Keep an Eye On: Sarita Ocón
Monday, November 21, 2016
Posted by: TBA Staff
By Sam Hurwitt
Image: Stephanie Brown
Oakland-based actor Sarita Ocón has a knack for choosing projects that combine artistry with activism and deep social impact. As an ensemble member with Oakland’s Ubuntu Theater Project, this year she’s played a fiery labor leader in Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty, young and old Latina activists in Milta Ortiz’s Más and a passionate Emilia in a production of Othello that highlighted the title character’s Muslim identity. She recently returned from playing Elizabeth Proctor in a production of Arthur Miller’s all-too-timely Red Scare allegory The Crucible in North Carolina just before the election, directed by Bay Area rising star Desdemona Chiang.
She’s been in plays about gang violence (Paul S. Flores’s Placas), the Iraq War (Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo at San Francisco Playhouse), fracking (The Great Divide at Shotgun), pesticides in strawberries (Octavio Solis’s Alicia’s Miracle at Tides Theatre) and the Armenian genocide (Golden Thread’s Night over Erzinga). Even her turn as Feste and Antonio in Twelfth Night was part of an all-woman production produced by Cal Shakes and Intersection for the Arts that toured homeless shelters, juvenile detention centers and other community centers. With pretty much every project she works on, you never wonder why the company is doing that play.
“I almost surprise myself,” Ocón says. “I am choosing purposeful, passionate collaborations because I do believe that theatre has the power for dialogue and change. Even if the change is as small as a young person turning to their family and saying, ‘I’m so sorry. We need to have a conversation about the violence that I’m participating in, and the violence that our family is stuck in, and this gang culture.’ That to me feels like I did my job.”
Ocón is the recipient of the 2016 RHE Artistic Fellowship Award, to be given at the TBA Awards Celebration on December 5. Presented by Theatre Bay Area in partnership with the RHE Charitable Foundation, the award is intended to enable outstanding Bay Area theater artists to better advance their careers with a $10,000 cash prize and a professional mentorship.
I spoke to Ocón just two days after the election, and she, like so many of us, was still reeling from the results. “I think a lot of folks are wondering, could I have done more?” she says. “Especially being in a battleground state. To make a concerted effort to drive maybe an hour south or an hour east to a much more rural area and just try to have conversations with folks? That’s the big lingering question that I have—what more could have been done, what further conversations could have been had. Coming off of The Crucible and then being up against this, it’s been tough.”
True to form, Ocón searched for a way to respond through art and activism. The following Tuesday, a week after the election, she and her partner organized an evening of artists responding to the grim news at Studio Grand, as a benefit for Standing Rock.
A cofounding member of the Bay Area Latino Theatre Artists Network, Ocón is also looking forward to traveling to New York for the Latino Theater Commons Convening at the beginning of December. “In recent years I’ve felt the call to be a bit more active in Latino theatre here in the Bay Area—where it’s going, where it’s not going, what we can do to ensure that there is space and support for the longevity of our community and our talent,” she says.
“It’s been a few years now since seven of us gathered in a living room. We knew there was a good number of us in the Bay Area, and yet we didn’t have a means to be connected. We were looking to places like Chicago and Los Angeles and even Texas that have these vibrant organizations that really support their large Latino theater artist base. That’s how we first came to create the Bay Area Latino Theater Artists Network, which does most of its activity online, through Facebook. We are fiscally sponsored by Brava Theater. We’re doing our best to figure out how to begin creating programming and partnerships—and also just the dissemination of information, to let our artists know that there’s an opportunity to go out and pursue, or to highlight what’s going on on a national level.”
Originally from Southern California, Ocón grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah—“which socially, economically, culturally, was a complete flip,” she recalls.
“I’ve noticed that much of my participation in the arts was always in direct conversation with activism,” Ocón says. “My parents are both librarians, and that idea of intellectual freedom and access to resources and information and literature has always been something of great importance. I did a few school shows, but it was really in high school where I began finding the creative agency to create devised works, to put together an ensemble of students and do a site-specific work. I’m also a painter, so while my family and I were boycotting table grapes I was also painting about what was happening in California with the United Farm Workers Union, while also creating a devised theatre piece that represented the voices of marginalized communities. So that’s what I was doing in Salt Lake.”
