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Luis Alfaro rewrites Oedipus Rex for our multicultural era
In Oedipus El Rey, Luis Alfaro's contemporary take on Sophocles's tragedy of patricide and incest currently playing at the Public Theater, the titular character is a recently released convict who finds himself in a "kingdom" of drugs, violence, and Chicano gangs in L.A. And Jocasta? Abused by her husband, she is a lonely woman of deep faith who finds love with Oedipus, a man who challenges her beliefs.
This isn't the first time Mexican-American Alfaro -- a playwright, director, teacher, social activist, and MacArthur "Genius Grant" winner -- has reimagined an ancient Greek drama through his cultural lens. In 2004 he wrote Electricidad: A Chicano Take on the Tragedy of Electra, and this past spring Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles opened at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival where he is the Mellon Playwright in Residence.
The California-born son of farmworkers, Alfaro is one of many artists of color using classics as a springboard for their own storytelling. Earlier this year, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins transformed the medieval morality play Everyman into Everybody at Signature Theatre Company, and Homer's The Odyssey was the inspiration for Suzan-Lori Parks's Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) . "I think it's in the water," says Alfaro, who adds that working with iconic texts allows modern-day playwrights to fuse the personal with the universal. "We are channeling these works and translating them to our times. They're helping me wrestle with larger cultural and big-scale issues: life, death, love in 90 minutes -- you get it all."
Chay Yew, who directs Oedipus El Rey, says updating these narratives helps keep them relatable. "Oftentimes when we see a classic play, a lot of people of color don't see themselves in these works," he says. Nontraditional casting doesn't necessarily solve that problem, but reinterpreting the tales with a specific ethnic perspective can. "Luis has claimed the story as his own," Yew says.
Oedipus El Rey, which is part of The Sol Project, an initiative to spotlight Latinx theatre artists, opens with a chorus of incarcerated men chronicling the protagonist's journey from prison to South Central L.A. The play makes a clear connection between the original characters' inevitable destiny and these prisoners' inescapable fate. "The big thing for Luis is the prison system in America," says Yew, "How do we get out of this cycle for these men? It's basically about the American system, asking the question, 'How can one person become his own person if the system continually defeats him?'"
It's not for lack of trying says Alfaro. "I love that Oedipus says, 'Don't you realize I want to write my own story?' When he says that I think of every rapper who has said the same thing -- someone who is trying to invent himself for his generation and for the world they live in."
Yew admits that being overly faithful to the source material can be a trap when creating new work. "You cannot let Oedipus's shadow hover over this play," he says. "What you're having is a conversation with the play, and sometimes it's great to veer off because there are some wonderful moments in that freedom."
Indeed, certain events that occur offstage in Sophocles's original are front and center in Alfaro's version, such as Oedipus meeting, confronting, falling for, and sleeping with Jocasta. Tellingly, that's the first scene Alfaro wrote. "I wanted to make it a love story, however transgressive a love story it may be," he says. "These are some especially wounded souls, empty and needy."
Both Yew and Alfaro aren't worried that audiences will likely know where the show is going. In fact, Yew says that actually makes the play more powerful. "There's this beautiful feeling that it's all inevitable, and you're going, 'Oh, no!'" he says. "The audience, like the gods, knows how it will play out, which makes it all the more tragic to witness."
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Top image: Joel Perez and Sandra Delgado in Oedipus El Rey. Photos by Joan Marcus