Dallas — This week marks the final performances for the world premiere of Matthew Paul Olmos’ so go the ghosts of méxico, part two at Undermain Theatre. The first part was seen at Undermain in 2016 (it was the fourth production), and the third part will premiere at Undermain in 2018.
We asked David Lozano, executive artistic director of Dallas’ Cara Mía Theatre Company, to have a conversation with Olmos about the trilogy and his work. Lozano found time for this despite being in the middle of a tour of his work Deferred Action, which he co-wrote with Lee Trull for its world premiere at Dallas Theater Center in 2016. That play is also the second in a trilogy (the first was The Dreamers: A Bloodline.) Look for a video interview on Deferred Action coming soon on TheaterJones.
In this interview, Lozano and Olmos talk about Olmos' trilogy, the U.S.-Mexico drug wars, Olmos’ career, finding his voice, using comedy in dark subject matter, and his thoughts on Undermain’s production of the first part.
David Lozano: Why did you choose this three-play cycle about the drug war in Mexico?
Matthew Paul Olmos: In 2009, I got interested in writing about this because there wasn't a lot of attention on it. So I started doing research on the drug wars and there were so many avenues to go down, there were so many facts, topics, themes; it was overwhelming. I almost backed off from the piece entirely because I wasn't sure how to approach it. And then I stumbled across the story from last year's play [so go the ghosts of méxico, part one] about Marisol [Valles Garcia; “the Bravest Woman in México”]. And that was my moment as a writer, "Oh, that's my way in. That's my hook." So I started writing Part One which is really about when the personal becomes political because it's affecting your actual family. Then I started to think, "Okay, I'm talking about this aspect of it in this one. I really want to talk about the actual cartels and the relationship to the U.S. in the second one." And then I wanted to close in on the U.S. involvement and how the U.S. is involved in the third one. So it became easy to focus on what parts two and three were about.
Around that same time, my mother would often find articles in the LA Times and mail them to me; no note or anything, just an article. One of them was a letter from a woman in Tijuana to the government, asking, "How do you expect us to stay here when this is going on? What do you expect us to do with this without help?" And my brain instantly went to "What if everyone left and certain towns became ghost towns?" And so the first draft of the first play—I think it's even titled in my Word documents, “Ghost Town Play” or something like that because it was really about what if the dead were sort of all that was left to talk about.
What was it about the drug wars that impacted you?
I think it was just the astronomical number of dead that still astounds me. Then it was—I'm trying phrase this—I'm always drawn to what we don't get told or doesn't get talked about. For instance, I'm pretty fascinated by the Russia stuff [in the 2016 election] because there's information somewhere in the ether that we don't have access to what is at the truth of the matter. And also with the drug wars, there are articles or reports like, "And we made a big drug bust, and they found" whatever tons of cocaine and "we're doing it." And there's no mention of who sold the narcos those weapons.
Coverage of the crisis in Mexico may get a one-quarter page article in our local daily and it will be packaged in a way as if it's almost like a postcard.
Yeah. There's always that photograph of the pile of drugs that they caught. Like “we almost got this thing solved guys.”
And you're like, "I think it's deeper than that." There's a selling of the war on drugs and that “little by little we're getting the evil guys”. But so many people are just going to be told the postcard and be like, "Oh, I heard there was something about Russia but it didn't seem like it was substantiated and sort of gossipy."
This reminds me of post-9/11. Some people were talking about if and when our intelligence officials actually crossed paths with the terrorists before 9/11? And what actually happened? So do those kinds of things interest you?
That's kind of the core. I'm finding more and more of each play I write now—like Part Three has been a challenge. Right now, I would say I have a draft of Part Three but it's still to me very messy and I feel like there's a lot of work to be done on it still. But the reasons that one's been actually the hardest to write and it might even be the most exciting to me, like thematically, is because I go into this research and there's a lot of mentions of the CIA specifically and their role in the drug war going back from Central America or South America to more recent.
But it's hard without getting into too much of conspiracy-type websites to find out—OK, I get there's involvement, there's this and this but I need specifics of how exactly were they involved in this? What were they doing literally? So I found the wall I hit with Part Three so far in terms of trying to fill in certain spots of the play is that I don't know. So it's trying to explore how to dramatize something that's meant for the stage that hints at something that I don't actually have specifics of because I don't have access to them.
I think you have to appoint a special prosecutor and a team of 17 lawyers [laughter]. I’m obsessed with the intrigue as well. What about the drug trade have you discovered and what is gray about that?
