There are plenty of reasons an artist or even an entire theater company now would step away, consider an extended staycation, or shut down a season completely. The precarious world of theater-making has been pushed to the brink. But artists can be an indomitable and resilient lot.
I have just spoken to two people, Puerto Rican Actor Ernesto Concepción and GALA Hispanic Theatre Executive Director Rebecca Medrano, who have made different choices about where they base their work, but both are determined to stay in the game. They have come together to bring to Washington audiences a play that promises to be a powerful experience and one whose themes may speak to our own divisions.
The show is based on the Puerto Rican novel by Rosario Ferré La casa de la laguna (The House on the Lagoon). It was given dramatic form by Caridad Svich, a multifaceted theatermaker, Obie award-winning playwright, and adapter/translator of many dramatic works in Spanish, and will open this week at GALA and run February 5 to 27, 2022.
The House on the Lagoon is an epic saga about several generations of the powerful Mendizábal-Montfort family, which not only uncovers big secrets long buried but shows the internal schisms of Puerto Rico’s island community, the inequalities between women and men, between classes, and between those who desire U.S. statehood and those who passionately want independence.
Ernesto, son of the late famous Puerto Rican actor Ernesto Concepción with whom he shares a name, appears in La casa de la laguna as a father, Quintin. I asked him:
Have you always known you wanted to be an actor and does your father’s memory still guide you and give you the courage to continue this work?
Ernesto: Being the son of Ernesto Concepción was an honor, not only because he was a tremendous father but because of his work as an actor, director, and producer. Honestly, he made me in my adolescence doubtful and even a little wary of my own abilities to take on what was required, and I tried to do other things, but I was always involved in theater. As things evolved and I could develop my own approach and identity, he taught me a lot, but perhaps most of all he makes me understand the importance of seeing theater as having a vocation.
You both seem to understand the passion it takes to do the work you do, and I’m especially interested in both of you addressing the divided cultural and linguistic identities your work keeps pushing you to do across borders of many kinds. You, Ernesto, during a very difficult period, have chosen to go back to Puerto Rico, while you, Rebecca, have chosen to stay and work in the bilingual, multicultural community that represents Washington’s Wards 1 and 2 in particular.
What are some of the challenges? What fires you up and stokes your intentional decisions?
Ernesto: My idea of vocation is not a parochial concept. Something impels and compels you and, especially in Puerto Rico with the pandemia, you see that. Many sectors were expecting the disappearance of theater artists. But we’ve seen the capacity of artists to innovate, including using technology, to find new ways of reaching out with stories. But it’s been a real challenge.
That’s why I look to GALA as a model because during this same period the company has continued to do the work. We have been connected for a long time, and the GALA team impels us, gives us inspiration, and has helped us to go on.
“Hang in there,” right? ¡Pa’lante!
Ernesto: ¡Pa’lante! Sí. That’s the nature of our community of artists and our own community. Remember in Puerto Rico we had our drill with Hurricane Maria and other hurricanes and the pandemia. Puerto Ricans know how to cope with all these difficulties. It’s about resilience, and artists are at the vanguard of that. My opinion is that people will always look to artists for this.
Does this resonate with your choices, Rebecca?
Rebecca: Absolutely. From its beginning GALA was a theater about social action, connecting with communities represented here, responding and reflecting back what the Chileans were going through, the Argentinos, and now of course the Central Americans. We’ve always had this call to action using the arts to give voice to the stories. And I think this pandemic has reinforced our belief that the arts have to go forward. Live theater has always been vulnerable, and nothing was ever sure. It wasn’t before the pandemic, it’s not now. Every morning you get up and you have to start all over again. I’m a very positive person.
And clearly a force. From your start putting on shows in your living room, how did you dream of making this Tivoli building [in Columbia Heights] a theater and a cultural anchor in this community?
Rebecca: You don’t know how. And I was crying and carrying flowers to the city. And somehow it happens. I don’t look at the sacrifice — because I can’t imagine wanting to do something else — I look at the gift I get back. During the pandemic, it was very important to me to keep paying the artists — even if we couldn’t open a production, or performed a show for 25 people, or had to have artists behind plexiglass! It was important to keep artists employed. Look around: so many artists have lost their livelihoods and taken other jobs. Our company works primarily in Spanish. The pool is small, and we had to protect them. And from another perspective, our Latino audiences were not satisfied with streaming. Even earlier when we opened, the older ones, the ones most at risk, were coming. “Gracias… I’ve been sitting alone in my house and I can’t stand it.” I felt it was our duty to keep going and not shut down. Of course, we have to keep our audiences safe and our artists safe. We need to hang together and serve our community and create joyously.
And what do you think DC as a cultural community seeks to find in its theater? I think you and I would agree the interest is international and often employing the music of multi-linguistics. The other DC identity is political. Washington audiences both seek and need to be engaged in those conversations. So tell me a little bit more about La casa de la laguna, and why its themes are so important now?
Ernesto: The play follows a family that represents the economically elite through three generations. Director Rebecca Aparicio and Playwright Svich have managed to connect the ideological, racial, political, and social class dimensions through the evolution of one family. It gives you a schema as to how it relates to our island’s history, and through the perspective of a woman. The character of Isabel is a creator, a writer and a poet, and the play reveals her struggle with her vocation in Puerto Rico’s patriarchal society. We do have other plays that tackle some of these issues, but it is unusual to see the struggle take place from the inside of a powerful family. It’s also a fascinating portrait of a woman involved in the clash between arts and power.
Today in Puerto Rico we have a junta of fiscal control. Some of the policies directly affect us as artists, because the arts are not held in much importance in this system. You see it played out in the budget, in radio and television, in the Ministry of Culture, and shutting down school programs that would speak truth and open conversation about these conflicts.
Rebecca: You asked about the timeliness of the production. Puerto Rico should always command our attention. GALA’s mission is not just to communicate stories and bring up issues between the Latinx and non-Latinx population here but between sides. We have Puerto Ricans on all sides of the debate of its future identity, and this play gives us the opportunity to examine the situation and bring people together in dialogue. But it’s only when there’s a natural disaster —
And the cameras roll in and out, and so many Americans think the situation has been solved, right?
Rebecca: There are so many problems still facing the island — there’s no electric grid there now. And a doctor in Puerto Rico can’t fulfill a prescription in the United States. Americans don’t know this history or take the time to understand the context.
Despite challenges of not understanding the historic context and perhaps a reticence to hear a work in a language they are not fluent in, what stylistic and visual choices of this production might attract and prove compelling to audiences new to your work?
Ernesto: Director Rebecca Aparicio brings to the table visual, cinematic, and physical expressiveness and skillfully weaves them into the storytelling. They provide images and dates which fill in aspects of our history and give context to the stage action. The characters represent different sides, generations, and relationships to the U.S., which gives the work complexity and nuance.
Rebecca: In GALA’s work we see ensemble as family, and where the artists come together to learn from each other. The “workshop” experience is organic to the process.
Hang in and hang on with GALA. Families are welcome. (The earlier young people are exposed to theater the better.)
La casa de la laguna (The House on the Lagoon) plays Thursday through Sunday February 5 to 27, 2022, at GALA Hispanic Theatre, 3333 14th Street NW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($48 regular; $35 seniors, students, teachers, and military; $25 patrons ages 25 and under) can be purchased online or by calling 202-234-7174.
COVID Safety: Masks are mandatory. Proof of vaccination or recent negative COVID-19 test (taken within 72 hours prior to showtime) required for all patrons ages 5+. GALA’s full COVID Safety Policy is here.