Interview with Evelina Fernández (2022)
by Chantal Rodriguez
Evelina Fernández is an award-winning playwright, screenwriter and actor. She is a founding member, associate artistic director, and resident playwright of the Latino Theater Company, operators of the Los Angeles Theatre Center.
Chantal Rodriguez, Ph.D. is Associate Dean of David Geffen School of Drama at Yale, and Associate Professor Adjunct in the School’s Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism Program.
This interview was conducted via Zoom on August 12, 2022.
Chantal Rodriguez: What do you think the tradition of adaptation contributes to the field of Chicano/Latinx theater?
Evelina Fernández: I think it can spark an interest in people who like Shakespeare, or the Greeks, and expose them to our culture. I don't do it that often because I usually write new plays, but the few opportunities that I’ve had especially with the Getty Villa Lab did put my work in front of a different audience.
Chantal Rodriguez: Can you share what your process was like with the Getty Villa in adapting Lysistrata by Aristophanes in 2006?
Evelina Fernández: Well Ralph Flores [Senior Specialist, Theater at J. Paul Getty Museum] is really great at commissioning people and he asked me with our company to choose a play that I wanted to adapt. I had seen Liz Estrada a Chicano musical adaptation of Lysistrata by Carlos Barón in San Francisco in the early 1980s produced by Teatro Amanecer. I remembered that and decided I wanted to look at Lysistrata and so I created Liz Estrada in the City of Angels. At that time there was a lot of strife between Brown and Black communities in L.A., so I made the war between the Latinians and Africanians and I set the play in the future. It was great to bring diverse cultural elements to the adaptation. There were Chicano, African American, and Jewish actors because I wanted to represent Los Angeles in the present and future. We also brought in original rock en español music by Richard Ochoa and CITA, and we had a diverse design team which was really great.
Chantal Rodriguez: Can you talk about your 2015 adaptation of the Roman comedy Pot of Gold by Plautus?
Evelina Fernández: That was also a commission by the Getty Villa. I wasn’t well versed in Roman comedies, so Ralph Flores sent me a list of plays to choose from and I felt that Pot of Gold was the most adaptable. I was inspired by the rumberas film noir genre of the golden age of Mexican cinema. I set it in a nightclub because the Latino Theater Company uses a lot of music and movement in our productions. But this adaptation was tough because I struggled to find the drama in it. Our company is used to dealing with political issues, so I worked to make this adaptation say something important to our audience. And there were people who said that they liked it because it was a fun show, and it wasn’t about anything serious. That didn't make me feel great as a playwright, but people seemed to have fun with it. Ultimately, I maintained the central theme of greed in the play and kept as much of the structure as I could considering that the ending of the original script is lost. This gave me some freedom to create my own ending though.
Chantal Rodriguez: When you are adapting an ancient text, are there certain dramaturgical elements you make sure are honored?
Evelina Fernández: When I adapt, I want to be true to the structure of the story. With Lysistrata I was more focused on honoring what the play is about - the ravages of war, the power of women and femininity. With Pot of Gold, I was looser with it, even though I worked within the confines of the structure of the story. While I maintained the characters in the play, I also added some and changed the gender of others.
Chantal Rodriguez: How does the Latino Theater Company’s process inform your approach to adaptation?
Evelina Fernández: Everything I write is influenced by our process of creating together for over 35 years. We have developed a signature style – our stage composition is something we are all aware of. My writing process is deeply connected with our aesthetic and with our audience which is predominantly Chicanx. We are unapologetically Chicano. I don’t think about appealing to anybody else. I know who our audience is and that's who we do our plays for.
Chantal Rodriguez: You also have other plays that are inspired by other texts, even if they are not formal adaptations – Solitude (2009) which is inspired by Octavio Paz’ Labyrinth of Solitude, or Sleep with the Angels (2022), inspired by Mary Poppins. When do you decide to turn to an established story versus creating something from scratch?
Evelina Fernández: In Labyrinth of Solitude Octavio talks about Chicanos in a way that I felt was really interesting. He speaks about Mexican thought and identity which is so much of who we are as Chicanos, and I thought that was spot on. I thought about people that I know who have turned their back on where they come from to survive racism. So, I wanted to write a character like that and that’s how Solitude developed. With Sleep with the Angels, the idea of a Mexican Mary Poppins had been in my mind for a while. I wanted to bring a different perspective to the story, and my daughter Esperanza used to work as a nanny and her experiences with a child she worked with informed the play. The young child she cared for was very curious and asked her a lot of questions about gender and he also wanted to be Mexican like her.
Chantal Rodriguez: One of the reviews of Sleep with the Angels mentioned how important it was that you were flipping the script of a white family with a Mexican nanny. Can you speak to the ways that you wanted to center people of color in this story?
Evelina Fernández: This was originally an adaptation for South Coast Rep and as I worked on it, I felt that it would be too easy for the main character to be a nanny for a white family, but the reality in Los Angeles is that a lot of Chicano families have Mexican nannies. It’s important for me to write interesting roles for Chicanx actors and to dramatize stories that you don't traditionally see on stage. It was vital for me that the audience sees that this is a busy family, two attorneys who are educated and struggling with their marriage and raising children, one of whom is curious about their gender. This couple has essentially lost connection with their roots, and the nanny Juana brings magic into their lives and helps them to re-connect with their culture.
Liz Estrada photo archive and soundtrack recording can be found here:
Facebook Live (recorded) conversation about La Olla with the Latino Theater Company (9/2/2020)
Facebook live (recorded) conversation during development/workshops of Sleep with the Angels in 2020.
Saul Nieto and Esperanza America in Sleep with the Angels at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, 2022
Photo by Grettel Cortes Photography
Courtesy of Evelina Fernández
Sal Lopez in La Olla at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, 2016
Photo by Grettel Cortes Photography
Courtesy of Evelina Fernández