When I'm researching, I will say, "OK. This seems plausible in my opinion. And this other thing seems to be pushing it." To me, it can feel more like a conspiracy theory. But the biggest thing is CIA involvement, everything from the actual selling of arms to cartels, and I’m not sure what the CIA is getting at, allowing certain things to happen and what they are getting in return.
And so that to me is the really fascinating part of this. I think playwriting-wise, the more facts or understanding I kind of have on a detailed level, the easier it is for me to be like, okay I can sort of pick and choose things that I think would work dramatically on stage, and when I don't—like right now I have one play that's about the JFK assassination, and that frankly, was strangely easier to write because I mean I know a lot about—but there's an event. There's one event that happened and there's all sorts of tales about who was involved and all that stuff, but when I’m working on a Watergate play and that one is actually in some ways harder because there's so many fucking people involved. But it's really just about how I can understand even the theoretical web of how things went down and I can be like, OK, so this is storyline I want to write.
The gray areas surrounding the political intrigue are like stones you keep turning over. I know what you're saying when you talk about the drug war and the role Americans and the CIA play.
I understand that, yes, there are arms that are clearly American arms. But then in my mind, I also think, "OK. I want to know who sent the arms and how were they transferred?" The small details are what I think help go from research into something dramatic that can be followed and not lost.
When I think of your work, I think about your use of language, a lyrical language based in a kind of urban vernacular, one you may find in a barrio in Los Angeles, or in Mexico, or a small American town. Is lyrical language something that you work towards when you're translating these concepts into a play?
Yeah. During the actual writing of the play, I don't think about it so much, it just kinda comes out. In live theater, I don't want to see anything too realistic. I want it to be poetic. [Teatro] Luna stage did a reading of an older piece of mine, a family piece, which isn’t really my thing. But their artistic director said to me, "What I really appreciate is that you're giving these sort of lower class family this poetry to speak. They're using sort of crude metaphors maybe, and sort of not flowery but you've given them this sort of music to talk with." And I hadn't really thought about it so much until she said it. And I was like, Wow." Now, I'm actually more aware of it but, on a first draft I'm really just trying to get through what happens. And then in rehearsal, maybe I’ve pushed it a bit too far and then the actors have trouble saying it. And then I have to go back and make it simplified so that's it's clear for the audience. But I spent a lot of time actually. So I'm totally the writer who's going to be like, "I'm going to switch this and this and does nothing to the play." But in my brain, it just sounds better and I want it to sound like that. So I spend a lot of time on the language of it.
And I was thinking about—you must have experienced it also—where certain actors can pick it up and it sings. They don't have even to be told anything. Other actors who can be amazing actors will stumble all over it and they have to sort of learn the rhythm of it. And for a while, I thought it was just maybe a Latino thing or even a class thing. Because I think mine is sort of like twisted versions of what my uncles sound like. But I find it amazing because I'm always nervous when I don't have my actors, my usual peeps to do that work. But then I'll hear actors I’m working with for the first time perform the language and they're hitting all the rhythms and I feel some sort of connection with them as a human being and think, "Oh, we have something similar in our upbringing or something where you're hearing this thing." Like you said, to me, it sounds urban, or Latino. Because often times, the language really grammatically wrong. And I think some actors, the impulse is to correct it naturally without even thinking about it. So they'll say the lines and almost reorder the words a little bit to make more it proper English. And then there's some people I think who just sort of are able to just read it even though it's wrong and that makes sense to them.
One aspect of your writing that I really appreciate is a presence of the supernatural or the invisible. It can appear in a sublime way. It can appear comically.
I was with Luis Alfaro and Octavo Solis and we were talking about this. Luis was sort of laughing, saying, "I don't what it is." I was like, "Fuck, we can't seem to write a play without something mystical happening."
So you can't even source it. It's doesn’t come from your upbringing. It's just an instinct?
No. I can't say. Luis said, "Yeah, it seems to be Latino authors tend to have this sort of thing that comes out." When I see plays like at the Lark’s US-Mexico Exchange, I would always be so in love with plays by the Mexican writers because they are just doing these things and you can tell instantly that they are not written by an American playwright because they are just free with their form. I find it interesting to think what are the differences between their day-to-day lives in their country versus our day-to-day in our country.
