Monthly Archives: January 2011

Tee-ing Up a New Perspective

Last week, I read an article in The Washington Post that speaks to one of the ideas in Luis Alfaro’s Los Angeles-based, gang-centric Oedipus el Rey. The Post article reported that Joseph Jenkins, a District gang leader, had been sentenced to 49 years in prison in connection with a series of 2008 shootings that left a rival gang member dead and 12 others injured. But what caught my attention and really made me think about Luis’ play had less to do with the article being about a DC gang leader and more to do with the readers’ comments at the end of the online version of the article.

One comment reads: “Scum. Pure useless dangerous scum. Put him in the electric chair tomorrow & save the taxpayers a ton of money. No one will cry. […].” Another: “Let the gangs have a little war and then clean up whatever is left by giving them ‘life’ for murder. Why the cops spend so much time and money stopping gangs from shooting gangs, I will never know.” And another: “Throw his parents in with him.”

What does this have to do with Oedipus el Rey? It got me thinking about perspective. For those of us who are far removed from DC and LA gangs, there might be an immediate impulse to shake our heads and point fingers at gang members. To throw up our hands and turn our backs on these individuals. To push these problems to the margins of society so we don’t have to think about them. But is it possible to take a step back? To see things from the perspective of the gang member? To perceive the context that defines and drives the gang member’s life?

To be clear, I’m in no way condoning the shootings reported in The Post. Nor am I condoning gang membership. I am, however, suggesting there is importance and worth in trying to understand the other perspective. In G Dog and the Homeboys, a chronicle of Father Gregory Boyle’s work with the LA gang community, Celeste Fremon writes, “the best way to understand the problem [of gangs] was to better understand its origins, which meant understanding the kids themselves–not from our perspective, but from theirs.” While I’m not a recidivism or gang expert, as a citizen and theatre artist, I also strongly believe that perspectives and progress are fundamentally linked.

So, as I sit in the Oedipus el Rey rehearsal room, this is one of the conversations that Luis is Tee-ing up for audiences. And I’m excited to hear audiences engage with these questions.

~John M. Baker, Production Dramaturg and Literary Manager


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Set and Costume Designer Misha Kachman on tattoos

As youll see when you come to Woolly Mammoth for Luis Alfaros Oedipus el Rey (and as you may have read in previous blog entries), tattoos are very important to the world of the play. My interest piqued by research and rehearsal attendance, I met with Misha Kachman, Oedipus el Rey‘s Set and Costume Designer, to discuss the choices hes made about the look and feel of the production’s tattoos.

How did you go about researching tattoo designs for the show?

We’ve looked at lots of images related to gangs and barrios, online and in books. I talked to Luis, of course, but there is a lot of visual research out there, too. I didn’t sit down and draw these tattoos; I tried to use real sources, and some of those come from actual tattoo designs that people offer you and display on the Internet. You can go online and look at police files that include records of gang tattoos. There is this amazing website, it’s like a Facebook for California Latino gangs. It’s out there! It’s all in the open. That’s the whole thing about belonging to the gang: it’s not a secret society. They wear gang colors, they have gang tattoos, they openly display that they belong to a certain gang. It’s a statement. It’s out there. They’re not hiding.

How authentic are the tattoo designs used in the show? Would realistic gang tattoos place the actors in danger outside the rehearsal room?

Well, there is not much danger to the actors because we’re assuming that they’re not going to go to at-risk areas. It’s also winter and they’re wearing mostly long-sleeved clothes. But, yes—we’re staying somewhat generic. None of these things say “18th Street Gang.” And you really don’t want to say “MS-13,” because the problem is that while the play deals with Los Angeles gangs, some of these gangs like Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) are also prevalent in Washington, DC.

Are designs specific to individual characters?

Yes. Tiresias, for instance, definitely has to have a cross. We have several of those. Then there is the image on Jocasta’s back. Otherwise, we don’t really do much on the actors’ backs. Most of what we see is on their arms.

There are also the owls—they will go on three of the actors’ chests. Although, right now that’s up in the air, because we just discovered that we can’t print very large temporary tattoos, so the owls may have to be broken into smaller chunks.

