Name: Cherríe L. Moraga
Hometown: Los Angeles (San Gabriel, CA.)
Current Town: Oaktown, Califas
Affiliations: Artist in Residence, Stanford University
Q: How do you self-identify?
A: Xicana (with an X).
Q: Tell me about: The Mathematics of Love.
A: It is an encuentro between the Mexican-American 85-years-old/late-stage Alzheimer’s “Peaches” and the historical/mythic figure of “MalinXe” (whose characterization was originally conceived by Ricardo A. Bracho). The play takes place in the Biltmore Hotel, Los Angeles at the turn into the 21st century, during which time the contemporary shifts/collides/blends with the 16th century Spanish invasion and the 18th century Missionization period of San Gabriel, California. The play is my attempt to resolve (in less than 2 hours–ha!) the 500-year history of the MeXicana condition, birthed from the story of MalinXe (the Indígena concubine and strategic advisor to el Conquistador Cortés). MalinXe is propelled into the “present” by the dying wishes of “La Peaches” and the ever-insistence of Tongva memory. You gotta laugh about it, and cry, and be awed by time-traveling “vision” of the so-called “demented.”
Q: What else are you working on now?
A: I just recently completed a memoir entitled Native Country of the Heart—A Geography of Desire. It is, in many ways, the “annotated version” of “Mathematics.” So, as it awaits publication and as I ready Mathematics for its world premiere at Brava Theater in San Francisco (August 2017)—that’s all I am doing and teaching and meeting and talking and writing things when I am required to respond in some way, like this very questionnaire.
Q: What have been the defining moments of your journey as a playwright?
A: Echoing my compatriots . . . María Irene Fornes. I was part of the INTAR lab in the early eighties. María Irene saw beyond progressive plot lines; she saw the place for poetry and a queer sensibility in theater-making. To be “seen” in such a way for a young writer is everything.
Thirty years later, I wrote and directed New Fire–to Put Things Right again—a collaboration with Celia Herrera Rodríguez (design), and Alleluia Panis (choreography), along with a dozen folk of different generations—indigenous musicians, Black and Pilipino and Raza actors and dancers. This work was singularly the most difficult and scariest thing I had ever done on a stage. 3,000 people came to see it over 13 days; many people for whom, this was their first play ever witnessed. It was a story of getting well through a Xicana Indígena lens—perhaps eloquently at moments, perhaps clumsily at others; but the audiences told us so much about “the hunger of memory” among Raza–young and old. It was one of the hardest-achieved blessings I have received as an artist.
Q: Who have been your playwriting mentors and heroes?
A: To continue . . . María Irene directed my second play, Shadow of a Man in the 1990 world premiere in San Francisco. And in that process, which was not an easy one, she taught me how to receive criticism, to re-view and re-write in a deeply authentic way. She also showed me how to defend my work (my originality) when required, even when it obstinately did not coalesce with her own views— my revered teacher. And, of course, in that manner—she also taught me how to teach with enormous faith in my students.
Other heroes: always Migdalia Cruz, Ricardo A. Bracho, García Lorca, James Baldwin. Suzan-Lori Parks and August Wilson (especially their earliest works); the short and living legacy of Lorraine Hansberry—her deep African-diasporic feminism & internationalism; Luis Valdez’ Bernabé, Philip Kan Gotanda’s The Ballad of Yachiyo, Piñero’s Short Eyes, and Hudes’ Water by the Spoonful—sometimes it just takes one play and my heart forever reveres. This is my list today. Tomorrow, a ver . . . I also remain forever grateful to the colectiva that was El Teatro Campesino—a movimiento by and for the plebe that is our pueblo; and to Dr. Jorge Huerta because he had the courage to review my first play, Giving Up the Ghost, (positively) in a Chicano publication, which affected a long-over-due turn in the tide of an entrenched homophobia in that same movement.
Q: What advice do you have for Latin@ playwrights at the beginning of their career?
A: Try to cultivate within you the capacity to recognize true teachers, when they appear on your path, follow them to learn what you must—mostly by listening and watching what they do—how they behave in the world. Then continue on, as you must . . .
Be suspicious of knee-jerk conformity, conventionality in form and content. (If you are writing for a career in the theater, I am not the best person to ask about that.) I know that putting “careerism” first destroys art, destroys our deepest promise. If you believe you are an artist, with a relentless mandate to speak of/for a people, of/for persons unknown, of/for deadening silences—if you are ‘queer’ in your imaginings regardless of your gender and sexuality—if you see women for who we really are (no lies), then just get to work. Work. Work. Work by writing and by not-writing—by living just a bit dangerously—where you are pressed into places where you must recognize your own ignorance. Then go on and ‘play’ when playing feels like freedom, not escape. In short, get viscerally familiar with the word “rigor.” Part of that rigor is to find ways to cultivate an intuitive knowledge of what you need to learn vs. what you need to defend and honor—that most original site in you.
Q: What else should we know about you?
A: To begin with . . . I have always felt like an ‘outsider’ in American Theater, generally; but, also within the context of Latino theater. In many ways as an openly lesbian Chicana since the late 1970s, the fact of which has always informed my writing in all genres, I have yet to find full home anywhere in the theater world–both as a Xicana and a queer woman. I am a great admirer of many of my compatriot Latino and Latina practitioners, but I so often feel alone in the work of it. This ‘outsiderhood’ continues to inform my writing and my critical vantage point.
I sometimes feel as Latinx writers, we are too easily seduced by AngloAmerica; and, because of this, fail at the potential of our collective fierceness as people of color writers (complexion shade notwithstanding). I want our work to be oh so much more dangerous in these (always) dangerous times. Again the word “rigor” returns to me. This requires a rigorous confrontation with our relationship to race/color/racism and class difference; and, a visceral reclamation of what our once movimientos of the late 60s and 70s (in spite of being mired by a fundamental misogyny and queerphobias) began to achieve: the assertion of ourselves as RAZA– people of color for whom assimilation/acculturation into U.S. America was not our goal. We are still Black, still Indio, still Mestizo—with a critical perspective on that permeable entity called a nation state and its borders. Without that living perspective and practice—we, too, become part of the American Dream narrative; another immigrant class trying desperately to get a piece of something that may cost us our cultures, our languages, our “us.” Trump is no news. We made him possible when we forgot who we were.
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