I want something that really requires the audience's imagination and so something larger than life happens. That's I think important for my type of theater. I remember being taught either by Rogelio Martinez or by Neal Bell, just that we do half the play on the stage and the other half of the play takes place above their heads in their imagination. And so even when I'm writing, I'm always aware of the fact that this experience should be a magical thing that can only happen here. I just love theater where it's like, "Oh, wow. This whole thing just happened, and it didn't really happen. They just made a suggestion of it, but I lived it and I experienced it." So I really want to use this stage and use all the colors and tastes and the senses. I remember seeing a Marcus Gardley play—I think it was even just a workshop production of his. The one about the Native Americans, The River Runs Dry, The Well Runs Deep, I think. And in it he's got, as far as I could tell even in a workshop production, hundreds of people and there's this big war, we're focusing on this small group of people but it's all happening. In the workshop there was no effects, really. There was no production value, but just the beautiful way he wrote it, as far as I was concerned there was this fucking big war in front of me and sweeping things were happening, but he was triggering me to do it, and I just thought, "He's being so theatrical right now and he's not afraid to be like, 'Now there's going to be this huge thing on stage and we're going to do it.'" And it doesn't have to be like a bunch of tricks. So I think I'm in some ways aware of being like “I want to aspire to things like that, where you can do anything really.”
So what gave you permission to do that? Was it reading other playwrights, seeing plays, or just from the imagination sparked from your experience?
My tastes have always been in something heightened. I remember actually early on in grad school, one of my first playwriting teachers, James Ryan, was like, "What if lights up and there's dead squid on stage?” [laughter]. “A large squid that's dead." He was like, "That's the play I want to see," and I remember being like, "Yeah. I want to see that." If lights came up and that was going on, you're instantly just like, "What the fuck? Where am I?"
So it sounds like you just kind of found a place that you could inhabit [laughter] by working in theater. It's where your imagination can express itself.
Yeah. Probably. I came to theater really late. I just took a class on a lark. I liked writing so I'm going to take this playwriting class, and then I switched majors when I was a junior in college.
Where did you go to school?
U.C. Santa Barbara. So everyone in the theater department, of course, all knows theater; they've been doing theater, they've been acting and all that shit since they were young, so I was such an outsider. And so I had to catch up and I had to read all these plays for these classes. And I didn't know any of these plays. But I remember being in the library at Santa Barbara and I'm reading [Sam Shepard’s] Buried Child and there's a part when she grabs the leg and I was like, "Oh, shit, this woman's running around holding this dude's leg and won't give it to him." It's one of my favorite plays but, by today's standards, it feels not as crazy maybe. But I remember the feeling when I read it and not knowing anything about theater and didn't know who Sam Shepard was, the exhilaration of being like, "Holy shit, that's a crazy scene. That sounds insane."
What I see in this three-play cycle is the aesthetic world of a playwright colliding with the other world of hard news, brutal reality of drug violence, and dark mystery of political intrigue. How do you marry these two knowing that the result will be play performed for a paying audience?
One thing I always think about is—and this is something that Rogelio Martinez taught us when we were doing INTAR [Theatre]’s H.P.R.L. [Hispanic Playwrights in Residence Lab]. He was always like, "the minute I know what side of an issue the author is on, I sit back and I'm less engaged." I think about it all the time. So I think for my plays, I'm always trying to find like pockets of gray area. Like in this play in particular, I'm hoping that at a certain point though even these are fucking cartel people, we’re showing what's going on in the world.
To me the docudrama version would be like, "Whoa, drug world is fucked up. Jesus Christ, that was an intense play." But also I sort of thought that when I went in. So what are the ways we can sort of find things in the world that are, like in Part One of the cycle towards the end of the play the cartel member is addressing the invisible child. I remember in rehearsal, the wonderful JJ Perez was doing that part in New York. And when he's doing the child, the actress playing Mari, as any character would, the impulse was to go and stop doing that. But then JJ had this beautiful idea where he was like, "But given what Mari’s just gone through, what if she comes up and sort of just touches the cartel member with love. Sort of almost I feel bad for you also. You were also a child who got put up in this world." And so I think in this scene you don't really feel bad for him but there's an element of "oh, I didn't expect that, given this cartoonish cartel that we've seen throughout that play, I didn't expect that sort of softer scene with him at the end.” So I want to find little things like that within the play.