In general, there are lots of Our Lady of Guadalupes. They are usually found on the shoulder. There is a lot of typography that is almost indecipherable—it’s the graffiti typeface. There are some Mexican images with Aztec influence, too. There are also lots of knives, praying hands and crosses, and some pinups, which are very common in prisons. I intentionally chose the ones that look the most amateurish.

Did you design the tattoos assuming that most of the characters got them in prison?

Yes, and that’s why the best images I found are those that look the least professional. You certainly can see the difference between a real prison tattoo and something you’d get in a tattoo parlor, which looks kind of “design-y”. We tried to stay away from images that are “design-y”.

Can you talk a little about the kind of mechanism they use in prison to give tattoos?

Ah, I wouldn’t pretend to be an expert on that, and the honest answer is that I really don’t know how they do it in American prisons. I know how they make tattoos in Russian prisons. They make the device out of an electric razor. Then they insert a little reservoir of ink—that’s regular ink from a fountain pen—and basically there is a needle that goes up and down. It’s handmade. And it’s pretty rough. It’s a painful, painful procedure. Also, the prison tattoos are all black and bluish. There are no other colors in them because the ink they use is from pens.

Has Jocasta been in prison? If not, do her tattoos look different than those of the male characters?

You should probably ask Romi [Diaz, the actress playing Jocasta] if she thinks her character has ever been in the can. I don’t think she has. But while wives or companions of gang members may not go to jail themselves, they have gang tattoos that identify their allegiance. There is also a whole tradition of recording the departure of the man; either he goes to jail or he gets killed, and there are tattoos commemorating both of those. Michael [John Garcés, the director] at one point considered adding a tattoo to Jocasta once she’s been widowed—like tattooing a teardrop on her face. That may likely prove to be impractical because the show is so tight and there is no time to add a new tattoo backstage. But, we’re trying to strike a balance between this kind of verisimilitude and a more generic quality.

Do the tattoos tell stories of ethnicity or family background?

In prisons all over the world, it’s possible to “read” prison tattoos like a book. You know who an inmate is based on his or her tattoos. In this country it’s less rigid, but in Russian prisons it’s literally like reading a census. You know how many times a person’s been in jail and for what.

And the prison community—if you can call it a community—on average tends to be more religious, more prone to mysticism than the population as a whole, and perhaps less educated. Additionally, there are obviously cultural preferences that they may display. In the case of Latino gangs, there are ethnic tattoos, things like “Brown Pride.” There are many levels of Chicano symbolism in those tattoos because they kind of establish themselves, they mark themselves as members of that community, and it’s permanent. They don’t tattoo themselves for amusement or out of boredom. They mark themselves as members of a group. That’s the difference between someone tattooing “Brown Pride” across his chest in prison—or even across his face, we’re not doing that in the show, but people do that—and someone tattooing something cute on their lower back. The purpose is not amusement and aesthetics—it’s not adornment.

Do similar tattoos serve to emphasize the identity of non-gang members in the barrio?

No, the tattoos in the production are gang tattoos. The civilian in such a community doesn’t tattoo himself or herself with the words “Brown Pride.” Although the numbers I’ve heard are that the 18th Street Gang—one of the largest gangs in California—has 60,000 members. When you talk about such numbers, it’s no longer a criminal organization, it’s a social movement. We’re talking huge numbers here. Look, the purpose and the origin of a gang is for social organization. It’s not intentionally created to run prostitution rings or deal drugs. That’s what they do, but I have this amazing book of photographs of Latino street gangs, and you immediately discover that—and Luis will tell you the same thing—99% of what gang members do is hang out. You know, literally, hang out in someone’s driveway. It’s boredom. That’s what they do. They get together, and they just hang out.

~Maura Krause, Literary Assistant


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Mythology of the Mob

The myth of Oedipus, the tragic king who fulfills a prophecy to murder his father and marry his mother, lived in ancient Greek folklore for centuries before it was finally written down. Homer, Pindar, and Aeschylus all took a stab at writing this epic tale. While each was significant in its own time, modern audiences are usually only familiar with Sophocles’ Oedipus. Yet even this account has been tinkered with over the centuries. It wasn’t until the 2nd century BC that Apollodorus actually wrote down the riddle of the Sphinx: What is that which has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?

