July 18, 2003

In a Time of War, There is Elena

By Raymond R. Beltran

“The performance is the outcome of reality!” is what theater director William Virchis bawls out to the actors who are fitted in swinging 1940s zoot suits. “Find a goal for yourself tonight, and go for it! I want to see you bright and focused,” he continues, while the lights dimmer, the semantics become jazzy, and it’s the summer of 1943 all over again. At least, maybe it is on stage ... or maybe not. Wartime craze and youthful rebelliousness aren’t confined to the history books. And the racism flooding the streets, the people’s needs to grasp onto culture, and the hope for a peaceful future aren’t ancient ideas encapsulated in legends told from zoot suit veteranos either. This could be the “performance coming out of the reality.”

Danny Valdez (left) and Bill Virchis

Currently, this reality-driven performance is due to Sweetwater High School’s Department of Visual and Performing Arts (VAPA) working on it’s premiere, bare bones production of Charles and Luis Aragon’s play Elena. The play is directed by theater veteran William Virchis, and is starring a cast of culturally and professionally diverse actors from Mexico City’s Alejandra de Maria y Campos (The Little Mermaid, and various plays in Mexico) to Teatro Campesino’s Daniel Valdez (Zoot Suit, La Bamba).

The story takes place in L.A.’s Boyle Heights, one of its original barrios, at the climax of World War II. It focuses on Elena Gonzalez (de Maria y Campos), a fifteen-year-old young woman coming of age in an epoch of war, the post-Great Depression era, dealing with the intertwining of Mejicanidad and Americanization. Elena defies the traditional ways of her parents and seeks out a more feminist role in the world while dreaming of being a writer.

“We’re not restricted by ethnicity. It’s talent,” says Virchis. “We’re all involved in politics. This is a play about politics. When a student knows they’re involved in politics, and can go on stage and stand up for what they believe in ... we have a play that deals with that.”

But besides politics, ethnicity and diversity seem to be what the play will also highlight when it premieres. Elena’s best friend is a young woman of Japanese descent in a time when the U.S. government were treating Japanese Americans as enemies of the state. Some of the issues presented in the production don’t stray too much from what we witness in today’s Iraqi war campaign, demonizing Arab Americans on television, government officials detaining them in camps in the east coast, or executing INS tasks such as Operation Game Day during Super Bowl XXXVII. It seems that anyone attending the production need not research too much into the background of the time, but just take a look at what’s happening in the world today and take those experiences with them.

An important factor that had a hand in making the play is one that the audience won’t be able to see on stage, the budget. Elena is what Virchis and Jerry LaRoussa, a retired educator from Sweetwater High School, refer to as a grassroots production. With the California budget cuts in education, this play is heard to have skimmed by spending a mere $10,000, when a production of this caliber is usually a $75,000 deal.

Elena was financially supported by the VAPA’s new theater art’s project, The Summer Institute. This is a summer class-like project available in a variety of schools across San Diego County and its cost are calculated into the involved school’s spending budget. The Summer Institute plans to introduce new and fresh talent to the stage in hopes of launching the careers of local theater artists seriously interested in the business. It will not only unite amateurs and professionals, but will hopefully set the stage for art as a standard curriculum in education that cannot be touched by the current California budget cuts.

“Like algebra speaks to the brain, art speaks to the soul,” says LaRoussa. “We look for a moral in all plays [dealing with] loyalty and family. Coming up with an objective lesson is not hard to do in a serious play ... its history. A history lesson is what we’re doing, because people need to be reminded.”

In this first production, involving the students from The Summer Institute, a variety of schools have been unified to produce Elena (Hilltop High School, Rancho del Rey Middle School, Chula Vista High, Sweetwater High, and others). “There’s something magical about performing, it’s invaluable,” says Virchis. “Our goal is to bring into participation every school in the district, to unite everyone.” LaRoussa and Virchis also highlight the ability that the parents have to see the “fruits of their labor” on stage.

Rarely do parents watch their children actually using the knowledge they acquire at school, and no parents can attend school with their child. So, this project will allow students to act out, on stage, every bit of knowledge and every tool and technique they’ve acquired from The Summer Institute.

Fifteen-year-old Mexico City native Alejandra de Maria y Campos, who plays the star role of Elena, finds that the summer project has been the impetus behind the courage she needs to fulfill her dreams of acting. “They’ve helped me to be a better actress,” she says. “I used to have a lot of self-esteem problems ... This is the first time I’m working with professionals like Mr. Virchis. I was scared at first because he’s firm, but he just knows what he wants, and I’m learning a lot.”

Maria y Campos, who just celebrated her Quinceneria, also sees similarities between her and the character she portrays. “[Elena’s] fifteen, Hispanic and has problems with her parents and her writing,” she says. “They don’t support it, and it’s like the problems I have with my parents and my acting ... It makes me focus.” It seems that with the goals of The Summer Institute and Maria y Campos’ search for support, this production should bind the two ends between her career goals and her parents’ opposition.

Much like her own similarities, Maria y Campos goes on to recognize the parallelism between the 40s and today. “It’s a great history lesson. They would deport Mexican Americans and put the Japanese Americans in camps, but it’s also about friendship and love and things that I took for granted. It was different back then, but people are still being discriminated against like Muslim people who had nothing to do with [Sept. 11].” She says she’s witnessed some of the backlash from denigrated Arab Americans at Sweetwater High School and how they would become targets for other student’s ridicule. “I would see it on the street, and it would upset me. [Elena] shows how back then it was the Japanese, and it’s not right.”

She admits that she’s turned the other cheek when it comes to incidents of discrimination, but since the production of this premiere play, she seems to have the power of expression as well as the center of the stage in her first leading role in a performance of this caliber. With the knowledge she will acquire through this project, she plans to continue her education in acting at UCLA or UC Santa Barbara.

Elena is a musical drama that premiered on Thursday July 17, 2003 at 7 p.m in Ruth Chapman Performing Arts Center at Eastlake High School. The play will also be performed on July 18, 19 at 7 p.m., and there will be one last performance on Sunday July 20 at 2 p.m.

The play seems to be a blast from the past with zoot suiters, duck tailed hairdos and dancing, although, the politics embedded in the storyline should bring the audience back into the realm of 2003. So, the question should be, without technological advancements, how much has our world, our society, our governments changed? How have we changed as U.S. citizens? If we haven’t, and if the “performance is [really] the outcome of reality” as Virchis says it is, maybe we’ll be able to look at Elena Gonzalez to see how change is accomplished.

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