Hispanics note gains in theater - and shortfalls. Talents of this minority termed well-kept `secret'

Like the women's liberation movement, Hispanic theater has come a long way in the last 22 years, says Jorge Huerta, one of its leading proponents. Fighting for funding and recognition at professional, community, and university levels, Hispanics throughout the United States have been writing more plays and getting them produced and published in recent years. Hispanic theater groups and workshops have long since been formed.

Among the most notable is El Teatro de la Esperanza, which began in Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1969 and moved to San Francisco in 1971.

And Teatro del Campesino was started in 1965 in San Juan Bautista, south of San Francisco, on Monterey Bay.

``There is a movement afoot, but we're still one of the best-kept secrets in North American theater,'' says Mr. Huerta, artistic advisor of Teatro Meta, an Hispanic development theater project at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego.

Huerta spoke as the Los Angeles Theater Center (LATC) closed out its eighth theater festival in late February with a symposium entitled, ``Do We Have To Show You Our Stinking Badges? - Hispanic Theatre in the 1990s.'' (The symposium title was borrowed from a play staged at the center last year.)

The LATC brought together five of the most prominent national artists and directors creating Hispanic theater in some of the country's major theaters. Those included Jos'e Cruz Gonzales, director of the Hispanic Playwrights' Project; David Emmes, artistic director of Costa Mesa's South Coast Repertory Theatre; Jos'e Luis Valenzuela, director of the festival's ``La Victima''; Bill Bushnell of LATC; Huerta; and Jim Leverett of the Theatre Communications Group, an umbrella organization for about 300 theaters.

The tradition of Hispanic theater in the US goes back to April 30, 1598, near El Paso, Texas, said Huerta, who holds a PhD in Chicano literature. ``But the hundreds of years of Spanish theater presence have been totally ignored by historians.''

Huerta, editor of two Chicano drama anthologies, began researching the subject in 1970. ``I realized the only time I could read about our theater and its history was to read folk literature - because we were always considered folksy - or to read in Spanish-language journals and newspapers, because that's where we were covered.'' Huerta says this is a trend that, unfortunately, continues today.

In 1920 Los Angeles supported at least nine professional Spanish-language theaters, even though there were far fewer Hispanic residents in the city than today. That date also coincided with a rich influx of Cubans and Puerto Ricans on the East Coast, where there were 120 theaters in the New York City/New Jersey metropolitan area alone, he says.

In 1965 Mexican-American writer Luis Valdez - appalled by disunity and fragmentation - launched the ``Chicano Theater Movement'' as a call to Hispanic/Chicano playwrights, actors, directors, and producers to ``get their act together,'' Huerta said. ``Since then, we've come to the point where we can talk about Chicano theater infiltrating the mainstream.''

Huerta cited a sobering statistic: Of 185 theaters recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts, only 5 are Hispanic. He turned to the panel for examples of venues where Hispanics can work.

Mr. Bushnell said his eight-year-old company's commitments to Hispanic theater - despite initial attempts to reflect the makeup of his L.A. audience - were usually ``ad hoc.'' For one thing, he let his assistant, Mr. Valenzuela, develop a Latino actors lab. Valenzuela's energy and commitment led to the current season's extended bilingual hit, ``La Victima.''

``How many times have we heard there are no good Latino actors?'' asked Valenzuela, who spent the better part of a year finding and developing his cast of 11. ``But there are some very good actors all over, who just need to be developed and nurtured.''

On the heels of the ``La Victima'' success, LATC's Latino workshop is hiring six professional actors to create another Latino play for next season.

Mr. Leverett of the Theatre Communications Group (TCG) lauded recent nationwide initiatives by Actors Equity to promote ``nontraditional casting'' and encourage the use of Hispanic, black, Asian, and other minorities on stage. He spoke of an American theater rediscovering itself and its fundamental difference from television and film.

``These influences from other parts of the world are the key to that rediscovery,'' he said. He also spoke of the Hispanic Theater Project formed by TCG.

``We did it, not out of charity for the Hispanic population, but for our own selfish selves - to bring material into our theater to enliven it,'' he said.

David Emmes and Mr. Gonzalez told how Costa Mesa's South Coast Repertory Theatre (SCR) took an existing program to present new American plays and turned it into a project to support Hispanic playwrights. The Hispanic Playwright's Project was launched two years ago when the theater advertised for Latino-written manuscripts and received more than 100 from all areas of the country. With input from the community - plus a series of readings using the talents of professional actors, directors, and producers - organizers selected nine playwrights to nurture in workshops. Readings produced by those workshops were so successful in bringing in the community's Hispanic population that it led to an extended workshop this year.

``The writers learned a lot, and so did SCR,'' said Gonzalez. ``We found this is a good forum for writers to get exposure.'' Plays from new writers are scheduled for April and November and a third play has been commissioned.

Huerta added that the San Diego Repertory company - in order to attract Hispanic playwrights - is now scheduling the reading of an Hispanic play every six weeks. The panelists agreed that the problems of Hispanic theater would be more likely solved if more theaters embraced those writers and actors in regular-season productions, rather than experimental projects.

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