This February, Woolly Mammoth brings you the story as told by Luis Alfaro in Oedipus el Rey. Luis puts his own stamp on the play by informing its setting and characters with his own experiences growing up in the Pico-Union district of LA, notorious for its rampant gang influence. The history of LA gangs has been self-edited and embellished over the years. Through the use of distinct tattoos, hand signals and idolizing fallen and imprisoned members as martyrs to a unique brotherhood, gangs create a distinct mythology.

This famous mural, located in Pico-Union illustrates the mythic status of fallen 18th Street members.

Last week, Production Dramaturg and Literary Manager John Baker shared an interview with Father Greg Boyle, an LA-based priest and founder of Homeboy Industries, an organization dedicated to reducing gang membership. In it, Father Boyle notes that gangs create a mythic self-understanding.

These myths get passed on because gang members will self-present.

So, they’ll say things like,

‘The gang was my family or my second family.’

As perverse as a gang-as-family might seem, the adoption of familial structure in gangs is not unheard of. In the 1990s, Mexican Mafia representative and 18th Street gang shot caller Frank Martinez was imprisoned on weapons charges. To ensure that the operations of his clique ran smoothly while locked up, he placed longtime girlfriend Janie Garcia in charge of collecting taxes from street level drug dealers. Her authority became so significant that lower-level members referred to Martinez and Garcia as “Dad” and “Mom.”

Tattoos in particular are significant lifelong identifiers, a topic that we will dig into further later on this week.

Gang mythology is not only self-created, they hold a unique place in popular culture. From The Godfather, to Scarface, to American Gangster, and television series like The Wire, and the History Channel’s Gangland, America has always demonstrated a morbid fascination with the brotherhood and violence of gang life. 1992’s American Me, starring Edward James Olmos and William Forsythe, was about the infamous prison gang the Mexican Mafia and apparently hit so close to home that the Mafia briefly put a bounty on the head of writer and director Olmos.

Like Oedipus, gang history is riddled with variation and contradiction. My research for our Oedipus dealt primarily with gangs like 18th Street, the Mexican Mafia, and MS-13. Members of these gangs swear to a “blood in, blood out” oath and revealing details of organizational structure is pretty much a death sentence, so there are relatively few firsthand accounts of gang history. Secondhand recollections of when, where, and why many of these groups formed offer a multitude of explanations. And this shouldn’t be surprising—why would a violent criminal organization ever be frank about its origins. After a week of struggling to construct a cohesive picture of the history of 18th street, always encountering incongruous accounts of events, I was struck by the important revelation that the unreliable narrative history of a gang is key to its reputation. Rumors and urban legends instill fear more than fact.

Though maybe not as epic in scale, the mythology of American gangs does parallel that of the evolution of the Oedipus story. Utilizing gang life as a vehicle to tell the story of Oedipus is fitting, as generations of embellishment and misremembering has grown each to a mythic scale.

~Tom Bonner, Assistant to the Artistic Director

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The Unmistakable Likeness of Christ

Many of the faithful will report that God is all around us. Everyday events, in the eyes of the religious, are miraculous. A blooming flower, the sunrise, and the shifting of tectonic plates are all evidence of God’s existence. Much as in our own culture, God is at the center of Luis Alfaro’s Oedipus El Rey. Oedipus finds himself at war with the beliefs of his own barrio, where the people “still lay hands and kill chickens and go to church and do what the shaman says.” In many cases, though, the presence of the divine is not so abstract, but, according to some, is literally ingrained into the objects we encounter in our every day lives. Today, after we at Woolly Mammoth have spent a week investigating the complex spiritual world of Oedipus, I would like to bring you a more light-hearted look at divine encounters.

Francis of Assisi met Him in the hills of Italy, Joan of Arc encountered Him in a field in France, and in 1977 while preparing breakfast for her husband, Maria Rubio of Lake Arthur, New Mexico flipped over a tortilla and spied the unmistakable likeness of Christ.

The image was an instant sensation, and the Rubio family built a shrine to the tortilla in their backyard where it stayed for many years and was visited by many thousands of people. Over time, the Tortilla became brittle and fragile, and in 2006 it was dropped and broken during a show-and-tell at a local elementary school.

