Latino Theater with a Political Bent

For over 17 years, the Latino Theater Company has been a vital part of the Los Angeles performing-arts community.

But for the decisive and outspoken José Luis Valenzuela—LAC’s founder and current artistic director—he wants it to do more than entertain. 

Valenzuela— who also works as a theater professor at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television—feels that to effect real change, both in the theater and outside of it, “Much of the work that has to be done has to be the presentation that, as Mexicans, that we have great Mexican scientists, doctors, astronauts…that we want to make sure that the world knows," he said. "An important conversation needs to happen about use of this issue politically.”

Originally founded in 1985 within the former Los Angeles Theatre Center, Valenzuela’s creation was originally dubbed the Latino Theater Lab, and has showcased some truly groundbreaking productions. Valenzuela says that his inspiration was “the idea that we could make an ensemble company within a bigger theater that was basically for Latino actors. Our main goal was to create more work to the Latino creative community.”

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Though the theater has faced a number of financial and logistical challenges—most recently, it won a battle with the L.A. City Council to retain its lease—it is well-respected within the city’s Latino artistic world.

Emmy and Golden Globe–winning actor Edward James Olmos says, of the Latino Theater Company’s play Hope—Part II of a Mexican Trilogy, which ran in late-2011, “This was one of the most exciting shows I’ve seen in the theater in a long time. I thank Evelina Fernández for writing it, I thank José Luis Valenzuela for directing it, and I thank the Latino Theater Company for presenting it. This play was like nothing else I've ever experienced, and they did a fantastic job!”

Some of the Latino Theater Company’s most notable productions include August 29th, Roosters, The Promise, La Victima, and Noche de Risa y Susto (Die Laughing), and its annual Day of the Dead fundraising event. Valenzuela and his company also founded the New Voices Playwriting Series that has supported work by many Latino playwrights.

One of Valenzuela’s most popular productions was of Luminarias, a play that, in 2000, was adapted into the celebrated feature film starring Cheech Marin, Scott Bakula, Lupe Ontiveros, and several Latino Theater Company members.

The LAC is as beloved by the working class of Los Angeles is it is among award-winning actors. One of the Latino Theater Company’s most popular events is their annual family-beloved Spanish-language production of the pageant play, La Virgen de Guadalupe, Dios Inantzin. It’s a holiday tradition, and is presented free to the public—promoting access to the arts for working-class families—at the downtown Los Angeles Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

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When asked how his heritage has influenced his work, Valenzuela says, “I am second-generation Mexican and it informs my work a lot. In theater, you are trying to create community.”

Valenzuela’s background clearly inspires the work of the Latino Theater Company. What he loves best about his career, he says, is “I get to see communication between the stage and the audience and dialogue that really moves people—it’s magical.”

However, the theater—especially with Valenzuela at its helm—is a living thing, not content to rest on its laurels, and is always engaged in advancing culturally and politically.

What’s the next challenge that the director has set for the company?

“We feel that we’ve become established here in L.A.,” says Valenzuela. “Now, we are more open to work from other cultures, especially other minorities. L.A. is such a beautiful city and is so diverse; the arts are truly great communicators.”

Visit the Latino Theater Company’s Web site at: Their newest play, Charity, opens May 11; it traces the history of the Mexican immigration into the U.S. from 1910 (the plays Faith and Hope came before, and this is the third of the trilogy).

Laura Vogel is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

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