For the amount of live theater in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, something that doesn't happen often enough is a sense of event. Sure, it's there when a major new arts complex opens or at one of our too-few performing arts festivals. But, with the exception of the shows Kevin Moriarty has directed since he came to the Dallas Theater Center, individual productions are too often just a chance to sit in the dark, watch actors, maybe mingle at intermission and go home. (Opening night receptions don't count—everybody has those).
Cara Mía Theatre Company, absent from the scene for a few years, has done something significant to stir things up. Its opening night performance of Crystal City 1969 will go down as one of the theatrical events of the year, and not just because it's a beautifully well-crafted work, co-written by Raul Treviño and David Lozano, who also directs. The play, which retells the true story of Mexican-American students who successfully fought their unfair treatment in a rural South Texas town in 1969, deserves praise for shining light on an important Civil Rights moment that probably still isn't taught in Texas history books. Even Lozano, who is Hispanic and grew up in North Dallas, admits that he didn't know about the incident until it was brought to his attention a year ago by Raul, who is the nephew of one of the students who organized the walkout, Mario Treviño.
So, after a year of writing, raising money and building buzz, Cara Mía's world premiere of the play opened—on the 40th anniversary of the December 9, 1969 walkout—to a packed house. (I, for one, haven't seen the Latino Cultural Center filled for a theater production since it opened.) There were scores of the original event's participants in the audience, including the five students who led the walkouts and whose stories are portrayed in the play. Also in the crowd were Tejano legend Little Joe, Dallas Mayor Pro Tem Pauline Medrano and Texas State Representative Roberto Alonzo, who grew up in Crystal City.
The excitement in and response from the audience was amazing to be a part of. One of the original walkout organizers, Diana Serna-Aguilera (who TheaterJones interviewed in the video above, along with Mario Treviño and David Lozano), fought back tears as she watched the play. It took her back to an event at which she was a willing participant, because it was the right thing to do.
A little background: Crystal City, which is about 100 miles southwest of San Antonio and 70 miles east of Eagle Pass on the Mexico border, was founded in 1910 and quickly grew to be a major spinach producer. There is a Del Monte plant there and a statue of the world's most famous spinach consumer, Popeye, was erected there in 1937. The population has always been small and, of course, largely Mexican-American because of the farm workers.
This population, which made up about 85 percent of the town, had been repeatedly treated poorly by white politicians, law enforcement officials, school board members and teachers. Speaking Spanish in class meant licks in the Principal's office. There was never more than one Mexican-American on the cheerleading squad. And there was no bilingual or bi-cultural education. After the school board routinely failed to deliver on promises of change, the students—encouraged by their parents, who had years of pent-up frustration—planned a system-wide walkout if they were not heard at the school board meeting on December 8, 1969.
Guess what happened?
On December 9, the walkout became a reality, and students from all educational levels participated. In the following weeks, they and adult Mexican-Americans crippled the town's economy until their demands for equal treatment were met. Some of the students even flew to Washington D.C. and met with Edward Kennedy, George H.W. Bush and other politicians. Within five months, after a heavy campaign to register voters, Hispanic politicians and school board members were elected and a precedent for Mexican-American rights was set.
Cara Mía Theatre Company, which proudly proclaims that it is the only Chicano theater company in town (specifically using writers of Mexican descent, as opposed to being a Latino theater group), boldly reemerges with this production. Lozano has always loved physical theater, and his Crystal City 1969 is engagingly told using movement and some mask and puppetry techniques. But before you start thinking that it's one of those cold, abstract, head-scratching physical theater performances, know that those elements are beautifully integrated and enhance the telling of what is already a powerful story. Here, words are what matter most.
With the motif of fists angrily pumping in the air and shouts of La Raza!, this is dynamic protest theater that Luis Valdez would be proud of. It's told passionately and warmly by the actors, designers and director, all of whom are in sync in their mission.
The story unfolds with a series of short scenes that demonstrate the unfair treatment of the students in elementary and high school, and of the workers and adults in town. A mystical masked figure, Viejo Antonio (John M. Flores), guides the Crystal City residents on their journey.
Characters, based on the real people, emerge. Diana (Ana Gonzalez) wants to be a cheerleader and enjoys her rep as a "good Mexican" who doesn't rock the boat. Blanca (Rosaura Cruz) wants to be a doctor but is repeatedly told she will never achieve that goal. Also, she loves a white student, Rick (Jeremy Henslee), but her family disapproves and, after he is beat up, it sets off a series of race-related fights. Other students, including Mario (Luis Palmas), Jose (Ivan Jasso) and Libby (Joanna Jahaira Osorio) all have dreams, but eventually realize that nobody else but them can change their fates.
It's a gritty story, infused with humor and captivating elements that keep it from becoming a staid work of theater vérité. The character of Popeye (hilariously mimicked by Adam Dapkus, who plays several other white characters) offers some historical background and social commentary. At stage left, a percussionist (Ron Davison) contributes music and sound effects.
Kenneth Verdugo's layered set adds levels and important symbolic visuals in the background (the American flag, the Popeye statue, cacti, a black board with the sentence "I will not speak Spanish in class" scrawled on it repeatedly). Frida Espinosa Müller's masks and pageant puppets, representing important Mexican heroes, are exquisite. The costumes, by Marianne Newsome, are among the best on a local stage in ages, with snug '60s silhouettes, earthtones and, for the girls, calf-high stockings that might have come from a mother's dresser drawer. It makes perfect sense for the geography and economic level of the town and characters.
Appropriately, there is some Spanish in the show, much of it used for laughs from what will undoubtedly be a highly bilingual crowd throughout the show's run.
Lozano's seamless incorporation of movement works well, as actors freeze in action poses and, in the scene where the students fly to Washington, D.C., serve as the wings and propeller of the airplane. The only major flaw on opening night was a reoccurring problem with sound levels, as some actors didn't project enough to serve the mid-size auditorium at the Latino Cultural Center.
The play builds at a heart-pounding rate, even as emotions at the top of the show are already high. The anger comes to an intense boiling point as the students decide on their next step and shout "Walkout!" at the end of Act 1. In the second act, Diana gets her shot as a cheerleader and the cheers of "Green, Gold!" morph into "Gringo!" Although the characters start to see results, they know there is still much work to do.
Political activism usually inspires more fire, the kind that should never flame out for any human—regardless of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or physical ability—who has ever felt disenfranchised. That sense of urgency is evident throughout the show.
Crystal City 1969 is based on true story. But its power comes from the fact that almost everyone can relate, in some way, to the triumph of the underdog.