Despite the unfortunate loss of the Rubio Tortilla, Jesus is often still found in unlikely places, often catching headlines. In 2005, Donna Lee of Toledo, Ohio discovered Jesus on her pierogi.

Lee, so impressed, saved the holy dumpling in her freezer. She sold it later that year on EBay for $1,775.

Of course, Jesus doesn’t always appear in edible form. His likeness has been known to appear on bathroom walls, kitchen tables, handbags, and even ashtrays. To keep tidy during a Christmas party in Australia, Kurt Hamilton-Foster set out several ashtrays for guests. At the end of the evening, while cleaning up he was shocked to notice an image of Jesus.

Mr. Hamilton-Foster remarked at the time, “It was clean and featureless when the party began. Obviously, the ashes alone could not explain the face. The features of Jesus have literally been burnt into the enamel surface.”

This peculiar phenomenon reached fever pitch last December, when the popular Fox show, Glee, aired an episode titled “Grilled Cheesus.” In the episode, football player and glee club co-captain Finn Hudson believes he has found the face of Jesus in a grilled cheese sandwich, he asks for three prayers to be granted: for the school football team to win a game, for his girlfriend Rachel (Lea Michele) to let him touch her breasts, and for him to be reinstated as quarterback. When his first prayer comes true, he asks the glee club to join him in honoring Jesus through such songs as The Beatles, “I Want to You’re your Hand”, “Papa Can You Hear Me”, from Yentl, and an especially poignant rendition of R.E.M’s “Losing My Religion.” Every song from the episode made it on to the Billboard top 100.

“Grilled Cheesus” was watched by 11.20 million US viewers, and was the second most-watched scripted show of the week among adults aged 18–49. While the writers received critical acclaimed and several reviewers praising Glee for successfully balancing opposing viewpoints, other criticized the episode for its lack of subtlety.

Within religion and outside of it, we all look for signals. The phenomenon of the divine appearing on pierogis and pancakes, while not necessarily profound, gives some of us that signal that there is something greater. Yet in the world of Oedipus El Rey, spiritual symbolism is fundamental to the beliefs of his people, and it is when he chooses to defy their customs that he suffers his tragic end.

~Tom Bonner, Assistant to the Artistic Director

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Father Greg Boyle on Hope, Gangs, Family & Community

When he began writing Oedipus el Rey, Luis Alfaro enlisted the help of Father Gregory Boyle to connect with some ex-offenders and former gang members. Fr. Greg is a Jesuit priest and the director and founder of Los Angeles-based Homeboy Industries, the largest gang-intervention program in the United States. As a spiritual leader in the East LA community, he has been successfully working to reduce gang membership since 1986. A few weeks ago, I had the chance to chat with Fr. Greg, who had just finished recording the final chapter for the audio version of his 2010 critically-acclaimed memoir, Tattoos on the Heart.

In your experience with the LA gang community, what causes someone to join a gang? And why do gang members tattoo themselves? 
Well, kids join gangs because they can’t imagine a future for themselves. And it’s about a lethal absence of hope. So, when they put a tattoo on, they’re ostensibly dedicating themselves to the organization—pledging their allegiance. But it’s also an act of desperation. Later on, the hope is that someone will infuse them with hope and they’ll realize, “Wow. This was really dumb.” So, that’s why there’s no other place on the planet that removes more tattoos than Homeboy Industries.

What’s the significance of tattoo removal?
When gang members remove tattoos, it indicates to friend and foe alike, “Who I really am is stepping away from what this used to signify.” And also that everybody is a lot more than the dumbest or worst thing they ever did.

In additional to tattoo removal, Homeboy focuses on job training and placement. In LA, when an ex-offender is released from prison, how difficult is it to find employment?
Exceedingly difficult, and it couldn’t be more difficult than it is right now, because at least in our early days the pool of the unemployed was smaller. And, so, you could almost always get an employer to say, “Send me somebody.” But now that the pool is a great deal larger, employers are going to choose other folks who have other work experience already. It’s extremely difficult, then, because everybody’s stigmatized. Everybody’s scratching their heads because the state of California has the highest recidivism rate in the US. But if we prepare ex-offenders for nothing in prison and nothing awaits them when they get out, we’ve lost our right to be surprised that we have so many returning to prison.