When we were doing Part One at La Mama in New York, and the show was going really well, everyone was giving really good reviews and I was quite happy with it. But after a matinee performance, this woman outside was waiting for me asks, "How could you possibly write a play about this situation? And you're laughing at it?" And I was like, "Well, if you're to the referring to the cartel scene, I think the lens from which I’m looking at it is that we should be looking at this cartoonish person who really believes in the world he's in, and I was just trying to explain my point of view. And she was irate and, "I think it's wrong. I think this is insulting and it's an insult to Ellen Stewart." She was very upset and at a certain point, I was like, “I mean, that's your opinion.” It's totally valid. You don't have to like my work, but she kept insisting that no, it's not my opinion. It's a fact. This is wrong. I think that's a good example of where she felt strongly about the mashing of the two.
What really struck me about the first play was the comedic qualities of the Narco. So you write a play that mixes comedy with the brutal reality of the drug cartels, audiences may be offended or criticize it. How do you commit to seeing that work through to the end?
I remember we were doing the last scene where the cartel member, El Morete, kills the husband and it was…the way they did it was just very unnerving and I remember I was talking to one of the actors—I think JJ—at the time and it was this scene the way it was done it was just so unnerving. And so we were sitting there and he wasn't able to watch it, but he was able to step off after the directors are doing their thing. And we were sort of talking about how this is the heart what we're talking about here. And we were sort of where we've sort of seen this clownish version of a narco. All of the sudden I'm like, "Oh, no, no. He's actually part of something that's actually very God awful." But I just remember feeling relieved a little bit. “Okay, we hit the real place we were supposed to hit.” But as a human being I remember feeling like, "Eek, we're going to make audiences go there."
How do you stand behind the comedy?
The one example I can think of, it was Young Jean Lee…I remember seeing her play The Shipment. And it's kind of funny because this Korean-American woman is writing about the Black experience. But the show is kind of hilarious. But there's those certain moments where it just hits you but I feel like I'm sort of on this ride of, "Oh, this is sort of a funny." Hers is not I would say a satire but all of the sudden underneath it there's a sort of like, "Oh, shit. No. Actually, that's quite real." I'm a huge George Carlin fan. Where he's sort of talking about almost day-to-day and silly things and then he starts on something maybe about the war—whatever it is—and then it's funny throughout, because it's George Carlin. But at a certain point, it's almost like being led out to sea or something like that and you're not even aware you're being led or something like that. And then when he hits his points about what he's saying about America usually. There's something about it where I'm just like, "Oh." That really hit. You know what I mean? And I don't think I think about that too consciously, but I'm attracted to that idea.
Would you say that most your audiences are white theatergoers or do you get a lot of Latinos?
What’s tough for me is I have not had a production in California. [Dallas] is as far west as I've gone. What's funny about when we did the first part of the Mexican trilogy, me and the director would be in the back and be like, "Do you know anyone here?" "No, I don't know." They were getting good reviews and they had a bunch of press about Marisol actually coming to New York and stuff like that. But I would say they were still pretty theater-y people. Not all, but definitely theater people. And it's La MaMa, so it's kind of hip [and] downtown-y. And then something like when I was at Teatro Vista, they had, I thought, a pretty good—I mean, I wasn't there for that much of the run, but the bit I saw, they had a pretty mixed audience.
The reason I write the plays is to open up some sort of dialogue or just to have this in the conversation. I mean what I would love is to have the guy—the Republican who thinks that the only issue is keeping brown people away—he is my ideal audience. That's who I would love to have in the audience. So I get a little bit tripped up because, on one hand, I want plays that my family can go to. You don't have to be an artistic person. You can go in and actually get something from it.
In Dallas, the Undermain Theatre is kind of hallowed ground for world premieres. Their wall of fame in the lobby is pretty amazing. What is it like to have your play premiered here?
My agent at the time knew them. I didn't really, but then I went on their website. I remember I saw Jackie Sibbles Drury and Taylor Mac. I was like, "Oh, they're doing sort of downtowny-style work." They were the fourth production of Part One. When I got here, I definitely had less pressure because there's that thing where you don't know the play until the third production. So I felt like I knew the play really well and I came in just to clarify things, "Oh, actually, I think this scene is more about that."
But when I saw the Undermain production, it was very different from the one in New York, but there were things that they got better than New York, even though I was involved in that one and I believed in that one a lot. Yeah, there were things I was like, "Oh, fuck, that scene, that's gorgeous the way they did that. And I didn't expect that." But when I came back for this one, I was nervous because this play is more, for lack of a better word, less linear. So the last two nights, I've been quite nervous mostly because I'm more confident now that I've seen it with audiences. I can say, "Okay, they're definitely sort of on this ride, and they're getting something out of it by the end of it." But, yeah, since this new play is a weirder piece, I was nervous about getting it here, but I had a trust from last year.