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South Omaha melting pot features Mayan flavors in new play at Great Plains Theatre Conference


South Omaha melting pot features Mayan flavors in new play at Great Plains Theatre Conference

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the May 2019 edition of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Among the melting pot South Omaha subcultures.that Ellen Struve’s new play EPIC dips into is the Maya. The Omaha playwright’s original work will premier in three free performances May 29-31 at 7:30 p.m. on Metropolitan Community College’s South Omaha Campus, ITC Building 120, at 2909 Edward Babe Gomez Avenue.

EPIC is part of the PlayFest Neighborhood Tapestries program in MCC’s Great Plains Theatre Conference (GPTC). Program works are developed through community engagement that playwrights and directors do with residents. Struve met with several South Omaha groups in researching EPIC.

Abstract Mindz Collaboration was one.

“They’re an artists collective of very creative, talented young artists,” Struve said, “They have a fabulous amount of energy that sort of pops right off the walls.”

Additionally. she met with the artists behind the South Omaha Mural Project, whose works depict various South O cultures. The group’s prepping a Maya mural to be completed this year.

 

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Ellen Struve

 

Finally. Struve reached out to Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim, an organization of indigenous Mayans whose oral histories inform both the mural and EPIC.

“Witnessing people overcome trials with bravery and compassion is incredibly inspiring and certainly every one I’ve met at Comunidad Maya Pixan Oxim has done that time and time again while exhibiting an overwhelming sense of compassion,” Struve said.

“I have found there a wish for well-being for our shared humanity despite many obstacles. Executive director Luis Marcos, for example. came to America from Guatemala at 16. He taught himself English and Spanish. He’s trilingual. His people have been persecuted. There was a genocide against the Maya in the 1980s. To not only survive but to maintain such a strong sense of community and compassion and a deep appreciation for the arts is inspiring and connects with my own values and interests.”

 

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Maya community members

 

Struve already volunteered at the Maya community center when GPTC producing artistic director Kevin Lawler asked her to create an original PlayFest piece.

“I immediately thought of Luis and how much I admired Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim,” Struve said, “and asked if he would be interested in partnering with us. He was.”

The project dovetailed with related interests that bleed into Struve’s life, including a passion for immigration rights. Her play The Dairy Maid-Right examines issues about immigration in Nebraska. She’s advocated for DACA rights through the Heartland Workers Center. She interfaced with Dreamers while working at a Chicago music school. More recently, she’s discovered a Latino ancestry she never knew. She’s still deciding “how to creatively process” her own family story.

EPIC draws on the Popol Vuh – an ancient book of sacred Mayan stories – and it’s intersection with stories of first and second generation Americans.

Luis Marcos asked her to adapt it.

“It’s a beautiful epic poem I was unfamiliar with prior to working on this,” Struve said. “It tied in beautifully with the artist narratives and the idea of murals. I developed a narrative about a company of young artists creating a mural in South Omaha that turns out to be about the Popol Vuh and the way it speaks to our current moment and the ways we can make a better world.”

Struve and director Michael John Garces from Los Angeles conducted story circles with artists and Maya community members. The resulting script dramatizes ancient sagas and personal tales of South O natives, migrants and refugees who, Struve said, “are experiencing events in their lives reflective of events in the Popol Vuh. “Some of their stories are definitely impacted by the current immigration policies in the U.S.,” she said. “There are also timeless family stories of sons and daughters having second generation issues with first generation parents and timeless issues of artists coming into their own and connecting with a really important piece of art, the Popol Vuh, that is part of our hemisphere.”

 

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Popul Vuh

Struve considers the Popul Vuh “a fabulous document of a great civilization akin to the The Odyssey or the Egyptian Book of the Dead.” She even learned a Mayan language. “It has been a complete joy for me.”

Her play is in Maya, Spanish and English.

“Not only is it exciting to bring these community stories to the stage, but we’ll do it with production elements that are exciting for me to work with.”

In addition to community members acting on stage, certain things will be represented via shadow puppetry.

“I’ve always wanted to work with a puppeteer and we have a wonderful puppeteer and designer in Lynn Jeffries.”

Jeffries, who works with Garces at L.A.’s Cornerstone Theater Company, enjoys bringing the Popul Vuh to life. “It’s a fabulous story just on the level of storytelling. It’s funny and complex and has a lot of things that lend themselves to puppetry,” she said. “There’s a lot of action. It’s a very fluid mode of storytelling with multiple layers and characters who are often one thing and another at the same time.”

The production will use overhead projectors to make small shadow puppets manipulated on stage. Local artists will bring their own aesthetic to the figures.

Rather than a limitation, puppetry is a luxury.

“You can create a lot more with shadow puppetry because you can make a bunch of small things out of paper and fill the room with them,” Jeffries said.

Garces called puppetry “a wonderful theatrical device.” “Particularly for any element on stage that is supernatural,” he added, “it gives it life theatrically in a way that doesn’t feel forced as sometimes it does when people wear costumes. Audiences will accept things that puppets do and will really go on a journey with them in a way that’s harder to achieve with actors embodying those same features. Shadow puppetry allows us to more evoke things than do them. It’s quite a supple medium. I like that a lot about it.”

Technical aspects aside, Struve aims for audiences to have their curiosity peaked about Maya culture.

“I hope people learn more about the literature and the contribution the Maya community is making to make our city a more vibrant and exciting place to live.”

 

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Michael John Garces

 

Garces became familiar with Maya culture and the Popul Vuh years ago working with a theater company and writers collective in Chiapas. Mexico.

“The experience of working on Mayan-themed shows had a big impact on my career. It’s part of what led me to work at Cornerstone and it’s a reason why I embraced theater community engagement work.”

This marks the fourth time Garces has come to Omaha to flesh out a South Omaha-based play for the Great Plains festival.

“All the plays are an attempt to answer the questions, how did we get here and where do we go from here. These are vital origin questions. All these folks in the community are, like all of us, trying to figure out how to move things forward.”

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South Omaha Mural Project

 

Collecting the stories of EPIC fed his already “intense curiosity about South O denizens and allowed him to “delve much deeper into a wider range of this community where I’ve developed relationships.”

“If you’re going to be a serious theater practitioner,” he said, “you have to genuinely cultivate the part of you that is curious because if you don’t you’re just not going to have quality engagements with the subject matter you’re working on.”

There’s nothing he’d rather do than community engaged theater that grabs audiences.

“I’m very blessed to do the work I do and I’m grateful for it. It is hard work, but it’s satisfying and joyful.”

As for Struve, she said, “This has been a really humbling way to approach theater for me because my job is to serve the people who have contributed their stories and experiences to the project. It’s incredibly rewarding. It takes it out of your ego and it gives you a different kind of purpose than perhaps you had before.”

Visit http://www.gptcplays.com/playfest.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

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