Opening at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre last February, Luis Alfaro’s Oedipus el Rey proved a spellbinding, fierce and funny update of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex set among Los Angeles Chicano gang and prison culture, focused on a young ex-con determined to become a big shot. It made so deep an impression that when I met this January with four other theatre critics to choose the Glickman Award winner for best play to debut in the Bay Area last year, we agreed on Oedipus fairly quickly despite it having been nearly a year since we’d seen it.
This was the second Sophocles play the Los Angeles–based playwright and MacArthur “Genius” grant recipient had adapted, both classics so rooted in our culture that they inspired Freudian complexes. His 2003 play Electricidad was a take on Electra that was also rooted in Los Angeles gang culture, enough so that you could imagine the characters in the two plays to be neighbors. And once you get into the business of Greek tragedy, you almost have to make it a trilogy. Alfaro will soon take on Euripides with Bruja, his Medea adaptation that closes Magic Theatre’s next season.
How did the idea to do Oedipus el Rey come up?
My family is from a town called Delano, which is in the Central Valley of California, off Highway 99, and when I was a kid all my relatives were farm workers. And then in the late ’80s they built the North Kern state prison and everybody completely left the town and went to work for the state prison. That got me thinking a lot about the big thing of recidivism in California. We have the highest rate of recidivism in the country. I think it’s up to 68 percent of prisoners will go back at some point, which is kind of shocking. And I got fascinated by the thought of what the new kingdoms were if you were a young person today—how you could join an alternate society—and what a young king would do if he was Oedipus today. You could be in the correctional system for a long time, if not the majority of your life. I’m fascinated about what happens to young people who grow up inside a system like that, and what happens when they get to the outside world.
Did you already have it in your mind to do an Oedipus piece when you started thinking about the prison system?
I had been thinking about writing a contemporary tale, and then I went to visit Father Greg Boyle, who led the great organization in Los Angeles called Homeboy Industries, which works with young gang members to get them out of gangs. They do everything from tattoo removal to mental health services to job placement. That same week, I went to Mary Hart, the Greek scholar at the Getty Villa in Malibu. I knew her because we had done another project, the adaptation of Electra. We were talking and she said, “I’ve just finished jury duty. It’s so Greek!” It was a gang case. She couldn’t tell me all the details, of course, but she was telling me about the sense of the hubris of the young person who committed this crime, and she goes, “Oh, you should read Oedipus.” So kind of all of it spun together. Then Mary invited me to come up to the Getty Villa, and they gave me 10 days there. I came in with one scene, the scene when he meets Jocasta. What most attracted me to Oedipus, in this perverse way, was the love story, the doomed, failed love that’s about to happen. I was very intrigued by the thought that a young man who is so against the world could be betrayed by it, in the sense that he marries his heart to this woman. Every day I wrote a scene. Then I walked out with 10 scenes at the end of the 10 days. It was really a wonderful way to work.
The Getty thing is specifically geared toward classical adaptations, right?
Yeah, the Getty Villa has this traditional Greek theatre that they’ve re-created outside, so one of their initiatives is to make a connection between the Greek drama and the classical art that they have there. Part of their initiative is to look at traditional text and then also text that’s being sort of modernized. That was really fun, because it was a chance to have incredible access to this amazing Greek scholar. I love working in collaboration with nontraditional theatre people, so it’s always great when there’s somebody in the room who’s not part of the traditional structure. In this case there’s the Greek scholar talking to you about how people experienced a Greek play in that time, so it was really great to get that context and try to link the past and present together.
What research went into this piece?
I had a really extraordinary experience with the director in San Francisco, Loretta Greco. She came down to Los Angeles and we went to visit two convicted felons who just got out of prison; one of them had been out six weeks, and the other one had been out for a while. I based Oedipus a little bit on the guy who had just been out. And we had this amazing discussion about fate, destiny. The one thing we couldn’t really ask him about was his crime, but we could ask him about everything else. So it was prison research coupled with the research of the classical text, and just really breaking down the text. And then we had an amazing dramaturge named Jane Ann Crum at the Magic, who brought in pages and pages and pages about everything. So this was maybe one of my most researched plays ever.
This play wound up being done at several different theatres in close succession. What was it like seeing all these different takes on the play?
I have to say that I was almost resistant and a little bitter for a while, because this was the longest I’ve been with a play, and I feel like every production really, truly was a different production. The production with Loretta was very Greek and pure, the one in L.A. was very much about gangs, the one that just closed at Woolly Mammoth was very visceral and male and violent. It was like watching some German play. So they’re very differently conceptualized pieces. And every experience, I completely rewrote the play to that experience. So in some ways I think of it as my year of site-specific writing, my year of writing towards that company of actors, that place, that environment. So at the beginning I was like, “I can’t believe I’m still working on the same play; it feels like the college course that never ends.” But what was wonderful is that I can’t believe how deep I’ve gotten with this play, feeling my own writing has gotten so much better and I’ve been able to really explore. It’s like the lover who stuck around. It’s like not the four-week production lover. This is now been the three-year, I-think-we’re-married play.
What is it about the Greek plays that really resonates for you?
Well, on a very personal level I feel like I’m a community artist. I live and work in a very specific community, so I am shocked when my community comes out and makes a connection between a contemporary play and a classic. That for me is deeply, deeply rewarding. Because I grew up in such a violent and poor, poor neighborhood in downtown L.A., I never saw the world when I was growing up; I just couldn’t afford to go out. Just to imagine that there’s a world out there, that you might be part of the organic thread of that world too, and that somehow this story that exists hundreds or thousands of years ago is your story, is just amazing to me. What I love about the classics is that they open a door for people who’ve not had it open before, because all of a sudden they feel like they can enter that world. So the adaptation or the translation becomes really important, because all of a sudden they kind of figure out that that language is their language. And one of my favorite things, I can’t believe how often in a performance when there’s that line towards the end of the play where he finds out about Jocasta and he goes, “Well if he’s my father, she’s my…” and there’s always some young person in the audience, who goes [gasp]. It’s like, you didn’t learn this in high school? You don’t know about the Oedipus complex? And then you think, that’s what theatre does: it surprises you, it illuminates, it connects you to the world. I write a lot of contemporary original stuff, so I tend to do an original thing and then look at an adaptation because, honestly, I use adaptation to try to become a better writer structurally.
Oedipus is set literally in the neighborhood that you grew up in.
The house that Jocasta lives in is the house that I grew up in. Loretta came down one day and we just went from spot to spot to spot in order. I think it really helped a lot in terms of her knowing the world of the play so well. It’s always a vulnerable act, because all of a sudden, there you are, and you’re like, 12 years old again. But it was really great to share that and make it that personal. I think I wanted to ground it in that, to not let it get too far away from me. I think when you write love stories especially, you have to fall in love with them. So personalizing everything made it very vulnerable and a little scary. I’m not one of those writers who needs to write from a distance; I really get into it. Maybe I’m trying to approach writing like acting, because I’m trying to get inside the character and see if that creates a different kind of language. And I think it does, because whenever I look at the plays, especially this one, I think, “Wow, I can’t believe I wrote that, because I do not talk like that.”