six flags that fly over Texas, and the Native-Americans that lived there before the Spanish arrived. You’d have to understand the duality of English and Spanish as valid languages, neither being superior, and you’d have to understand racism, and human attraction, and ranching, and the American Dream.
The patriarch of the Benedict family in GIANT, Bick, spends his life obsessing over creating a new breed of cattle that is completely and originally a Texas breed, never realizing that the Texas breed was being created all around him in the culture, and the people that he loves.
It’s this Tejano phenomenon that I’ve been exploring in the development of my play, AZTEC PIRATES & THE INSIGNIFICANCE OF LIFE ON MARS.
AZTEC PIRATES… is about two couples exploring open relationships, but at it's heart its about a Latina woman whose family has owned her land in South Texas since the land was considered Mexico, and is therefore insulted when the local university tries to take it away. AZTEC PIRATES… argues that it doesn’t matter if there is life on other planets, because if there were, we would kill the entire species and steal their land.
There has been lots of blood spilled over Texas soil in the name of owning land, and the result is a landscape as rare as the people who have planeted their roots there. In Texas we created our own culture, our own breed and I’m proud to be able to share that unique duality with the world. I hope you will run to see GIANT while you still have the chance, and I hope that it opens up your perception of Latinos living in Texas, and what it means to be a Tejano, because when you ask me what I am, my answer is always the same: Texan.
PS: If you're wondering how the actual show is... here's my mini review. The cast is amazing, especially Katie Thompson who steals the effin show. Give the girl a Tony award please! Great performances all around... with special shout outs to Miguel Cervantes and Natalie Cortez. The show itself is not yet perfect; I think they need a better opening number. Something like "Tradition," that introduces the landscape of Texas that Leslie Benedict will interupt with her Northern views. Plus, the first three or four songs could all be cut with no effect to the plot, and in a three hour long show, a few cuts are needed. it's still a wonderful piece, and feels like a true Texas folk opera. Here's to hoping someone with power is willing to move this folk opera to Broadway.
… and now for the 90’s jam of the week. In honor of Tejanos, I give to you the most famous Tejano of our generation: Selena. This song, Amor Prohibido, is about forbidden love. Like my great-great-grandfather and grandmother the characters in this song are not allowed to get married...
DAVID DAVILA is half of the song-writing duo Havrilla & Davila, author of the Tex-Mex plays ADAN Y JULIO, MEN OF GOD, CREDO, REQUERDOS OF MY LIFE, and AZTEC PIRATES AND THE INSIGNIFICANCE OF LIFE ON MARS. He is a self proclaimed Voxist, a Diva enthusiast, and founder of Lone Star Theatre Co. Catch a preview of his new musical CORNER GIRL at Primary Stages on Dec. 11th. Wanna talk about it? www.daviddavila.net
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