I read on Homeboy’s website that “Jobs are the key to change.” Why is this particularly true for ex-offenders?
You want ex-offenders to step away from the gang path and perhaps an inclination toward criminality. And so you have to engage them in purposeful activity. You have to give them a reason to get up in the morning and a reason not to gang bang the night before. So, employment really does the trick.

Do you think ex-offenders fall into their old ways by choice or necessity?
I think it’s probably a combination of the two. What would you do if no one would hire you, and you had the responsibility of paying rent and feeding kids? Sometimes if the process of re-identifying isn’t very complete—when ex-offenders start to reconfigure in their minds what manhood really means and what courage really looks like—then they can wander back to the things that put them in harms way. And if you sit around a barber shop long enough, you’re going to get a haircut.

While working with ex-offenders in LA, have you encountered individuals who find it easier and/or preferable to live behind bars than on the outside? Have you encountered individuals who purposefully committed crimes in order to return to prison?
I wouldn’t call that normative, but I would say it happens. And I know folks who have done it. They just couldn’t live on the outside. A lot of this happens on a subconscious level. Even when they know they’re gravitating perilously close to arrestable situations, who knows if they’re fully thinking that out. When guys get discouraged, they say, “Maybe I should just go back to prison. I kind of know how that works. And it’s three meals a day. And I know how the game is played.” Normally, you can just talk them out of that. Anyone who’s able to conjure up an image of what tomorrow will look like can steer clear of trouble. And all of it is completely commensurate with a person’s ability to stay hopeful, to stay away from inflicting harm or harm’s way.

For LA-area gang members, is there a difference between their gang and their family? Are the two typically one in the same?
You know, there’s a mythic understanding of gangs. These myths get passed on because gang members will self-present. So, they’ll say things like, “The gang was my family or my second family,” which is nonsense, because gangs are bastions of conditional love. And no real family is conditional; it’s unconditional. But gangs are quite, quite conditional. One false move and you’re on the outside and you can’t recover. Families ought not to look like that, but gangs do. But in their own self-presentation, gang members will say, “Oh, they’re my family. They’re the ones who have my back.” If the premise is true that no hopeful kid joins a gang, then hopeful kids are usually folks who are engaged in a deeply mutual and relational way with their family. And most gang members don’t have any good or pliable paternal experience. Or, the childhood with the mother is torturous. Psychologists will talk about gang members having a disorganized attachment. Mom was frightening, or mom was frightened. How can you calm yourself down, if you’re never been soothed? Part of what Homeboy Industries loves to do is to repair—to engage fully in attachment repair. How do you repair this thing that should have been part of their initial sustenance and love? And it’s better late than never. So, when gang members use the word “family,” it’s only because they’ve learned to say that over the years. They don’t know how else to talk about it.

In LA, do you see families acting as mentors or support systems for ex-offenders? 
It’s tough, especially now, in California, where so many people are in prison for the rest of their lives. But others aren’t in for life. The thing that’s so striking to me nowadays is essential homelessness among this population leaving prison. So, [after being paroled], they’ll come looking for a job, and you’ll ask yourself, “Wow, what good is a job if this guy has no place to lay his head.” And that’s just because families have moved on or don’t want anything to have to do with this ex-offender. Drugs seem to be dominant [with this population]. Everybody’s afraid: “Unless you nail everything down, this guy will return to my house and start selling my stuff.”

Does incarceration have an impact on gang solidarity?
Gang members will always say the same thing when they get out of prison: “Homies didn’t remember that I was gone. They forgot about me. They didn’t send me money. They didn’t send me packages.” And, again, it shouldn’t surprise anybody. Gang members don’t have it together. They don’t have it together enough to be mindful and attentive to a camarada [comrade] who’s locked up. So, when they get out, often enough it ferments an “I don’t want to go back. And these guys weren’t really my friends while I was locked up.” Or, if somebody’s a “shot caller”–whatever the heck people think that means–and he gets out of prison, it’s tough for that guy to start to humbly work in a warehouse when he used to be el mero chignon [the head guy]. That’s a really tough stretch. But I see lots of folks do it. Where they go, “Yeah, that was false and fake and empty and hollow and I don’t want to be a part of it anymore.”

