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Luck of The Latin

Photo by Pat Kirk

'Magica Man': Playwright Octavio Solis

'La Posada Magica' playwright Octavio Solis wants to be more than a Latino role model

By Jean Schiffman

"I'm the black sheep of the family," laughs playwright Octavio Solis, whose richly varied works feature Latino characters and themes filtered through a Mexican-American sensibility. "I'm 37 and just had my first baby. I'm doing what I want, and I'm not doing it for the money. I'm very lucky." Luck perhaps, talent definitely and hard work indeed.

Clearly exhausted after watching a late preview of his bittersweet Christmas play, La Posada Magica, currently running at San José Repertory Theatre, Solis, to his embarrassment, is still in his bathrobe; he's forgotten the early morning interview scheduled at his San Francisco house.

His lapse is understandable. Solis is simultaneously writing plays on commission (for American Conservatory Theater, San Diego Repertory Theatre, South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa and San Francisco's tiny Thick Description, of which he is an ensemble member) and directing his own play, Prospect, for a Magic Theatre production opening in January. He is preparing to fly down to South Coast Rep to help oversee the opening of a simultaneous production of Posada.

Polite and almost courtly, Solis points out the brightly painted mural of Mission Dolores on an upper panel that circles the dining-room wall. Did he paint it himself? No, it was coincidence. Or luck. The mural was there when he moved in. It blends in with his ceramic Mexican pottery and colorful tin-framed photos.

Solis, who comes from a Spanish-speaking family in El Paso, Texas (his parents, both native Mexicans, were short-order cooks), began taking acting classes in high school simply as a way to avoid team sports. He pursued his interest in acting in college and went on to get an MFA at Trinity University in San Antonio. To provide a showcase for his talents, he produced an ongoing series of short plays at clubs in Dallas and soon noticed that there was more of a demand for his writing than for his acting.

"Having been an actor," he says, "I know actors need dialogue that sounds as true to the style of the work as possible. That doesn't mean it has to sound like the way people really talk. As a matter of fact, those kinds of plays are often the flattest."

The opening lines of Santos & Santos, his multilayered play about the tragic downfall of a family of Chicano lawyers, demonstrates his gift for a language that is almost hyperrealistic, reminiscent of both David Mamet and Sam Shepard:

    Tomas: Mi padre. Don Miguel Santos Carrillo. From the town of Concordia in the state of Sinaloa, Mexico. Known for its finely crafted furniture. A craft he smuggled across hundreds of miles to El Paso, USA. Santos Furniture Emporium.

    Don Miguel: The grain of the wood pulses toward the north.

    Tomas: His old tattoo of a heart torn at the valves glistens on his sweaty arm.

    Don Miguel: Mijo ...

    Tomas: Coming back. My home. In this man, all the needs of the earth.

    Don Miguel: Use only one thing, from this moment on and forever till the stars cave in and the rivers run dry and the land refuses any seed. Use only this and nothing else, mijo.

    Tomas: Qué, Papa?

    Don Miguel: Lemon Pledge.

Like all of Solis' plays, Santos & Santos combines humor and tragedy. Solis recognizes his own ability to veer from the sacred (Posada) to the profane (Prospect, which takes place on a single evening of debauchery).

"There are at least two Octavios," says Tony Kelly, artistic director of Thick Description. "He's got a wonderful theatrical imagination that runs toward action movies and pulp fiction, but then he gets excited about the disruptions and private moments within the story so he becomes a playwright of ideas. There's also the children's theater work, where a real sweetness will come in too."

Solis' playwriting career began in earnest in 1988 when a small theater company in Dallas commissioned him to write a play about Day of the Dead and Don Juan. In the resulting Man of the Flesh, Solis' Don Juan seduces, kills and is ultimately claimed by Death herself in a final orgasmic moment. It began a pattern for Solis, of writing plays on commission, often on specific themes, such as La Posada Magica.

"When I was asked to write a Christmas play, I had to look at the holiday dead in the eye," says Solis. "You write a play about Day of the Dead, you write about death. You write a play about Christmas, you deal with the birth of Christ, although a lot of people do Frosty the Snowman stories."

