See Yourself Onstage This Season at Arizona Theatre Company

Editor’s Note: This is the seventh in a series of interviews with creative decision makers and artistic directors at all of Tucson’s theatres as we look forward to the 2019-2020 season.

Arizona Theatre Company welcomes back Sean Daniels, once a season subscriber, now the Artistic Director.

by Leigh Moyer

ATC LogoFor Arizona Theatre Company’s (ATC) new Artistic Director, Sean Daniels, this is a homecoming. His love of theatre began as a child watching a “life changing production of Our Town” at ATC. After talking with Sean over lunch at a local downtown eatery, that seems almost too perfect. Our Town addresses a lot– growing up, learning who you are, and finding community, all things clearly important to Daniels, especially in theatre. 

And that means representing the community on stage.

“I’m interested in what the conversation is with the community. American Mariachi is the best selling play in Arizona Theatre Company’s history. And so you have to ask what is that about? Was it just the timing? Was it what the play is about? Or is it that a community is finally seeing themselves on stage where they hadn’t before. I’m more interested in what are the next set of plays that help to unlock those questions,” Daniels said, referencing the 2018-2019 season production of American Mariachi. “It is so powerful to see your story on stage. Clearly it resonated with this community. So how to figure that piece of the puzzle out, for me, that is my job. Invite them in, perhaps in an easy way, in Lowell, with the company I was with before ATC, that was putting on a production by a playwright from the greater community, but then working to do other things the community might be interested in. But you have to genuinely reflect them on stage. You can’t just say, ‘Now here’s a ticket coupon and come see a show where no one looks like you.’”

The 2018-2019 season production of American Mariachi. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

The 2018-2019 season production of American Mariachi. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

This season Daniels and his predecessor David Ivers selected six shows that reflect the local community and the issues the greater American culture is facing. And they aren’t pulling any punches. This season addresses gender and racial discrimination, challenges stereotypes of masculinity and femininity, asks us to look at white privilege, and then there are the Nazis. “We have an opportunity to have six curated evenings with people. What’s the conversation that we want to have with them over time?”

While a lot of the content ATC is bringing to the stage this year covers big, heavy topics, topics that are all too familiar in 2019, these are plays that tell stories about people and what it means to live during challenging times. There may be heartbreak and struggle, but there is joy and laughter. It is important to tell stories like this not because we need the lesson, although maybe we do, but because we need to see that things get better and we keep living.

“And,” Daniels added, referencing one of the shows he selected for this season, Women in Jeopardy!, “Looking at the season, I realized we didn’t have the show that you just scream in laughter from beginning to end. And that has a value in a season. You don’t want six of those. But there is nothing wrong with being entertained by theatre.”

Daniels will be considering diversity and representation in the casting process too, You have to think about your own biases that you bring. Could anyone play this role? Do I want the best actor? Do I believe that white actors are the only actors who can play all types of roles and actors of color are the only ones that can play those types of roles? Then find the best actors to pull it off. If you start with that you don’t end up with all white casts.”

Having a season that ranges from “Master Harold”…And The Boys, a show that looks at privilege in apartheid South Africa to The Legend of Georgia McBride, a musical about a drag queen, to classics like Cabaret, this season has a lot to offer. 

“That’s the point of being a season subscriber. You get to watch shows you wouldn’t have picked. In an era of Netflix and Amazon the algorithm has you figured out. It knows that based on your buying pattern, you would like this media, this item. And you’re always like, ‘You don’t know me!’ But then you look and you’re like, ‘Yeah, I probably would like this…’ There is nothing wrong with that, but the thing I hear from subscribers is they come to shows they wouldn’t have otherwise watched and ended up liking it. If you pick only what you know, you are only going to get that.”

There is more to diverse theatre than breaking free of an algorithm. “Sometimes I chose something thing because it allows a group of people who don’t look like you to finally see themselves on stage and be invited in. As an audience member maybe this play isn’t your favorite but that’s okay because you believe in this theatre and you want it to be around in 40 years and introducing a new audience to the theatre is important.” And for someone who, some years ago, realized theatre was his dream at an ATC production, fostering the continued success of the theatre and encouraging new audiences to check out the theatre is a key driver. 

But if you can’t catch the whole season? Daniels recommends that you don’t miss the first two shows: The Royale and Silent Sky. The first tells the story of the first time black and white boxers were allowed to box against each other during Jim Crow. The second looks at women in science, following the story of Henrietta Leavitt, a brilliant astronomer who made most of her discoveries (including where we are in the universe) without access to telescopes because of gender discrimination. It would be naive to say things haven’t improved in the hundred plus years since either event, but it would also be naive to say these problems have disappeared.

