For 25 years, queer Chicano playwright Luis Alfaro has been at the forefront of socially conscious theater, crossing racial, ethnic, and economic lines with his work at USC and Santa Monica’s Highways Performance Space. The MacArthur “Genius Grant” winner finally returns to New York this fall with Oedipus el Rey, a modern take on Oedipus Rex set in a South Central L.A. prison. Here, he discusses the play, opening October 3 at The Public Theater, and why the idea of “us” versus “them” is the real myth.
OUT: Why adapt a Greek myth? And why this one?
Luis Alfaro: At the end of Oedipus the audience has to decide whether it was destiny. Was it violence and poverty that doomed that young man, or did he make an actual choice? Are we the puppets or the players? When you see a guy embrace a naked woman who is supposed to be his mother, that’s intense, and when you experience that in a room with a bunch of people all seeing the same thing, that intimacy is powerful.
Are you concerned about the show being in a smaller theater?
I’m dedicated to writing plays that connect to people all over the place. I’m a Chatty Cathy, and community outreach has inspired me as an artist, like with the prisons and Oedipus.
Is it hard getting men in prison to open up to you?
These people may be nothing like me, but I always walk in like, “These are my people.” The minute you stop referring to a group of people as “them” and instead use “us,” things shift. “You are the other me,” as we say in Chicano culture.
How do you approach all the division within the LGBTQ community?
To see the queerness in each other is to see something special. There’s power in our unique perspective, from not being part of the dominant culture. The specifics don’t have to match up—we relate to each other’s feelings. My job as a playwright is to conjure feelings.
What do we need more of to advance that sense of being an “us”?
Social spaces. Here at The Public people hang out in the lobby. It’s a beautiful meeting place. At the Victory Gardens Theatre in Chicago we made a big thing about having free wi-fi in the lobby. So it’s full of students from DePaul doing homework. There are all kinds of different people, sharing tables. And you talk to people.