La Posada Magica is structured around the humorous, sad, sometimes frightening, ultimately triumphant quest of a group of posadistas and the bad apple in their midst, a hostile and despondent teenager named Gracie. (Solis chose the name and therefore the sex of the character because, he says, "Christmas is about grace").

In the traditional posada (which means "inn" in Spanish), costumed members of the community form a festive musical procession and go door to door on each of the eight days before Christmas, recreating Mary and Joseph's pilgrimage, arriving at the church on Christmas Eve. "My Christmas was not the Martha Stewart Christmas dinner thing," explains Solis. "It was family, community, coming together, going to mass, the posada."

Despite the Latino flavor of his plays, Solis considers himself a spokesman for neither his raza nor his generation. "In Posada, my characters all have middle-class jobs, they are dry cleaners, they work in flower shops, they're security guards. That's because I am writing from my background," he says.

"If I'd had an agrarian, rural background, then I'd write from that. Luis Valdez writes out of his strong alliance with the United Farm Workers, and it's marvelous, fantastic. Others write out of an urban setting, New York or Chicago.

"I can't speak for my people, because they're so different, they're as varied as the rest of America. Frankly, a lot of the portraits I'm presenting of people of Latino background are unflattering. In Santos & Santos, they are cunning lawyers who are involved in murder and mayhem. Man of the Flesh was troublesome because some people felt I was perpetrating a Latin-lover stereotype."

Solis finishes his thought by explaining, "To me, the best way to tell a story with any kind of meaning is to show somebody who goes against the values we all believe in. All my characters are fallen in some way. None of my characters are model citizens. That means I can't be a model."

Nevertheless, Solis is firmly committed to writing plays that have roles for Latino actors. "There are so many good actors out there who are not getting work," he explains. "There is no Latino program on TV, not one. In 20 or 30 years, the majority population in California will be Latino, as it will in Texas, and then things will change because the people in power will be Latino."

Is he worried about being pigeonholed as a "Latino writer"? No, for the same reasons that local poet Gary Soto recently gave in an interview: "I'm just too busy with more important things." But, he says, "I have to be realistic about the fact that a lot of the reason I've gotten work [as a playwright] is that I'm Latino, or because I'm a good Latino writer. At the same time, if my plays are terrible, nobody's doing me any favors by producing them."

Besides, he goes on, "[Bay Area playwright] Cherrie Moraga said this, and I found it to be true: What makes a play universal is its specificity. It's like when I go to see a play by [African American playwright] August Wilson. I wasn't brought up with the blues, or in a household with August Wilson's characters, but I recognize these people, they're my people too."

He is concerned, however, that American audiences are missing out on a huge body of non-European material. "People say that a literary education is just about learning about a bunch of dead white people, like Homer, Virgil, Dante, who don't speak to African Americans or Latinos or Asians today. I think they do. At the same time, though, I think there are masters who are working in Asia, in Africa, who are talking to everybody."

On a recent trip to South America, he discovered a wealth of plays that North Americans don't know about. "People [in the United States] are translating Russian works, Polish works, German works, because everybody thinks that's the Motherland," he says. "But that reduces history to a very linear progression. There are concurrent thing happening in different parts of the globe and in different cultures, and you can see amazing parallels that arise among them. It's an acknowledged fact that the world center of the novel is now Mexico City."

Solis is strongly influenced by certain novelists, particularly Carlos Fuentes, Vladimir Nabokov and Italian writer Italo Calvino. "I wish my next play could have the satirical, nasty sort of quality that Nabokov has," he says wistfully. "But there's an idealistic, moralistic quality to my work that I just can't shed. I'm such a Catholic. If you're Catholic, you're Catholic. Even if you don't go to services or to mass week to week, it's so much a part of your upbringing and your orientation, it informs everything you do."

It is time now to greet his baby, waking up shyly from her nap. No, he did not name her Gracie after the central character in La Posada Magica. His wife chose the name, completely independently, from a book. Surely this is a good omen for the gifted Solis, who appears to be on a well-deserved lucky streak.

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From the Dec. 21-27, 1995 issue of Metro

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