Negotiating Tongues

Sometimes the Spanish language can invite and sometimes it can ostracize. How do we negotiate her delightful complexities? What dictates the Spanish in a particular play or in a given performance of that play? Can the two be different? The Spanish in my head doesn’t always match my mouth. How do I find these words? Are they still mine? The Alliance Française has apparently agreed on what constitutes proper French. My amalgam of Spanish begins with the sometimes archaic New Mexican words of my mother’s family. It mixes in the California Spanish of my childhood, incorporates the Arizonan and Mexican Spanish of my adulthood, the words of Puerto Rican and Cuban directors and actors, and doesn’t forget my father’s Castilian roots. (His own children laughed at him when he said "choritho" instead of "chorizo" at the dinner table.) A Chicana playwright might ask: where is the Academie Française when you need it? Yet, it’s Spanish’s fluidity that makes her reach so expansive. Frankly, it's her differences that make her special. I have learned that in issues of Spanish, almost everybody is right.

The negotiation of the Spanish language comes up frequently in production. The more Spanish I include in my play, the more controversy I stir up over my words. I was negotiating a production of one of my bilingual plays with a Cuban artistic director who had seen an influx of Cuban immigrants to his community. He didn’t normally do Latino work, but he loved the play and he was trying to figure out how to make the Spanish work for that specific audience. I had written the play with a Tejano and Mexican audience in mind, during a collaboration with artists from Mexico. In that initial production in Texas, I had seen the extent to which my dual language choices, influenced by our collaboration, had met those two audiences more individually than collectively. I continued to revise the Spanish portions of that text after production. This new artistic director wanted a bilingual version of the play with even more Spanish. He wanted the Spanish of my play to match the Spanish of his audience’s heart. I wanted to give him that. We both became overwhelmed by the process of converting the text. We did not move forward, not because of any stated controversy, but because of the overwhelming reality that in the seemingly singular language of Spanish, we were speaking two very different languages. There was no patch job to be done, but a complete rethinking of the text, and with rethinking comes change. I think we both realized that in a translation of the text we might be changing the play’s heart as well. My Chicano play needed to stay Chicano. And that’s the rub.

Award-winning playwright Elaine Romero has had her plays Barrio Hollywood, Secret Things, ¡Curanderas! Serpents of the Clouds, and Day of Our Dead presented at such theatres as Actors Theatre of Louisville, Arizona Theatre Company, Women's Project and Productions, Magic Theatre, Kitchen Dog Theatre, INTAR, Borderlands Theater, the Miracle Theatre, the Phoenix Theatre, Urban Stages, the Working Theatre, and the New Theatre, among others. She has been published by Vintage Books, Samuel French, University of Arizona Press, University of Iowa Press, Smith & Kraus, Heinemann Press, and Playscripts, and has an upcoming piece with Simon & Schuster. A past guest artist at South Coast Repertory and the Mark Taper Forum, Romero serves as Playwright-in-Residence at the Arizona Theatre Company, managing their National Latino Playwrights Award. Romero participated in the TCG/Pew National Theatre Artist in Residency Program and the NEA/TCG Theatre Residency Program for Playwrights. She attended the Sundance Institute's Playwrights Retreat at the Ucross Foundation where she wrote Walk into the Sea, for which she received a 2005 Magic Theatre/Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Science and Technology commission. The Curious Theatre Company commissioned Elaine to write Rain of Ruin for their War Anthology.