#PersonOfChange: An interview with Mark-Eugene Garcia

“I wasn’t Latino enough for my friends, but I was for the ignorant customer who had questioned my citizenship.”

Growing up two hours from the beach in West Covina, CA, this New York resident artist of Mexican and Honduran roots is ready to embrace the heritage he once shied away from. With the return of his play Eight Tales of Pedro to the Secret Theatre, Mark-Eugene Garcia (He/Him/His) is a #PersonOfChange.

When did you know you wanted to be an artist?

There was no specific date. I was always making art. That’s how I played. I thought every kid played that way. Everyone didn’t sit at home writing stories all of the time? To me, that’s crazy. Everything inspired me. Movies. Books. Video Games. Music. Growing up, I played woodwinds, so much of my influence was in music. I was addicted to movie scores. As a teen, I would collect movie scores from action and sci-fi movies and race home to sit and write stories to the music. I still write to TV/movie scores.

When was the first time you saw yourself represented on stage or film?

That’s interesting. It’s hard because growing up I was so many different people. But looking back, there were two things that I was — that I was afraid of being — and wouldn’t until I saw them demonstrated on stage and screen.

As a young gay teen, who didn’t want to be gay, I never expected to find acceptance in any life that didn’t include lying or trying to be straight.

I liked girls. I even fell in love a couple of times. But there was always an undercurrent of tension. I still looked at guys. I still pretended I wasn’t interested in guys. I knew, but I did not want to know. I think it took me longer to accept myself than it took my family to accept me. But the journey started with Rent.

In 1997, I borrowed my best friend’s copy of the cast album and listened and read the CD notes. I finished it. In tears, I started it over. I listened all night. Eight hours. Here was a group of people that created a family for themselves where all that mattered was love. It gave me hope that acceptance was out there. I related to Collins most of all. I was far too limited to understand drag so I didn’t relate to Angel. But I loved that Collins had Angel, and I wondered if there was one out there for me.

Growing up, I experienced some serious racism from close people I saw on a regular basis. I developed a deep shame in being Latino.

When I would hear derogatory terms for other Mexicans, I would feel that guilt for being one and for not saying anything in argument. I was a kid, what could I say? I completely missed learning anything about my heritage. I never could roll my r’s. I dropped out of Spanish in high school, because my being in music counted as a fine art/foreign language. I cut the ties. Then I felt guilty for cutting the ties. There was so much turmoil that I never had the opportunity to learn history, my family line, or to develop pride.

Then there was Zoot Suit. Because of my interest in theatre my dad brought home a VHS copy of Zoot Suit by Luis Valdez and I was hooked. I watched it over and over. I saw all the things I missed and lacked. The attitude. The drive. The fight. I wanted it. I craved it

I related to it. I wore a zoot suit to my senior prom. I think my friends thought I wore it because swing was in. I did it for me.

Tell us about Eight Tales of Pedro.

Eight Tales of Pedro is about two sets of storytellers, some now and some in 17th century Mexico, crossing a country- risking everything for a new life. As they tell their stories, their plots combine and intertwine into the same conclusion. It’s based on the folktales of Pedro Urdamales and of Juan Bobo.

How long have you been working on it?

I’ve been working on the show for quite a while. It’s been one of those “back of the drawer shows” that I kept brushing aside for other shows. In the early 2000’s I was introduced to the Pedro stories and I’ve always wanted to adapt them.

In adapting them, I discovered the Juan Bobo stories as well. He would be a fantastic companion to Pedro. Pedro uses his brains and trickery to get his way. Juan succeeds using his naiveté. These opposites never met in their stories, but I was intrigued with the question of “what if they had?”

The adapted tales sat unperformed for so long because I couldn’t find reason why I was telling the story. I knew I wanted it to be a story about finding pride in one’s heritage, about family, and identity but I couldn’t find the why.

Then the 2016 election came along and everything changed. Shortly after, I was at my day job and was manager on duty and had an angry customer. As I tried to resolve the situation, his first response was “Are you even a citizen?”

