Old Globe’s ‘El Borracho’ playwright says comedy-drama hits close to the bone
World premiere play is about a family healing old wounds when a long-estranged alcoholic father comes home to die
In the nearly 20 years he has been writing plays, Tony Meneses has drawn from his Latinx culture, his life experiences and his family history for inspiration. But never has a play hit closer to home for the 37-year-old writer than “El Borracho,” which makes its world premiere Thursday at the Old Globe.
“El Borracho” is the story of a long-divorced Mexican-American couple brought together again when the dying, alcoholic ex-husband, Raul, is forced to move in with his ex-wife, Alma, so she can care for him at the end of his life. The third character in the play is a college student named David, who is Meneses’s alter-ego. The play is named for the “El Borracho,” or drunkard, card in lotería, a popular Mexican bingo-style card game where objects, symbols and characters from Mexican culture are called out instead of numbers.
Meneses, who was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, and moved with his family to Albuquerque, N.M., when he was a year old, said the story in “El Borracho” is his own, and it’s so intensely personal that he wasn’t ready to tell it until now. Meneses was 8 years old when his parents split up and 21 when his mother took in her estranged alcoholic husband during the final weeks of his life. He died at age 62 in 2006.
Meneses said playing lotería was a favorite family pastime, and he and his siblings often joked that the El Borracho character, a wobbly legged Mexican man holding a liquor bottle on the sidewalk, was their father. Meneses said he hopes the play surprises the audience by showing the difference between the stereotypical drunkard on the card and the reality.
“The El Borracho image is so insidious. It exists in a card game and a drunk Mexican man is culturally one of our iconographic pictures,” Meneses said. “ I want people to think the play is about that, and then see a real, grounded human portrayal of a man dealing with a lot of issues that led to that.”
Although there are sad elements to this story, Meneses said the play is very funny, healing and positive. He describes the mix of emotions in the play as similar to those expressed in the plays of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov.
“There’s a lot of levity and a lot of joy, which is very Chekhovian. I call my aesthetic ‘Mexicovian.’ Those Russians feel like Mexicans to me. They openly talk about their joys, sorrows and pain and they have these quiet moments.”
Meneses said from early boyhood he began creating fictional stories in his head while playing with his toys. Then he discovered the art of theatrical storytelling when he cast in a few high school plays. He wrote his first play script at age 18 and has written 29 more in the years since, including “Guadalupe in the Guest Room,” which was produced in 2018 at New Village Arts in Carlsbad. A two-time recipient of the Kennedy Center Latinx Playwriting Award, Meneses now lives in Hoboken, N.J., and teaches playwriting at Fordham University in the Bronx.
He wrote “El Borracho” in 2019 during the two-year Lila Acheson Wallace Playwrights Program at the Juilliard School in New York City. It was later workshopped and read in the Old Globe’s 2020 Powers New Voices Festival. Now it returns in a full production starring Jesse J. Perez as the father, Raul. Perez was Meneses’s teacher at the Juilliard School and now runs the Old Globe and University of San Diego Shiley Graduate Theatre Program. Meneses said he wrote the role with Perez in mind.
Meneses admits that watching the play unfold in rehearsals at the Globe this past month has been emotionally challenging.
“I didn’t write this play until I was ready for it. They say it takes 10 years for you to write about something that’s a big deal in your life. Reliving it, it’s interesting, usually I enjoy the artifice and the fiction I’ve created, but since this is so truthful it has been challenging to be in the room and hear these words,” he said.
“El Borracho” is directed by Edward Torres, whose past Old Globe credits include directing “Familiar,” “Native Gardens” and “Water by the Spoonful.” Torres also directed the Old Globe workshop and reading of “El Borracho” two years ago.
Over the years, Torres said he has had the opportunity to work with many playwrights on new plays — including the world premiere of Kristoffer Diaz’s acclaimed “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity” — but directing “El Borracho” has been unique. Like Meneses, Torres said he had family members who struggled with alcoholism.
“This is the most personal of any new play I’ve worked on,” Torres said. “It takes a certain kind of courage to tell a story like that. What’s interesting about this story is that it’s extremely personal, and the more personal the story is, the more universal it is to the rest of us. That’s how I know it’s a really good story that hugs and tears at your heart.
“Tony and his words, they match. He has this degree of emotional intelligence that allows him to put forward the story he’s telling. This is an actual new American drama that provokes ideas of (Arthur) Miller and (Eugene) O’Neill,” Torres said.
Back in the 1980s, when Torres was a young Latinx actor and director in Chicago, he couldn’t find work because American theaters weren’t programming plays about immigrant families like “El Borracho.” So in 1990, he co-founded Teatro Vista, a Chicago theater troupe focused on providing more opportunities for Latinx artists like himself.
Over the past three decades, American theaters have gradually been hiring more playwrights, designers, directors and performers of color. But it wasn’t until summer 2020, when hundreds of artists of color published the online manifesto We See You White American Theatre that theater companies began making substantial changes in their hiring and programming. Torres supports the document but said the Old Globe was ahead of that curve when the document was published.
“I understand the struggle and why the We See You document came up. I also feel like there are theaters that have already been doing what that document was asking for and the Globe was one of them,” Torres said. “The Old Globe is like a second family to me. Whenever I come here I feel like I’m coming home.”
When: Opens Thursday and runs through March 20. Showtimes, 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays. 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays. 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Saturdays. 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays.
Where: Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, the Old Globe, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park, San Diego
Tickets: $29 and up
Phone: (619) 234-5623
COVID protocol: Proof of full vaccination is required or proof of negative result of a COVID-19 PCR test within 72 hours of showtime. Masks are required at all times indoors.
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