In his book Retablos, Octavio Solis reminds us that as we grow older, memories from our growing up become vignettes that replay over and again – sometimes as poignant reminders of who we are and why are we, sometimes as teachers of what we can still become, and often just as precious gems to be take in silently, reflectively. And while his stories have many universal themes that cut across all cultures and backgrounds – seeing your parent cry the first time, being half frightened out of your mind as a kid of a supposed ghost, that first dance when your feet can barely move– the subtitle of Octavio Solis’ memoir adds a particular growing up flavor that the majority of us has not experienced: Stories from a Life Lived Along the Border. In his Retablos, much-acclaimed author and playwright Octavio Solis paints vivid pictures with visceral emotional components of what it is like to be a first-generation, brown boy whose heritage is Mexico and who grows up in the border city of El Paso, Texas.
From the book’s original fifty chapters, Word for Word has selected twelve to perform in their unique style of transforming the printing page into live action on the stage, leaving out nothing but the punctuation. Performed in their intimate home of Z Space, the world premiere Retablos: Stories from a Life Lived Along the Border becomes part of a dreamscape that plays out before us where seemingly random memories blend to form a discernible arc to help us to see who Octavio Solis is as an adult and why. Watching these moments unfold of his earlier life, we cannot help but reflect on our own lives with both fond and pained memories. At the same time, those of us who are not brown, black or something other than white, we soon realize more clearly perhaps than ever before that Octavio Solis’ growing up years were packed with heritages and histories, challenges and triumphs that we in the so-called majority did not experience but now need to understand, appreciate, and honor in order to know ourselves even better.
A cast of eight highly talented individuals plays a host of roles as the twelve vignettes unfold – each actor often switching ages, sexes, and even races from scene to scene or even within scenes. At the same time, at any one moment each may pass quickly in the background and off-handedly insert phrases such as “and then she said” or “turning to her, he remarked.” The result is a flow that becomes mesmerizing, like once a long time ago when your mom read to you as your eyes were closed and you imagined the story she was reading coming to full life in your own mind’s magical screen.
The evening begins with a grown Octavio unpacking a bag in a house where he lived thirty years prior. He sees his thirteen-year-old self and immediately begins to watch a moment in time when he first saw both his parents cry – a bawling that from a young boy’s eyes resembles a guffawing. He remembers thinking as this young teen, “I think this is a holy moment.” He also sets the scene for us of what is to come by reminding us that scenes like this are “revealed for those who need to remember them” – “to remind me I have lived this much because of them.” As we will soon see, “them” includes his parents, his grandmother, and an old lady serving as their housekeeper as well as boys in the ‘hood, a girl with polio at a dance, and the generosities of a local priest and a Jew.
The stunning impact of a Word for Word production can best be illustrated by a quick examination of just one of these eight actor’s evening. We first get a glance of Maria Candelaria as the weeping mom in the opening chapter, “Retablos.” She returns as her own mother, Mamá Concha, in “The Way Over,” protesting with pounding fists the possible marriage of her sixteen-year-old daughter before humbly blessing the union when it becomes clear there is a baby – who turns out to be Octavio – on the way. That baby becomes the “anchor” for his mom to convince a sympathetic INS officer (yes, there were such, at least in the past) to let his father stay in the U.S. after they have crossed the near-by border to live in El Paso.
Turn the page, and Maria Candelaria is now one of the most memorable characters of the two-hour evening (with one intermission) – a slightly bent-over tank of a woman, Consuelo, who serves as Octavio’s family’s housekeeper. In a matter of a few silent moments, we learn some of the values that must have shaped Octavio as we watch the dignity and determination Consuelo employs in sweeping the floor; the majesty of her sitting in her humble room and meditatively combing her long, silver hair; and the reverence of her entire being as she eats a moldy apple that the young Octavio earlier discarded and that she now tastes as it were a holy sacrament.
