Luis Alfaro is obsessed with stories. And the struggles of his spiritual seekers, gangbangers and prisoners end up in his works.
"The community tells you the story it wants you to hear," the 53-year-old playwright says.
In "Oedipus el Rey," for example, Alfaro swaps ancient Thebes for the barrios of south central L.A. for a contemporary take on the story that Aristotle called the perfect tragedy.
His new project, "This Golden State," will trace three generations of a Hispanic family in America in a three-play cycle jointly commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland and San Francisco's Magic Theatre.
Magic Producing Artistic Director Loretta Greco calls the deal "probably an unprecedented collaboration between theaters of such varying size." OSF is a leading regional theater, drawing 400,000 playgoers annually to three stages. The Magic is on the third floor of Building D at the Fort Mason Center on San Francisco Bay. It's the little theater that nurtured a young Sam Shepard, its playwright-in-residence from 1975 to 1983.
Alfaro, who is currently the OSF's Andrew W. Mellon Foundation playwright-in-residence, has penned such dramas as "Bitter Homes and Gardens," "Pico Union," "Downtown," "Cuerpo Politizado," "Straight as a Line," "No Holds Barrio." He still considers Los Angeles home and teaches theater in the graduate program at the University of Southern California. His magic realism-tinged "Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner" was produced at OSF in 2008.
In a phone interview from South Coast Repertory Theatre in Costa Mesa, he says the Magic will produce all three of the projected plays. He also notes that OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch has a record of getting plays he's commissioned into production elsewhere. Last season's "All the Way" opens March 6 on Broadway with white-hot actor Bryan Cranston, aka Walter White on TV's "Breaking Bad."
Alfaro's working on the project with veteran OSF actors Armando Duran and Vilma Silva. He'll ramp it up this summer, researching in May and June and writing in July and August.
"If you do enough research, the play finds you," he says.
"This Golden State" will track a Latino American family across generations. The first play will look at the family's spiritual life as a community is gentrified and the congregation can no longer afford its church, something that happens in L.A.
In the second play, the scion of the family will achieve success and gain political power. The third will focus on identity through the relationship of a father and sister who comes out as a lesbian after her husband has died.
Alfaro grew up in the Pico-Union neighborhood of downtown L.A., near where the Staples Center is today. His father was a devout Catholic, his mother a devout Pentacostal.
"We used to roller skate at City Hall," he says. "All that wonderful concrete."
Two gangs vied for power.
"A lot of death and violence," Alfaro says. "Every time there was a shooting, we'd jump on the floor and all hold hands, my grandma, an uncle, a wayward nephew." He also found comfort in the church.
"The priests were hilarious. They all spoke Italian, worked the Latin Mass, just lovely people. The Pentacostals did an all-day service, the mothers would cook, then there's an evening service. My aunt would make a vat of spaghetti, and you were surrounded by family and other kids."
The Alfaro family's ancestors were Californios, or residents of California in the Spanish land-grant days before the Anglos came.
"We didn't cross the border because there was no border to cross," he says.
He grew up speaking English and hanging out at the local Denny's and watching "The Brady Bunch." He wrote poetry before trying his hand at plays.
"I was lonely as a poet," he says. "When it came to the theater, I loved it."
Inevitably, he's worked with directors he's had trouble connecting with. Finding himself at loggerheads with one, he suggested going out for a drink.
"I asked him to tell me what he liked about this play," he says. "He said he was intrigued by the relationship of a secondary character. I'd been focusing on the lead. It was this wonderful moment. Once that clicked in, I knew exactly how to write it."
Working-class characters turn up in Alfaro's plays.
"As we're trying to figure out how to keep these regional theaters (such as OSF) going, working-class people are important to the stories we tell," he says.
As a gay man, he's also keenly interested in gay and lesbian characters.
"Any place you meet an oppressed community, I'm fascinated by how it responds," he says.
In the end, his plays are stories of characters struggling with their worlds, fighting toward authenticity.
"I love this question of who are we as a country," he says. "How much of an American are you? We all come from somewhere."
Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at email@example.com.