From your experience in LA, does a community member’s incarceration have an impact on the health of a community?
In the end, gang violence is not a crime issue; it’s always a community health issue. And we’ll be healthy as communities the minute we pry it away from law enforcement. And see it for the truth of what it is: an indicator of a lethal absence of hope. That needs to be addressed by everyone in the community. So, the more we are reliant on law enforcement to make this go away, the unhealthier we are. The more we can engage the whole community in an all-hands-on-deck kind of commitment, then that’s real health. But, obviously, removing fathers from their kids and folks from our community during incarceration does damage to the life and soul of a community.

What challenges do ex-offenders face as they try to meaningfully contribute to their communities?
Again, there’s such a disparity—a high moral distance—that we strike between us and them. It’s really born of ignorance. How do you get a community to reach a kind of compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment of how they carry it? There’s a very pronounced “us” and “them.” And yet the returning prisoner and ex-offender are always saying to me, “When will they let me finish my sentence? I did 6 years in prison and now it’s been 5 years since my parole and no one will hire me. I thought it was a 6-year sentence, not an 11-year one.” And I think they’re quite correct in asking those questions, because on some level this is a huge failing. But it comes from the huge gulf between us and them and the good people and the bad people, the kind of Western thinking that only fosters that gulf.

For more information about Homeboy Industries, visit or


~John M. Baker, Production Dramaturg and Literary Manager

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Intuition or Institution?

The more I think about Luis Alfaro’s Oedipus el Rey, the more I realize it’s actually one of the stories I live everyday. Not the specific events in Oedipus’ journey, thank goodness, but one of many underlying currents to his tale: the tension between the organized, the systemic, and the organic or the instinctual. I would be willing to bet it’s one of your stories, too. In some form or another, don’t we all struggle with the balance between the institutions that structure our lives and the little rituals that give each day meaning?

For me, in Luis’ adaptation of a story about a king’s future ruined by fate, that struggle is essentially between the codified world of el rey, a politician, and the amorphous realm of el mistico, a spiritual leader. And not a spiritual leader like a priest or a reverend in an accepted religious group, but one that performs rituals for good or ill through an undefined power. One that is even harder to pin down or explain. As I began researching the Chicano culture of Luis’ Oedipus, I started to learn about these misticos. Words that had been strange to me in the script like limpia and more importantly, curandero, became vitally important to how I understand the play.
A profession that falls under the blanket term of mistico, the word curandero comes from the verb curar, meaning to heal. It means a person who acts for the good, a healer through the will of God who can perform ceremonies meant to improve spiritual and physical health, or just offer simple herbal remedies and counsel. In Oedipus el Rey, it is the curandero who acts as the divine prophet and takes the role of the oracle in Sophocles’ play. The catch is, apparently curanderos are very close to something much darker and not so divine: brujas (witches). When I was sitting in the rehearsal room, one actor brought up the idea of a mistico of “the bad variety” and the immediate response from another actor was to name that “a brujo.” And in the play, it is owls – symbols of the bruja – that echo what is initially presented as God’s word and tell Oedipus in his prison that he is destined to kill his father and marry his mother. This begs the question of where the prophecy really came from: divinity or witchcraft?

I wonder if it is this very uncertainty about the true nature of someone who professes to be a mistico that alienates el rey Laius, who rules over absolutes. Indeed, it is clear in Luis’ play that Laius only pays lip service to any kind of religion – until it becomes merciless and curses him, a very definite gesture. Oedipus too clashes with the curanderos, and the bruja of the Sphinx, when he becomes king. He refuses to differentiate between spiritual good and evil, but instead tries to destroy anything not part of his clear unambiguous system.

Yet, the wife of Laius and the mother of Oedipus, Jocasta – the only female we see in the play – offers a different perspective. She speaks of the seamless and unquestioned merging of organized religion and folk beliefs:

It’s about the old ways here. In this barrio – we still lay hands and kill chickens and go to church and do what the shaman says.

