Two years ago, Orange County’s South Coast Repertory commissioned playwright José Gonzalez to write a play about the city of Santa Ana. But the job came with unusual instructions for developing the plot.
"We went into the community and engaged with about 1,200 people from Santa Ana in story circles," Gonzalez said. At workshops held across the city over the course of a year, Gonzalez heard residents tell stories about daily life in their immigrant community: buying fruit from vendors downtown, struggling to keep up with the rent, fears of being deported.
But a few themes in particular stuck out.
"One of the themes was lack of open spaces in this community," Gonzalez said. "There are very few parks, and as a result, children have been killed or struck by cars playing in the streets."
Several families recounted similar stories of roadway tragedy. Those tragedies became the basis for Gonzalez’s bilingual play, The Long Road Today, which opens Sept. 19 at Santa Ana’s Civic Center Plaza.
An unconventional approach
In the play, Andrés is a young boy who plays ball in the street because his neighborhood doesn’t have a park. One day, an unlicensed teenager named Salvador barrels down Andrés’ street as he tries to avoid a police checkpoint, hitting and killing the boy.
From there, the play unfolds in four acts, each one exploring its central question: How do families and a community heal after a tragedy?
The play takes an unconventional approach. After the prologue setting out the accident, the audience will split into four groups. Each group will make its way to a different spot on the sprawling plaza outside Santa Ana City Hall. At each mini set, the audience will watch one of the play’s four acts before moving on to each of the others and finally reconvening for the epilogue.
"So they’re going to see it out of order," Gonzalez said. "And so they’ll piece together, through all these little stories, what happens over the course of twenty years."
The play includes a lot of magical realism: In one scene, spirits of the dead contemplate the sorrows of the loved ones they leave behind. Andrés’s mother seeks help from the moon to find her departed son.
But there’s plenty of real life too, pulled straight from the bustling streets of Santa Ana. In one scene, women sell tamales to raise money for Andrés’ funeral. Neighbors come together to turn a vacant lot into a park. Old women pray for the dead in a church and console the grieving boys’ mothers. A roadside memorial is erected.
A novice cast
Most of the play’s roughly 100 actors and crew have no theater experience, because South Coast Repertory wanted the cast to include mostly Santa Ana residents.
Director Armando Molina said directing a novice cast – and such a large one -- has been a challenge, but one made easier by the fact that storytelling is an important tradition in Latino communities.
"They tell stories every day, to their friends," Molina said. "So it’s about transferring that innate ability onto a theater."
One of the actors is 57-year-old Apolonio Cortez, who was at a rehearsal earlier this week. He plays Andrés’ father.
"I’ve always been a very shy person," he said, speaking in Spanish. "I’ve never really enjoyed speaking in front of people. Now I’m learning theater. I just wish I’d started doing it at a younger age."
Hector Luis Rivera, a percussionist who is one of the play’s musicians, said staging the play has been a useful way for some participants to cope with the tragedies, large and small, in their own lives.
Healing with art
"One of the biggest causes of stress is our history -- our past traumas. And so healing it with art is one of the best ways to heal," Rivera said.
His wife, Melody Gonzalez Chavez, knows this firsthand. Twenty years ago, her sister, then three years old, was killed by a car while playing in the street in front of her family's Santa Ana house. As much of Gonzalez's extended family has moved away over the years, her parents have stayed, unwilling to leave the only house in which their young daughter ever lived.
Gonzalez said seeing her family’s story echoed in the play has helped her cope.
"I’m very thankful that this process came to our community," Gonzalez said. "For me, on a very personal level, it’s been very healing, very liberating."
Maria Elena Serratos said that’s true for her, too. She plays Socorro, the mother of Salvador, the teen driver. In the play, Socorro's husband descends into alcoholism and depression after Salvador is sent to prison. He beats her. In real life, Serratos, too, was a victim of domestic violence.
"I had to go through different circles to heal myself," she said. "And still to this point, when I talk about it, it’s still a touchy subject for me. I think every day is going to be a process for me to heal, but this is a perfect opportunity."
She has a long road ahead, Serratos said, but she finds comfort in seeing her own struggle reflected in The Long Road Today.
The Long Road Today opens Friday, Sept. 19 at 8 p.m. at Santa Ana’s Civic Center Plaza, with additional performances Sept. 20 and 21, and Sept. 26-28.. Tickets are free, available at www.scr.org.