Sunday, April 21, 2013

Rudolfo Anaya's "Rosa Linda"

Mario Moreno, Ashley Weingardt, and Carmela Roybal in Rudolfo Anaya's "Rosa Linda," a co-production of the National Hispanic Cultural Center and the Vortex Theatre, Albuquerque, NM, April 19-21, 2013
Rudolfo Anaya is a New Mexico institution and one of the premiere Chicano literary lights in the country; I think the term used to describe him and his works is "beloved" -- when he's not being honored as "El Maestro." He's a delightful elder quite apart from his literary works, and I don't doubt that's part of his staying power. His continuing creative output is a testament to his endurance as well as his literary talent and skill.

The world premiere of his new play, "Rosa Linda" opened last Friday at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, and we saw it this afternoon.

This was, of course, something of a special event for us as in a previous life I was producing director at a theater I co-founded in California which specialized in the premieres of new works by women and people of color. We never did a Rudolfo Anaya work, but we were certainly familiar with him and his oeuvre, and since we've moved to New Mexico, we've had a chance to meet him and get to know more of his work.

Anaya was born in Pastura, NM, but raised in Santa Rosa. Though he has a highly developed rural New Mexico sensitivity and sensibility, he's not really a country boy, and at least to my mind, he seems to know it. Santa Rosa is not a big town by any means, but it's nothing like Pastura -- which is little more than a couple of streets by the Santa Fe railroad tracks hosting a handful of tin-roofed tumble down buildings. Santa Rosa's a big city by comparison.

Santa Rosa is on the edge of the Llano Escatado  -- the Palisaded Plains -- that's mostly in Texas. It's ranch and cattle country, not unlike the area in New Mexico where we've settled, though its elevation isn't nearly as high. The landscape can be varied.

"Rosa Linda" is set somewhere near the llano and Santa Rosa in 1900 when change was the order of the day in New Mexico, as the Anglos consolidated their political power and economic control -- in part by dispossessing the Hispanic landowners. The land rights story here is, if anything, more fraughtful than that of California.

The play is set on the Augustin's rural ranch, and the action takes place both at the ranch house and at the river -- one assumes it's the Pecos -- where "Los Turcos" are encamped. My only previous encounter with "Turcos" in the context of a Spanish language entertainment was a character called "El Turco" -- a Syrian tradesman -- in a Columbian telenovela. Turns out in Rudolfo's conception, the Turcos are Mexican Gypsies who have been allowed to stay on the ranch and trade with the locals and provide entertainment from time to time for many years.

The story of "Rosa Linda" can be characterized as a more or less standard Hispanic story of "amor prohibido" one of the biggest drivers of Spanish story-telling for hundreds of years. In this case, Rosa, has returned to the ranch from her convent-school in Santa Fe (which would be the well-known Academy of Our Lady of Light school once located nearby Bishop Lamy's cathedral.) She has been followed by one Ramon whom she met in Santa Fe and with whom she has had something of a chaste (one assumes) dalliance.

When Ramon visits Rosa at the ranch, Rosa's father, Augustin becomes enraged that she would invite a male friend to come over without his permission, and he drives Ramon away.

The plot thickens as Rosa attempts to assert herself against the wishes of both her parents and her grandmother, and in the process discovers important family secrets that had been strategically hidden from her.

There is a murder -- or accident, take your pick -- and many family revelations including extensive infidelity and suggestions of incest -- that lead to further outrage and finally a suicide. There are flamenco sequences, brujeria, and all manner of passion summed up by the falling of the all too rare rain.

In other words, it's a pretty standard amor prohibido  story with a distinctive New Mexico twist, and I thought the script was darned good. The cast sometimes let the pace drag a bit, and too often, too many of them seemed to be acting their roles rather than believably living them. Some sections of the dialog were in Spanish, but it seemed to me that Anaya was consciously trying for Spanish dialog that Anglos could understand most of the time, and it seemed to work pretty well. At least I could follow it pretty well except at the end where I lost the thread of the speech in Spanish spoken by one of the characters (she summed it up in English, but there was a good deal more to what she said in Spanish.) I noticed that some of the characters were trying for a "Spanish" accent when they spoke English, and I thought it might have been better for them simply to adopt the common vernacular New Mexican speech pattern and accent instead. It's distinctive in its own right, doesn't seem the least bit artificial, and lots of New Mexicans -- Anglos, Indians and Spanish alike -- use it quite naturally. But that's a relatively minor point.

I was impressed with how well done the script was. According to the notes, Anaya started working on it in 1981, only to set it aside for the next 30 years until one of his colleagues at UNM suggested he pull it out and polish it up for performance after the success of "Bless Me, Ultima" in both stage and movie versions. Polish it, he did. There were only a couple of awkward moments early on, and a bit of confusion later as some characters became enamored of one another more suddenly than seemed seemly.

All in all, though, it worked quite well, for which the Anaya and all the people involved in the production can be happy. The theater was nearly full, and it seemed that most of the audience truly enjoyed the play. Some were inclined to speak out from their seats as one or another plot twist was introduced or a character re-appeared. In another context, I might have been annoyed, but in this one these outbursts were charming.

This play could be further polished, but as it stands, "Rosa Linda" is a vital contribution to a growing body of distinctively New Mexican theater works. Some observers have referred to New Mexico as a cultural island, seemingly more "foreign" than "American," a quality of both the people and the land. That may be, and "Rosa Linda" may be another aspect of the New Mexican "island." It's familiar to anyone who is the least familiar with Spanish story-telling, and it is very distinctively New Mexican in style and spirit.

May it have a long life in the theater.

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