She finally came back to California to go to Stanford, where she got her BA in Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity. “While I did take one or two classes in the theatre department, I felt this need to devote my time and resources to the social sciences,” she says. “A part of me thought, okay, that was a nice time being an artist and painting and doing theatre. While my heart deeply loved doing it, a part of me was like yes, but I have to somehow be involved in public service. I couldn’t quite imagine what a life in the arts would look like. I wasn’t seeing models of that during those years. I was doing public policy and I was looking at marginalized communities in both rural and urban areas, and on the side was still doing theatre. I did Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit. That happens annually at Stanford; it’s one of these great traditions.”
Her transition back into theatre was completely unplanned, she says. “Maybe two years after graduation I actually thought I was going to become a muralist. That’s when Teatro Visión in San Jose called and said ‘Hey, someone passed along your information. Would you consider auditioning?’ And I was like, what? Some energy, some divine force pushed me along, so I did it. I like celebrating and acknowledging the little wins. This last September marks 10 years since Teatro Visión called me in. Every year since then I’ve been active and involved and working as an actor.”
Ocón measures other wins, large and small, in terms of their social impact.
“A big win has been my participation last five years on this play called Placas by Paul Flores,” she says. “It has this breathing life to it. He invited me back in 2010 to sit down at a table read in a conference room at the Central American Resource Center in the Mission District. He was asked by that community to write something directly in response to what was happening to our youth and gang violence. We’ve gone to 18 cities and we’ve reached over 15,000 audience members, a lot of them first-time theatergoers. We’ve done healing circles and community meetings, we’ve met with law enforcement and the social workers that work directly with the youth that are impacted. That has been so powerful. I mean, there’s still work to be done. Following a performance like that you have a lot of people going, ‘Great, you’ve cracked us open. Now you’re going to pack up and leave?’ I think that’s the next part. We do have resources at every performance, with social workers and things like that. But following the night of a performance, maybe the next day could be a workshop for the youth to write their stories. The model has been evolving and changing. But the impact has been so profound. We still get folks saying when are you coming to Bakersfield, or when are you coming to some of the smaller towns? When are you coming to Chicago?”
Placas led to another project that Ocón cites as a highlight of her career, working with San Jose’s Red Ladder Theatre Company’s theatre program at Salinas Valley State Prison.
“That was an amazing residency that has left a profound impact on who I am as an artist,” she says. “Being able to spend a year every Tuesday traveling down to Soledad to work with 30 brown, black incarcerated men. There’s a quote that’s a resounding voice in my head. They always shake our hands before and after, and just before our last session ended, one of the participants told me, ‘Thank you for bringing humanity to light.’ Going into that work, you have to leave everything at the door and say you are human, I am human. The only difference between you and me is an action and an outcome. We were dealt a certain hand of cards, and circumstance and environment influenced how we played those cards. I do believe in restorative justice and restorative healing and rehabilitation and what theatre can do. Having participated in that has moved me in ways that I didn’t think it would.”
Winning the RHE Fellowship is a perfect time for an artist to reflect on her career and where she’d like it to go next, and for Ocón that means continuing her focus on socially conscious work in a very deliberate way.
“I’ve loved every moment of the journey, and I’m excited to see what unfolds next,” she says. “I don’t know what that’s going to look like, but I have high hopes that the work and the activism will continue. It’ll just keep building and growing. And I even see myself producing at some point.”
Reflecting on what she’s done up to this point, Ocón says, “In these various projects, I have feeling of gratitude that there was somehow an impact left. Sometimes it’s as simple as an ‘aha’ moment for audience members. I think that’s what gives me the commitment and the drive to keep going. There are those tough days that I think every artist encounters. And I just remind myself, look at all that you’ve done and all that is yet to be done, and just keep going.”
Sam Hurwitt is a freelance theatre critic for the Mercury News and the Marin Independent Journal and a part-time playwright. Follow him at twitter.com/shurwitt