New book documents groundbreaking L.A. Latino theater program

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Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC

Chon Noriega, director of UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center (left), and Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, at the unveiling of the first book that documents the Latino Theater Initiative’s history, 'Latino Theater Initiative/Center Theater Group Papers 1980 – 2005.'

For 13 years a Latino-themed program at one of L.A.’s top theaters produced innovative work and showcased playwrights’ and actors’ talents. A new book documents that program’s rise and fall.

The story of the Latino Theater Initiative at the Mark Taper Forum begins 33 years ago at L.A.’s venerable Mark Taper Forum. The Taper tried something new by staging Luis Valdez’s play “Zoot Suit,” about race wars between young Mexican Americans and U.S. soldiers during World War II-era Los Angeles.

It was a runaway hit. It’s as if Mexican Americans had never seen themselves on the city’s premier theater stages.

Until then, they hadn’t.

It would be another 15 years until the Taper, the Center Theater Group’s stage for contemporary work, would fold Latinos into its production process by creating the Latino Theater Initiative in 1992. From then until artistic director Michael Ritchie closed it six years ago, the Initiative fostered 11 new plays through the production process and on to opening night.

Despite that, Ritchie told the New York Times that the development program was an unaffordable luxury.

This week many program alumni gathered in downtown L.A. for the unveiling of the first book that documents the Initiative’s history. It’s called “Latino Theater Initiative/Center Theater Group Papers 1980 – 2005.” Theater scholar Chantal Rodriguez wrote the book’s main essay about the groundbreaking nature of the program.

"I think it was particularly significant in that it was having Latino artists, Latino theater for Latino audiences and trying to recruit audiences into this large cultural institution that at the time was really majority kind of aging, white subscriber base," she said.

It did so by commissioning and nurturing Latino playwrights to write what they knew. They included Pulitzer Prize winner Nilo Cruz, author of “Anna in the Tropics.”

Diane Rodriguez, the head of the Initiative in its last years, is proud of its track record.

"The initiative had its moment and it was a long moment," she said. "And I think by the time it had its end it had done its work and it laid a groundwork, it had tilled a lot of soil and from that soil is coming a lot of good work by Latino artists."

UCLA’s Chicano Studies Research Center published the 86-page book. For now it’s the definitive history of the program, says the center’s director, and he hopes it won’t be the last.

As he held the book, Dan Guerrero, who’s performed for decades in theaters across the country, said it’s more than a book - it’s priceless history.

"Thank goodness it has been documented because our history, Chicano history, Mexican American history, Latino history is hugely unknown in our country," Guerrero said.

He and others said people still disagree about what constitutes Latino theater and where it’s going. But they’ve reached consensus that not enough stages have committed to presenting its stories to receptive audiences.

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