Though its synopsis sounds like the premise for a Latino version of TV’s Dallas, Santos & Santos, a new play by San Francisco-based playwright Octavio Solis, boasts a sophistication of language and a heightened theatricality that elevate it to a discourse on the American character. Thick Description, one of San Francisco’s most literate small theatre companies, stages this three-act epic this month at Theatre Artaud in association with the Eureka Theatre Company.
Nothing’s the right choice
Solis, himself the son of Mexican immigrants to El Paso, most recently directed his own play Prospect at Luis Valdez’s El Teatro Campesino in San Juan Bautista, and is also the author of Man of the Flesh, a revisionist Chicano Don Juan story commissioned by California’s South Coast Repertory Theatre. In Prospect, the protagonist buys the trappings of American identity wholesale: He changes his name from Mario to Scout, establishes a credit line, gets a computer job. In Santos, Solis raises the stakes, pushing the theme of clashing loyalties a step further with the character Tomas, the brother who returns to El Paso to find himself automatically and inextricably involved in his sibling’s exploits.
“The Santos brothers have got it all,” Solis says of his characters. “That it’s accomplished by illicit means is beside the point, but to Tomas that is the point. He’d like to see the American justice system coalesce with Mexican tribal law, but both systems are corrupt.”
“In a way, it’s a play about being American, about the choices an immigrant has to make,” Thick Description dramaturg Karen Armano concurs. “The Santos brothers are faced with betraying their family, themselves, breaking the law. The play isn’t didactic, and that’s what’s so amazing and so scary the characters are forced to choose, but nothing’s the right choice.”
Urban Tex-Mex Spanglish alternates with bursts of poetry in this 13-character drama, which Solis originally started writing on commission from the Eureka. Before he could finish the play, however, financial constraints caused the company to cease most of its operations. Although the remaining entity continued to support the development of the play with readings, Eureka no longer has the resources to produce, and has allowed Thick Description to take a stab at its debut run. “Its a big play, and it deserves to be,” Thick D director Tony Kelly says. “It manages to do something important by just following this wildly twisting plot.”
After moving west from New York, where members performed in galleries with sets small enough to fit in a cab, Thick D has spent four years in San Francisco building a reputation for close attention to design and text in its small studio productions. The company has developed a seemingly schizoid aesthetic of revivifying classics–Shakespeare’s tragedy Timon of Athens, Greek dramas like Electra and Orestes–and premiering works by such experimental writers as Han Ong, Peter Mattei and David Greenspan. The connection between the old and new lies in Thick D’s commitment to new American theatre claiming traditional Western works for a diverse and changing society, and helping midwife new plays that strive to reflect modernity with accuracy.
Performing in the prestigious 282-seat Theatre Artaud marks something of a coming-up for Thick D. Both the pace and script leave plenty of room for the company to employ its trademark inventiveness: in last season’s Orestes, the hero sang Bob Dylan’s “Wanted Man,” and the chorus was represented by a flock of pesky reporters with notebooks and tape recorders; in the new play, the memory/ghost of the Santos family’s deceased patriarch, Don Miguel, is likely to appear entirely on video.
We’re all immigrants
Santos is the first play Thick D has tackled that specifically address issues of race, though it’s a topic that’s never too far from the company’s mind. “Whatever play we do, we want to do an American production of it, and that means casting multi-racially,” Armano says. “It’s horrifying to go into a theatre and see a play that is supposed to be about universal things, and it’s all white people on stage. What that theatre is really saying is that it’s a white world.”
Solis, who is currently working on four commissions from South Coast Rep, says that in the past his depictions of Latinos have roused controversy within that community. “Man of the Flesh’s Don Juan theme angers a lot of Latino men, and lot of women in general,” he says, “But when you see Richard III, no one says, ‘God, you’re putting English people in a bad light.’
“By writing about Latinos, I’ve lost some access to the American mainstream. But I’ve gained something too, by being more specific. We’re all immigrants even those of us who were born here,” he adds, casting about for a more expressive word and settling on the Spanish for “pilgrims.” “We’re all peregrinos.”