Queen of Make Believe: From Two Latinas and a “Lobo” in The Know

Catherine Lidstone as "Evangeline"

Based on the Songs by Los Lobos’ Louie Perez and David Hidalgo

By Dale Reynolds

Its been a long time coming but on May 12th accomplished theater producers, Theresa Chavez and Rose Portillo (also an accomplished actress) in collaboration with Los Lobos’ Louie Pérez, saw the fruits of their creative labor come to life with the opening of their music infused play, Evangeline, The Queen of Make-Believe, on May 12th at the Bootleg Theater (http://aboutpd.org).

Evangeline is a journey of self-discovery by a young Chicana, whose neighborhood roots and make-believe world collide when she experiences the West Side art scene and the music of the Sunset Strip.  The production is inspired by the song Evangeline written by David Hidalgo and Pérez for Los Lobos’ Grammy award-winning album The Neighborhood.

Set against the 1968 student walkouts in East L.A. and the fight for equal education and civil rights, the theatrical production draws from the talent of songwriters and members of the world famous East Los Angeles band Los Lobos, Hidalgo and Perez.  This marks the first time their songbook will be part of an original production. Songs include Good Morning, Aztlán, River of Fools, The Neighborhood and Revolution, which are played live on stage by East L.A. band Ollin with featured vocalist CAVA (Claudia Gonzalez-Tenorio). Musical direction is by Ollin’s Scott Rodarte.”

The three writers, Chavez, Portillo and Pérez, spent long hours in conversation over what had shaped their identity from “Mexican-American” to “Chicano”, drawing on those expereinces for the production.  “That bus ride from E.L.A. to W.L.A. is an amazing journey [for Evangeline] and we wanted to explore this new idea, this new beast, the formation of this new identify, this new culture.  We were embracing our traditions, but incorporating the new alongside it,” Portillo explains.

Both Chavez and Portillo, SoCal natives, grew up with the music of the internationally loved East L.A. band, which has remained a major force in the music industry for decades. Los Lobos got their big career boost in 1985, on American Bandstand, which propelled them into becoming more than just a Mexican-American band – evolving into an American rock’n’roll band, with music that has transcended their roots. It was their sound that helped define the seminal film about Chicano-identity music, with the film, La Bamba (1989).

(L-T) David Hidalgo & Louie Perez

According to Chavez who grew up in Monterey Park on the east side of Los Angeles, “We loved their music and got to know Louie, who readily agreed when he approached us to write a play from their existing songs.  We were very aware of the Great Walkouts, which included Garfield High (one of 4 schools) where both Louis and David attended.  We made it part of the story of a young Latina who wants to escape the perception of the traditional background of her Catholic home, and show her another part of town, the Westside of Los Angeles, where she gets a job as a go-go dancer.”

1968 was a pivotal time for America:  the political changes, the anti-Vietnam War movement, the black civil rights fight, the feminist stirrings, and the Chicano movement, were all on the front page of the news on a daily basis.  “There were two revolutions going on in her [Evangeline’s] world.  It was a chance for her to step outside of her own neighborhood – to question authority, especially the trappings of her culture as a woman; wanting to embrace it all, but making sure there was room for herself in it,” Chavez recounted.  “Both Rose and I were inspired by the sensibilities of the time. Art didn’t have to be realistic-on-the-wall and music could extend itself beyond the three-minute pop song.  The idea of art and psychology mixing allowed for the individual’s inner voice leading to cultural awareness.”

Meaningfully for this project, Theresa had been raised in a household that didn’t allow for much more in life than becoming a housewife, maybe with a high-school diploma but no expectations of an exciting life. For Rose, it was different in that her family encouraged her to attend college, although mainly so she could marry upscale.

Chavez attended California State College, Long Beach (CSCLB), majoring in Social Science for her bachelor’s degree, and received her Masters of Fine Arts from California Institute of the Arts/Valencia (CalArts) in photography.  She had inherited a dance background from her mom’s side and almost became a choreographer.  “I was encouraged at CalArts to produce large-scale theatrical productions, which was fun.  After college, a group of us from there founded About Productions, which for the past twenty-three years has not had its own physical theatre.”

About Productions takes two-to-three years to develop their plays, which are tied into literacy programs for the schools.  The Company brought in Chicano veterans of the 1968 walkout and had the students write plays based on the interviews with these veterans.  “These are highest-risk high-school students, in continuation schools, developing their own voice.”  Portillo continues, “For most youth, it’s their first experience in theatre, which is transformative in and of itself.  It’s an intensive introduction for most of them, (some of whom have great difficulty reading and writing, among other undiagnosed learning disabilities), to actually write a play.  They get up on the stage and introduce it, which is then performed.”  Performances are usually in the 200-seat house at Plaza de la Raza, in Lincoln Heights. “These young people have voices that matter.  We help them to voice their concerns.”

Evangeline: The Queen of Make Believe is a multi-layered, multi-media play, containing a video component by artist Claudio Rocha.  “There are layers in which we individually tell these stories, but in a theatrical narrative.  What is equally important are the musical layers from the Los Lobos Songbook, coupled with animation, some semi-realistic, some fanciful, but all coming from the minds of the characters.”

For both women and for Pérez, the importance of the project is that the audience believe in the stories they are telling; the based-on histories that they explore.  Several of their past works have emphasized L.A. history – a recent play dealt with the minority Edwardian neighborhood of Angelina Heights, west of downtown, Bleeding Through, and in their 1927 – They Shoot Mexicans, Don’t They?

Portillo and Chavez have worked together for over twenty years now and share a solid love for the music of Hidalgo and Pérez.  “Los Lobos are icons of Chicano song and they’ve been working together as a band since the late 1960s.  What we love in their work is that it transcends simple rock – they’ve married their traditional roots with other sounds (essentially whatever tickles their fancy).  They’re artists who refuse to remain stuck in any one genre.”

Portillo, Chavez and Peres had hours of conversations about what the songbook could offer them. “What helped all of us is that we are used to collaborating.  We deliberately involve multi-media artists with different disciplines than ours, such as a choreographer, or a song-writer.”  For example, by involving Austin, Texas-based composer Alejandro Escobedo on one project, their play was aired on PBS’ Austin City Limits.  “We think it’s important to bring people who are not normally involved in Theatre to work with us.  It’s a big shot in the arm for us,” says Portillo.  “It makes you think in a different way about your work.

They were excited to bring into this production, Claudio Rocha, a cinematographer to create specific video pieces, along with the choreographer, Michelle Bachar and Susan Goldberg, a movement specialist.  They are use works of art that make up parts of the set, sculptural pieces that will move around the set.

As a further feather-in-their-caps, Playwright’s Arena selected Portillo and Chavez as recipients of this year’s Lee Melville Award, honoring their work in Los Angeles theatre, in a ceremony on May 8th, at the LATC.  Fortuitous, one might think, but well earned is the more proper response.

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