But it isn’t just that these are societal problems we have to face together that make Daniels recommend them but because the playwrights, Marco Ramirez and Lauren Gunderson, respectively, are interested in working here, in joining the community and learning from the Arizona audiences who will be experiencing their work. That is something special.

As a closing thought, Daniels reiterated, “I just think it is a real goal of ours to try to be more locally based. I am really focused on how this community owns us.”

Arizona Theatre Company’s 2019-2020 Season:

ATC 19/20 Season

The Royale by Macro Ramirez, directed by Michael John Garcés
9/07/19 – 9/28/19
A power-packed boxing drama. Winner of two Obie Awards, an Outer Critics Circle Award, a Drama Desk Award, and multiple other awards and sold out houses in London, New York and LA. The Royale is not your usual sports play. First of all, it is not really about life in the ring. Second, not a single punch will be thrown, at least not with fists. The play is a deeply theatrical and emotionally moving piece about the life of the outsider in American culture. Set in 1910, deep in the midst of Jim Crow, it explores one man’s struggle while reflecting a much broader one. It is also a play about a brother and his sister – his sister, who as he climbs for glory and respect, remains his greatest adversary and strongest motivation.

Silent Sky by Lauren Gunderson, directed by Casey Stangl
10/22/19 – 11/09/19
A celebration of discovery, originality, and curiosity. For the last three seasons, playwright Lauren Gunderson has proudly sat on the list of most produced playwrights in the country. Arizona Theatre Company proudly brings this brilliant and prolific author’s work to the professional stage in Arizona for the first time. Based on the true story of 19th-century astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, astonishing discoveries await as she maps distant stars in galaxies beyond our own. But this brilliant, headstrong pioneer must struggle for recognition in the man’s world of turn-of-the-century astronomy. During this time of immense scientific discoveries, women’s ideas were dismissed until men claimed credit for them. Like the recent film Hidden Figures, Silent Sky shines a bright light on women whose achievements have been too long overlooked by the telescope of history. In this exquisite blend of science, history, family ties, and fragile love, a passionate young woman must map her own passage through a society determined to keep a woman in her place.

Cabaret, based on the book by Joe Masteroff, Music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, directored by Sara Bruner
11/30/19 – 12/29/19
Wilkommen! Bienvenue! Welcome! Cliff Bradshaw, an American author working on a novel in Berlin, encounters Sally Bowles, a talented cabaret performer, at the seedy Kit Kat Klub where she sings. When she is fired by the club’s owner, also her jealous boyfriend, she moves in with Cliff and the two fall in love. As the Nazis begin taking control of the German government, the atmosphere of the Kit Kat Klub and the lives of Cliff and Sally begin to change dramatically. For all the exuberant song and dance, the most powerful aspect of Cabaret remains the political wallop that it delivers. The horror gains momentum around them, as too many characters stay locked in denial or self interest. At its core, Cabaret is a devastating critique of apathy, and a clever and terrifying look at totalitarianism. Cabaret’s powerful story remains remarkably timely nearly 80 years after Isherwood’s original stories were published, which is why the piece continues to resonate with audiences more than 50 years after it debuted.

“Master Harold”…And The Boys by Athol Fugard, directed by Kent Gash
1/18/20 – 2/08/20
A semi-autobiographical masterwork. Of all Athol Fugard’s plays, none is more personal or shatteringly honest than “Master Harold”…And The Boys; because it relates a boyhood incident which involved himself and which haunted him for years until he tried to atone by writing this play. It may take place in South Africa during the early years of apartheid, but its depiction of the ways in which people are capable of hurting even those they love transcends the political landscape of bigotry and oppression that inspired it. The play recounts the long, rainy afternoon that Hally (“Master Harold”) spends with Sam and Willie, two middle-aged African servants of his parents’ household who have cared for seventeen-year-old Hally his whole life. This particular afternoon turns into a profound and life-changing experience for all involved. A stunning masterpiece, one of the most powerful coming-of-age plays ever written, and still timely, still compelling, still profoundly moving.

