WHAT'S a musical about Jackson Pollack doing in the Festival Latino? That's a question playwright Michael Alasa is getting tired of hearing. He sighs and explains once more, ``I'm a Cuban-American writer, and I guess the directors of the festival liked my script about Pollack, even tough it doesn't have a `Latin' theme.''
Mr. Alasa's musical, ``Peggy and Jackson,'' examines the relationship between the artist and his patron, Peggy Guggenheim. It's one of seven plays being offered in this year's Festival Latino, running through Aug. 20 here at Joseph Papp's Public Theatre.
``I'm a second-generation immigrant - that's what makes the difference,'' says Alasa. ``I have a completely different background than Hispanic writers of my parents' generation. They were in a new country searching for their roots. Their writing was - and I hate to use this term - `ghetto-ized.'
``I have different concerns. I'm worried about how the US Congress is defining laws governing the National Endowment for the Arts that dictate what is appropriate content in art. But I'm still a Cuban-American.''
Alasa is the managing director of Duo Theatre, a company based in Manhattan which has a unique purpose: to commission and produce musicals by Hispanic writers. ``I don't like to pigeonhole my writers. If their work is good and they're Hispanic, I don't care what the theme is.''
``Peggy and Jackson is the first half of an evening's program which has another Duo Theatre musical, ``Adios, Tropicana,'' as its companion piece. Written by Chuck Gomez, also a second-generation Cuban-American, ``Adios, Tropicana'' takes place at the moment when a nightclub showgirl and her mother must decide whether to grab the chance to escape Cuba.
``It's about the exile experience,'' explains Mr. Gomez, who is a TV news reporter when he's not a playwright. ``This actually happened to one of my relatives in Cuba - a young woman who had to decide whether to leave Havana during the 1980 Mariel boat lift. Her aunt was a conservative person, the president of her local communist organization, and the two had a terrible conflict over leaving.''
``Adios, Tropicana'' sets its story about this somber question within the glitter of a nightclub, Havana's famous Tropicana, which ``to this day is kept exactly the same,'' Gomez says with a laugh. ``They have the old tango dances, the old Cuban songs, the old moth-eaten dresses - even some of the same old showgirls. It's a symbol of Cuba's glamour days. Castro wants to keep it that way.''
The two Duo musicals are in English. Most of the rest of the festival is in Spanish, with simultaneous translation over earphones available at many performances. This is the Public Theatre's 13th summer of celebrating Latin art, and it's a real fiesta of diversity, with plays, readings, films, concerts, and television. Theater offerings range from a political pantomime to an expressionistic fable, to a dark adaptation of a Shakespeare comedy.
And playgoers holding a secret conviction that Latin theater is mostly dreary propaganda plays will be surprised by the festival.
``Propaganda theater is not good theater,'' contends Oscar Ciccone, a native of Argentina who is one of the directors of the festival. ``We choose mature companies - the most interesting theater we can find in Latin America. These companies have done away with propaganda many years ago.''
That doesn't mean there isn't any political theater on the program. Far from it. ``There are very serious situations in many of these countries, and the plays express that,'' Mr. Ciccone explains. ``We pick plays which reflect the national experience - not simply entertainment pieces - and each country is very different.''
Columbia is a good example. ``It has the strongest political theater in all of Latin America right now,'' claims Ciccone. ``Columbia has beeen in a guerrilla-army war for 20 years, and this has radicalized the artists. They just can't ignore it. Add to that the giant problem of drug traffickers, and we have `El Paso o Par'abola del Camino' [``The Way, or the Parable of the Street''], which is about how people suffer under the weight of these three forces.''
The pressure in Columbia seems to have literally affected the art by compressing and localizing it. ``Columbian theater is very distinct from that of other Latin countries,'' Ciccone continues. ``It is very collaborative ..., and it has been for the last couple of decades. It uses almost nothing from European traditions.''
Chilean theater, on the other hand, has splintered, ``inventing many different forms for expressing what was happening under Pinochet,'' Ciccone comments. ``The theater in Chile broke with convention when Pinochet came into power 15 years ago.'' Chile's play in the festival, ``No +'' (``No More'') is a striking piece of mime that takes place in a classroom as students confront their teacher's authority.
```No more!' was the slogan for years against Pinochet - it was scrawled all over the buildings,'' Ciccone explains, ``and now that he is on his way out, the people of Chile must unify many different opinions and decide what they want next.''
Perhaps one of the high points of the festival is a Venezuelan allegory play based on a short story by Gabriel Garc'ia M'arquez. ``El Coronel No Tiene Quien Le Escriba'' (``No One Writes to the Colonel'') tells of an elderly military officer who has been waiting for decades in a rainy port town for his promised pension.
The only thing left to him, other than his mouldering shack, is his dead son's prize-winning rooster, and the Colonel clings to the hope that he can get through three months without starving so his rooster can compete in an important fight. ``Life is the best thing they invented in this world'' is the Colonel's philosophy.
The production demonstrates Venezuela's sophistication, with a fluid set that's both decrepit and beautiful, direction that's precise and dramatic, and sudden tropical downpours that create moments of visual poetry.
``Latin America has a feeling of magic to me,'' adds Ciccone. ``We look for plays which have that sense of magic, that hare highly visual, that are filled with images and ideas.''
Jackson Pollack doesn't seem so out of place after all.