Dallas — Some years furrow in our emotional memories in ways that linger for decades. Teatro Dallas’ world premiere of Cora Cardona’s play 1968, set in that landmark year, focuses on the experiences of one Mexican family, the Saenzes, split between living in Dallas and Mexico City. This concept expands the possibilities of experiencing the historical events from both sides of the border, and from a macro as well as micro historical perspective.
On the micro side, we have the personal stories of the Saenz family, headed by a single parent (mom Teresa, played by Gigi Cervantes, who also plays Aurora) and her two sons, James (Omar Padilla) and Ricky (Christian Arrubla). The father had already died of pesticide poisoning from working in Texas fields as a migrant farm worker. While James becomes a conscientious objector and moves to Mexico City to meet student protester and love interest Alba Marín (Kristin Colaneri), brother Ricky displays patriotic enthusiasm by joining the army once drafted, only to later witness the infamous massacre of unarmed civilians by U.S. soldiers in the small Vietnamese village of My Lai on March 16, 1968.
On the U.S. side, several tragic events loomed large: the escalation of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War (1955-1975); and the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King on April 4 and Democratic presidential candidate, Bobby Kennedy, on June 5, 1968. Two years prior, Kennedy had demonstrated support of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers strike protesting Filipino and Mexican farm-worker conditions in California, Texas, Wisconsin, Ohio and other states.
A welcome move by Cardona as playwright is her commitment to bridge the gap between the Black and Latinx experiences, by not only casting actors of color but also including black history into the dramatic narrative and exploring ways in which they share aggressions from institutionalized racism. It is no secret that American casualties during the Vietnam war were disproportionally borne by Black Americans and Latinos.
Personal stories begin to mix seamlessly with historical events.
Gelacio Gibson and J.R. Bradford play Ricky’s African-American friends on the U.S. side. On the Mexico side of the dramatic action, Gibson also plays the role of John W. Carlos, the bronze medal winner for the 200-meter sprint who, together with gold medalist for the same event, Tommie Smith (Bradford), created quite a stir by performing the Black Power salute on the Olympic podium.
On the macro aspect, we are looking at the historical event of the student massacre at the Tlatelolco Plaza de las Tres Culturas (Plaza of the Three Cultures) in Mexico City right before the 1968 summer Olympics. It is estimated that the Mexican military police killed between 300 and 400 protesting students, and historians consider it as part of the Mexican Dirty War (July-October 1968). This dark time when the government used its military forces against its own citizens remained hidden from official history books of the time.
Most of the storyline in 1968 focuses on James and Alba, two young people who meet in Mexico City just prior to the Tlatelolco massacre. As with many life-threatening events, they bond in an amorous relationship that goes from protesting to taking magic mushrooms.
Overall, the scenes are relatively short and move quickly between each country, designated by stage right and left. The transitions are peppered with a wide range of original tracks from popular rock artists (Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and the Rolling Stones) to Motown and Latin American folk music. Cardona uses excerpts from discourses by Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and poetic language from Mexican poets Rosario Castellanos and 1990 Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz, María Rivera and Cardona’s father, Alfredo Cardona Peña.
The stage design displays a minimalist aesthetic until the last scene, one that bridges both countries in a spiritual way. The rear projections of both artistic and historical footage shed important light on the historical moments as well as provide a beautiful, rich experience. The design team includes Nick Brethauer (set), Jeff Hurst (lighting), and Michael Robinson (costumes).
One issue to take with 1968 is that in the attempt to bring such a panoramic experience the scenes are sometimes choppy. It is difficult to assess whether this is a script (Cardona) or directorial issue (Sorany Gutierrez). One of the missed opportunities is the deepening of the characters’ relationships. For instance, an important announcement related to the fate of Ricky sweeps along too quickly. The upbeat music of the scene that follows feels out of place; it drains the emotional impact and trivializes Ricky’s fate.
Another moment that passes too quickly is the Tlatelolco massacre. Perhaps it was my expectation as a Latin-American/Latina audience member that led me to imagine that this tragic event would have played a more emotionally crucial role. On the other hand, James’ nightmare scene, in which Ricky appears to him, is a brilliant moment, both visually and emotionally.
Also, I did not engage in James and Alba’s relationship. Something was missing there. On the feminist side, I welcomed Alba’s calling out James’ machismo when he accuses her of humiliating him by slow dancing with John W. Carlos.
This play will appeal to younger generations interested in history. It will also appeal to those of us who still hold the memory of a time when we thought the youth would change the world for the better; and peace, love and understanding would reign in the Age of Aquarius. It’s not quite like our present politics in the U.S. where we seem to have retrograded to the 1950s in terms of racism and ultra-conservatism. That may just be the importance of a play like 1968. It nudges us to remember lofty ideals from a time when change was in the air and activism moved us to political action.
» Read our interview with Cora Cardona about the play