The Legend of Georgia McBride by Mathew Lopez, directed by Meredith McDonough
3/07/20 – 3/28/20
A big-hearted, FIERCE, music-filled comedy. A theatrical cornucopia of camp, country music, drag, domestic dilemmas, and larger-than-life divas awaits you! Casey is an Elvis impersonator with everything going for him, including a flashy sequin jumpsuit. But just like that he loses his gig, rent is overdue, and his wife announces a baby on the way. So when Elvis leaves the building and a drag show moves in, “The King” transforms into an all-out queen with the help of some new friends who become the second family Casey never saw coming. With snappy zingers and dance-worthy numbers, this wildly entertaining story will challenge your assumptions with extraordinary humor and depth. A valentine to the drag queens who helped mentor the playwright through his own coming out as gay while growing up in Florida, ATC is thrilled to bring you this light and fizzy comedy that’s as sweet as it is hilarious.

Women in Jeopardy! by Wendy MacLeod, directed by Sean Daniels
4/18/20 – 5/09/20
A riotous comedy! Screw the mid-life crisis; let’s solve some crimes! Middle-aged mom Liz has a new man. And let’s face it… he’s just plain creepy. When a mysterious disappearance sets the community on edge, Liz’s best friends leap to the rescue as the zany caper flings them from the ‘burbs’ to the wilds of Utah; because there’s no danger great enough to stop women from solving crimes if they want to! A riotous comedy about trading in wine glasses for spy glasses when the mid-life crisis just isn’t your speed.

American Mariachi is Must-See and Must-Hear

by Leigh Moyer

I took my seat at Arizona Theatre Company’s production of American Mariachi by José Cruz González cautiously optimistic. The cast and crew are predominantly women and/or people of color. The playwright is Mexican American. And, in the bathroom before the performance, there were were people speaking Spanish;  while that isn’t uncommon in Tucson, I haven’t heard much in our theaters– possibly because they don’t always choose plays that have broad appeal or that feature representation on stage. The teaser looked promising: young women mariachis fighting to be allowed to play alongside their male counterparts. It was so, so much more than that.

The show centers on the Morales family: Federico, Amalia, and their daughter, Lucha, struggling to cope with Amalia’s sudden onset dementia. When Lucha and her cousin Boli discover that music brings with it Amalia’s memories, they decide to form a mariachi band to recreate her favorite song. It’s a crazy plan: women can’t play mariachi. Lucha has other responsibilities, namely caring for her mother, her father had forbidden it, and, as it is pointed out in the show, they just can’t be mariachis. As the cousins struggle to build a band anyway (they don’t even own instruments), they learn about themselves, their dreams, and how to honor tradition while fighting for change in la revolución.

Diana Burbano as Amalia, Danny Bolero as Federico, and Christen Celaya as Lucha. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

Diana Burbano as Amalia, Danny Bolero as Federico, and Christen Celaya as Lucha. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

What really struck me about this play was how well it explained feminism, without ever sitting down and spelling it out. The women didn’t want to be better than the men. They didn’t want to take the place of man. They didn’t even really want to forgo their other traditionally expected responsibilities at work or in the home. They just wanted equality via the opportunity to be mariachis. There was never a moment of needing to best the men — the women took their space alongside the men, both in music and in interpersonal issues when cultural expectations often led to uneven power dynamics. While, like in most relationships, there was arguing, the fight for women’s rights took a different approach of forgoing who is more or less right and instead challenging each other to listen and share their burdens.

In an era where the word feminist feels like a battle cry, it was a delight to see the battle of the sexes, at least for a few bars, come to an end.

I cannot say enough about the talent of this cast. It is one thing to tell a story on stage, another to sing and play an instrument while you do it, and something even more impressive to do so going back and forth between English and Spanish and playing mariachi. Excluding the two main characters, every actor doubled up roles and played an instrument to accompany the band. Because yes, there was a mariachi band. And they were stunning. Esteban Dagnino on trumpet, Francisco Javier Molina on violin, Ali Pizarro on vihuela, and Antonio A. Pró on guitarrón were incredibly talented. Additionally, Stephanie Swift Molina on violin was amazing not just at playing and singing, but at bringing heartbreak and joy to the music with the quality of her voice.

This show is cast with talented women (and men). Christen Celaya (Lucha) and Satya Jnani Chavez (Boli) were both instantly likable. They portrayed their parallel but drastically different lives beautifully: best friends and cousins who laugh with, fight, and support each other, sometimes one right after another. Their performances makes the rest of the story believable: Yes, what Lucha and Boli are trying to do is crazy, maybe impossible, but they acknowledge that in a way that admits that they are facing a challenge without forcing us to go along with the world of the story because we have signed up to watch a play. Instead it felt like hearing a story, told by aunties, maybe exaggerated, but based in real life.