The people that Jocasta represents see no conflict between attending church and paying for curanderismo. In reading articles about Chicano religion, I found that believing in folk healing is almost always coupled with a strong commitment to church. The beneficiaries of a curandero’s services may carry tattoos of the Virgin Mary on their skin while they ask for a limpia – a cleansing that involves passing a broom, egg, herbs, something over that skin which is then burnt to ensure the dissipation of negative energy. Doesn’t this process sound like a shamanistic folk belief that would be eschewed by a practicing Christian? However, the power to heal or perform a successful limpia is claimed as a gift from God, which in the eyes of the curandero and his or her patients makes the two parts of their religious lives not antagonistic at all. What Jocasta describes, then, is a merge of the organized and the instinctual, which seems to work as long as the political rulers don’t try to impose a structure on it.

I’m not sure what this means about why Oedipus ends up the way he does, or what light the tension between system and spirituality sheds on questions of fate and cyclical decisions. Yet, the questions that arise around this topic are so central to Woolly’s production that spirituality is the dramaturgy team’s first weekly blog theme! So come back to read two more entries on the subject this week, because I can’t wait to hear from you, our eloquent audience, about what you see as the spine of Oedipus’ story. What conclusions will you draw from his clash with the mystical? Is there a balance that Oedipus and his father before him failed to find? Not only between religion and their politics, but in this greater sphere of institution versus instinct? I guess I hope so, because I’d like to find that balance in my story too.

~Maura Krause, Assistant Dramaturg and Woolly Mammoth Literary Assistant

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Not Your Mother’s OEDIPUS: From Howard Shalwitz

The notion of “the Oedipus complex”—a desire for sexual involvement with the parent of the opposite sex and a sense of rivalry with the parent of the same sex—was introduced by Sigmund Freud in his Interpretation of Dreams in 1899. It has been studied, debated, applied, and misapplied in a myriad of contexts ever since. In many ways, this makes Oedipus el Rey the defining work in Woolly’s 2010/11 season of plays entitled “A Striptease of Your Subconscious” (a season that began with Sarah Ruhl’s The Vibrator Play and Greg Moss’s House of Gold). If you want to deal with the mental landscape of human sexuality, ‘ya gotta come face to face with Oedipus!    

In Sophocles’ version of the story, the relationship between King Oedipus and his wife (and, unknown to him, mother), Jocasta, has been going on for many years, and they are, in fact, the parents of two children, Antigone and Ismene. But in Oedipus el Rey, Luis Alfaro imagines the beginning of the relationship between Oedipus and Jocasta—so he really makes us wallow in the sexual implications.  Over a third of the play is devoted to their meeting, steamy courtship, and decision to get married. 

Luis depicts both Oedipus and Jocasta as remarkably feisty characters who find an unexpected bond (despite their different in age) around the psychic wounds they share. Jocasta was forced to give up a child (whom we know to be Oedipus) many years ago, and has been angry and childless ever since. Just before meeting Oedipus, her gang lord husband, Laius, was killed in an automobile incident with an unknown stranger (Oedipus again, of course!). For his part, Oedipus has just been released after several years in prison, where he was taken care of by his father, another prisoner named Tiresias (though we know that Oedipus’s real father is Laius). In and out of juvenile detention centers and prisons his whole life, Oedipus is now burning to make something of himself, to become a king in the complex gang culture of the LA barrio. Jocasta is his first lover, and also his entree into the power-structure of the barrio. But Jocasta’s brother, Creon, is not too happy about their their relationship, to say the least, and builds up a deep resentment toward Oedipus for muscling into his own turf.      

I don’t want to give away too much, but I hope you’re starting to get the picture of how thoroughly playwright Luis Alfaro has re-imagined the story of Oedipus. The time structure is completely different, along with the setting, the language, and many of the relationships. Above all, he transforms a somewhat intellectual Greek tragedy about fate and the hubris of a king, into a visceral, very present, and very hot tragedy about the burning ambition of someone who is working his way up from the bottom of the economic ladder with no resources but his personality, his wit, and his fists. 

As Alli Houseworth’s marketing materials for the show have announced:  “This isn’t your mother’s Oedipus!”   

~Howard Shalwitz, Artistic Director

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