I was dumbfounded. Speechless. I wasn’t speaking Spanish. Nothing about me other than my skin color gave him the reasoning for saying that. The whole trip home I wondered if this was a conversation I was going to have often? Was this a question others had often? What was I supposed to say? Should I take pride in being an American citizen? He had wanted me to be insulted. Instead I was angry. He lit the spark and my internal fire was blazing.

How do you like working at the Secret Theatre?

The Secret Theatre has been such a dream. We were so excited to be part of their Unfringed festival. They were so supportive and matched our excitement as the word of mouth spread. We started with a small crowd that grew at every performance. The audience went home and wrote about the show. We sold out the final performance!

Winning their fest, we had hoped to return to the Secret in the future. Its stage lends itself perfectly to our style of storytelling theatre. When the phone call came, asking if we were interested in returning three weeks after closing- for an extended run- we were all so thrilled. Richard Mazda has been very helpful in the remount and in bringing outside contacts to help the play’s future.

Who are your collaborators on this journey?

I am so blessed. My husband, Rodrigo Bolanos, is directing the project. He has been a constant source of encouragement in the writing process and has been a wonderful collaborator as a director. It’s a unique piece of storytelling theatre, and he embraced the style perfectly. Time, space, and storylines merge seamlessly within his direction.

Luis D’elias originally came in to play underscoring for some of the scenes, but during rehearsals his music brought so much to rehearsals that he became a seventh storyteller. I can’t imagine the show without it. In fact, it will always be part of it.

As for the actors, the cast is stellar. Four of the six actors (Germainne Lebron, Kat Pena, Laura Aguinaga, and Richard E. Calvache) were in the very first table read. From that day on, I started tailoring the roles to their skills, responding to their questions and conversations about the characters. Many of the cast are teaching artists and one is a professional clown. How could I not include these traits?

Stephen Santana joined just as we started rehearsals for unFringed and Federico Mallet joins us for this second run. Both actors have been the perfect actor at the perfect time being just what we were looking for when we needed them. Similarly to the others, I had conversations with them to help re-create the roles. I think actor input and collaboration is extremely important in new works. One thing Rodrigo and I wanted with this group is to have the feel of a family. I like their work, yes. But I really like them as people as well.

What has been the most challenging part of this process?

The most challenging part was in the writing. Along with the guilt I felt growing up about being Latino, there was also the guilt of not. I had friends who would tell me that they had forgotten that I was Latino. It’s a narrow walkway of guilt.

I wasn’t Latino enough for my friends, but I was for the ignorant customer who had questioned my citizenship.

Where did that leave me? My anger and passion were blocked by a wall of fear. In many ways, that ignorant customer knocked the wall down. That collapse allowed me to push past the fear, start researching, and really delve into the story.

It wasn’t only about the folkloric characters in the 17th century. It was about us now. I came home and told Rodrigo my idea and he smiled. I knew I was on to something. That’s when the words really began to flow.

Is it safe to say there’s a hungry demand for contemporary Latinx Theatre by New York audiences?

We need to tell these stories. To so many in the U.S., the Latinx community, legal or not — are a number, a foreign idea, or worse- an enemy. Families are being ripped apart. Children are being separated at the border. But because these things could never happen to so many in the U.S., it is ignored, brushed under a carpet. Most U.S. citizens have never experienced their lives being threatened, or have faced true poverty, or have ever needed to leave everything they know for their children. The way to reach these people is to fight our way into their hearts. Show them the people and the stories. At the same time, our community needs to see them. We need to be reminded of our own pride in our heritage so that we can have the confidence to continue to tell our own stories. I know I needed that reminder.

If I learned anything from this experience, it’s that we writers need to find what we’re afraid of and write about it. That’s where the best stories are. I’ve written so many safe stories, and they had nice, polite, safe audiences. When I saw the crowds at our last run, I saw passion in their eyes. I saw emotion on their faces. I sat there thinking- This is what I want. This. Never forget this. Why were you afraid of this?

If you happen to be in New York between October 4th and October 14th, 2018 don’t miss Mark-Eugene Garcia’s ‘Eight Tales of Pedro’ at the Secret Theatre (4402 23rd St, Long Island City, NY 11101). To learn more visit markeugenegarcia.com/eight-tales-of-pedro.html

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