Satya Jnani Chavez as Boli and Christen Celaya as Lucha. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

Satya Jnani Chavez as Boli and Christen Celaya as Lucha. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

The five women (Christen Celaya, Satya Jnani Chavez, Alicia Coca, Marlene Montes, and Osiris Cuen) who make up the band, all misfits as much as mariachis, are lovable. Their problems are a million miles away from my own and yet completely relatable. Though I have never tried to form a mariachi band or had to care for an ailing parent or even lived in the 1970s, the way they reacted to their individual challenges was familiar. The reactions and solutions to their problems were so human I could put myself in their position. At times, the characters were a little over the top but each actor was so committed to the role it made their antics feel slightly amplified rather than performative.

Danny Bolero (Federico Morales) had a hard role to play. As the patriarch of a traditional Mexican-American family, he was often rigid and controlling. Bolero masterfully balanced machismo with humanity that left room not only for growth as a character but that made him relatable. I felt deeply for Federico, even when he was arguably being the antagonist holding his daughter back from her dreams and, in a small way, holding women back in traditional roles. His pain, shown only in private moments, was palpable. This is a man fighting to maintain a sense of control in a world he has lost and lost again.  It is another poignant moment where feminism is explained. The toxic masculinity that stems from a misogynist culture, particularly where men are expected to be the breadwinner, the man of the house, macho, robs them of the space to be sensitive, hurting, and to heal.

Coming into the theater, I was a little worried that certain stereotypes would be played upon. And while there were definitely characters too familiar to not be inspired by trope, none felt forced. Accents weren’t jokes. Culture wasn’t a punchline. Being Mexican-American was a part of the story the characters had to tell, not simply a device to move the plot forward.

Staged on a set that moves with the actors to tell the story from living room to hair salon to long-lost memory, the action flows, carried by the music. The story is told through beautiful dialogue. The characters switch between English and Spanish frequently enough to immerse the audience in place but not so much that the story line is lost for viewers who aren’t bilingual. Complementing the dialogue is the music. Each scene is punctuated with the bright, loud, emotion-filled ballads of mariachi music. We follow stories from past to present to past with the strum of the guitar, feel the celebrations and losses in the gritos, and our hearts beat in tempo with the guitarrón. Don’t worry, if you aren’t familiar with the instruments, there is a lesson to keep us, and the heroines, following along. The music is so good it is no surprise that the music director, Cynthia Reifler Flores, is a mariachi violinist herself. (Progress!)

Francisco Javier Molina on violin, Esteban Dagnino on trumpet, Antonio A. Pró on guitarrón, and Ali Pizarro on viheula. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

Francisco Javier Molina on violin, Esteban Dagnino on trumpet, Antonio A. Pró on guitarrón, and Ali Pizarro on viheula. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

The costumes, by Kish Finnegan, are stunning. Character distinction and personality are not lost under the monolith of The 1970s, when the show is set. Instead, we get to know each character a little better through their trousers and protest shirt or prim blouse and skirt or hotpants. But what really blew me away was Tía Carmen. Her dress and hat was a mixture between the mariachi uniform and La Catrina, the archetype of the calaveras that return on to the land of the living on Día de los Muertos. It was beautiful and perfectly augmented with lighting (Carolina Ortiz Herrera) to make her both real as Amalia sees her and as her family might imagine her ghostly presence.

American Mariachi is a story of family, of love, and of tradition. And about how complicated they all are. As a woman trying to find her place in a world that seems to be taking steps backwards instead of forwards, the message hit home for me. And as a Tucsonan, this play was especially meaningful, the music, the set, the Spanglish, all brought back memories of my own, perhaps misplaced, dreams of being a folklorico dancer.

It was refreshing to see a performance with a younger and more diverse audience than I am used to seeing in theaters. Despite some murmurs during the show about not following the Spanish portions, the standing ovation and loud gushing about how wonderful the story and music were from those around me, young and old, white and not, restored some faith that at least in the Tucson theatre community, diversity is appreciated.

See American Mariachi. And when you do, don’t forget to listen. It is a story told in music, after all. American Mariachi runs through Saturday, March 30 at the Temple of Music and Art. Tickets can be purchased online at arizonatheatre.org or by phone (520) 622-2823.