PICTURED: The cast of Teatros de las Américas’ production of Wrench, onstage July 30-Aug. Aug.. 15. Photo by Aron Ramirez
by Emily Dodi
Teatro de las Américas has a new home; one they can finally call their own.
Founded in 1992, the bilingual theater company is now a fixture in Downtown Oxnard. After almost 30 years of moving from venue to venue, “the dominant Spanish-language theatre on the Central Coast” has settled into its own location on Sixth Street. More than that, it has taken its place in the revitalization of Downtown Oxnard, something which strikes at the heart of the company’s mission, which is to make theatre available to the community.
Teatro’s history is rooted in producing plays that “reflect the realities of the cultures, customs, and narratives that form the essential fabric of Oxnard life, then, now, and into the future.” Thanks to a deal with the city of Oxnard to lease and refurbish the long-vacant Elizabeth Furniture building, Teatro de las Américas’ own future has never been brighter.
“It feels wonderful,” says Juan Gonzalez, actor and president of Teatro’s board. Gonzalez adds that bringing theater to downtown Oxnard “is the fruition of Margaret’s vision.” Teatro’s executive director Margaret Cortese has been with the company since the very beginning.
The beginning reaches back to the early 1990s, when Santa Paula Theater Center did a production of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Director and SPTC founder Dana Elcar wanted to present one evening in Spanish, so he reached out to director Armando Garcia to direct the Spanish-language version entitled Casa de las Muñecas. Cortese was a member of the cast and recalls how that one night sparked the desire — and the perseverance — to regularly mount Spanish-language plays in Ventura County.
Cortese approached SPTC about partnering again but unfortunately it didn’t work out. That didn’t stop her or the others who recognized the value of bringing Spanish-language theater to the area.
“We did it anyway,” Cortese said emphatically.
Educating the community about the works of great Mexican and other Latin American playwrights was just one of the reasons they persevered. Bringing theater to the underserved Latino community was another.
Teatro de las Américas was born, and after leaving SPTC they were able to rent space at the Camarillo Skyway Theater to mount their next production. From there, Teatro moved from place to place — Camarillo to Fillmore to Thousand Oaks to Oxnard College to the Elite Theatre.
“We kept looking for a place,” Cortese says.
Finally, in 2019, Teatro de las Américas negotiated the use of the building on Sixth Street. Teatro put in more than $40,000 of renovations as well as considerable time, love and energy into the building that now bears something the company has been working towards for decades: its own name over the door.
“We are very happy,” Cortese says, adding that having their own venue comes with “a great sense of relief.”
Gonzalez is quick to note that Teatro could not have done it without the help of the cities of Oxnard and Port Hueneme, individual sponsors, as well as Teatro’s board and volunteers.
After keeping the company alive without a permanent home for decades, even COVID-19 couldn’t stop Teatro from bringing theater to the people. During the pandemic-induced stay-at-home order, the company hosted virtual programs for adults and kids. But, as Teatro office manager Ana Maria Silva explains, there’s nothing quite like being in person. “It was great to have virtual programs, but artists need to get out and do.” Like the rest of the company, she is thrilled about having “their own place … It’s really exciting. It feels like when you move out and you get your first apartment. Now we have room to grow.”
Teatro’s first production in their new home is Wrench (Llave), written by James Donlon, Matt Tavianini and Joseph Velasco. Donlon directs the play, which was originally produced to rave reviews in 1994 in Santa Barbara.
Set in the 1990s, Wrench revolves around two generations of a Mexican-American family who run an auto body shop. Uncle and nephew are at odds about cars and almost everything else. Then a mysterious shaman appears and offers lessons on “how to tune life’s engine, sparking a magical journey between reality and a deeper truth.” Running from July 30 through August 15, Wrench/Llave is performed mostly in English with some Spanish. Juan J. Gonzalez, Ángel Villalobos, José Valdez, Albert Smith, and Anthony E. Contreras star, and composer Michael Mortilla performs the music and soundscape live.
As Gonzalez points out, Teatro de las Américas’ new venue, which has a black box theater in the front part of the building and another space in the back, feels tailor made for Wrench. That’s because prior to being part of a furniture shop, the back part of the building was an actual body shop. Wrench brings the spirit of the body shop back to life, with everything from a real car on the set to a back door that stands slightly ajar to a bustling Oxnard street. The effect, Silva explains, is that the audience feels like they are “literally enveloped in a body shop in downtown Oxnard.”
“It’s even starting to smell like a body shop,” Gonzalez laughs. He adds that Wrench is the most physically demanding play he’s ever been in. “There is a time when I’m supposed to be exhausted, and I’m really exhausted. When I call out for water, I really want water.”
Donlon, who was born in Oxnard and whose family goes way back in Ventura County, agrees that “the space calls for [Wrench.]” In a very real sense, Donlon himself is also being called. “I’m coming home to give back to the community who raised me.”
Giving to the community and bringing people back to Downtown Oxnard is at the heart of Teatro de las Américas.
“We are part of the revitalization [of the area],” Cortese says with the same sense of purpose, optimism and determination that has kept Teatro going for 30 years on the move and that has brought it, at last, home.
Teatro de las Américas presents Wrench/Llave, onstage June 30-Aug. 15 at 321 W. Sixth St., Oxnard. For tickets and more information, call 805-983-2876 or visit teatrodelasamericas.org.