Imagine going from that image to Ms. Candelaria now appearing as a Chicano border police officer who is quick to harass with her white colleague a teenage Octavio who happens to be wearing a red t-shirt – the same color one worn by another brown-skinned boy who has allegedly crossed the border illegally and is being sought by the officer. The way this equally brown-skinned officer spits out, “Barely,” when the young Octavio desperately explains, “I’m an American” is chilling. The exchange also becomes a harsh but seminal moment of the boy’s maturity as he realizes that the image he sees of his red shirt in this officer’s reflective glasses is also the image of the brown-skinned boy she seeks: “I am the guy in red … I am he and he is me.”
Maria Candelaria will transform into a number of other, memorable characters from a weeping ghost in “La Llorona” to Octavio’s mom as he as an adult revisits in a car ride the neighborhood where they once lived (“El Segundo”). Those memories flood over his mom in one of the most moving of all the twelve scenes as she recalls while crying uncontrollably a compassionate parish priest who once saved her family – including the baby Octavio – from starving.
Tracing each of the cast members through their many parts would lead to as impressive array of roles as varied as the many Maria Candelaria undertakes. That priest in the last story is played by Ryan Tasker who in “El Judío” is also a shy Jewish businessman who makes low-interest loans to poor Mexican-American immigrants when no bank will give them a penny. He later is a too-proud statue of the abhorrent conquistador, Don Juan De Oñate, who once conquered and destroyed a civilization of Octavio’s and all Mexican-Americans’ ancestors.
Octavio himself is portrayed repeatedly in his younger self by Edie Flores who demonstrates so stunningly the curiosity, the adventuresome nature, the shyness, and the magical ah-ha’s of a teenager who is both universal in his reactions to teenage boys everywhere while also very particular to a brown-skin boy named Octavio in 1960s and ‘70s El Paso. Octavio’s adult self is played by Brady Morales-Woolery, Gendell Hernández, and Gabriel Montoya – each bringing special nuances of a young man reflectively watching and commenting as well as reenacting the scenes of his life. An especially powerful scene (“Mexican Apology”) occurs when Gabriel Montoya’s Octavio reluctantly joins a father he no longer is comfortable being around due to past difficulties (Gendell Hernández) as the father finds a way to apologize and ask forgiveness, using a language that does not make saying “I am sorry” easy to do in a direct way.
Playing sisters, cousins, girls dressed in their finest layers at a quinceañera; Octavio’s mamá and abuela; and various other parts ranging from a mysterious singer to an angry protestor are Carla Gallardo and Regina Morones. The entire cast is provided sensitive and inspired direction by co-directors Sheila Balter and Jim Cave, who also ensure that the split-second timing necessary for all Word for Word productions is executed with seemingly flawless accuracy.
The simple, scenic elements of Nina Ball capture the struggling economic level of Octavio’s growing up as well as well as the environment of the El Paso region. Her pallet of colors reflects both the beauty and harshness of the desert surroundings while the backdrop scene created by Vola Ruben captures the majesty of the nearby mountains and the vastness of the sky overhead. Callie Floor’s costumes provide the color and flavor of the many persona portrayed while also allowing sometimes a mere hint of a character to be filled in by the acting prowess of the actors themselves. David R. Molina’s sound and music design plays a major role in setting and completing scenes as does the lighting designed by Jeff Rowlings.
How can one not walk out of Z Space and this fabulously insightful and moving Word for Word production and not want to rush immediately to City Lights Bookstore to purchase a copy of the full fifty chapters of Octavio Solis’ Retablos: Stories from a Life Lived Along the Border?
Upon leaving, the audience member has a chance to see a real “retablo,” an artistic rendering of a dire event from one’s life where resolution occurs, often attributed to divine intervention. Susana Aragón (http://www.susanaaragon.art/) has created such a retablo, inspired from the chapter “El Mero Mero” found in the original book. The retablo (see accompanying picture) is being auctioned as a fund-raiser for Word for Word. To make a bid, contact Susan Harloe at email@example.com.
Rating: 5 E
Retablos: Stories from a Life Lived Along the Border has closed due to COVID-19.
Photo Credits: Lorenzo Fernandez-Kopec