Teatro del Sol is creating the future of Latino theater

Frank Jimenez performs in a scene from

Frank Jimenez performs in a scene from "Oedipus del Rey," a production that was abruptly canceled before it could begin last year due to the pandemic. (Teatre del Sol)

Teatro del Sol, a Philadelphia-based theater company, is looking for promising Latino playwrights to write the next chapter of bilingual theater.

As one of the few local companies that primarily makes Latino theater, and the only one to regularly stage works spoken in both English and Spanish, Teatro del Sol has a new play development program where it selects an emerging playwright and offers a small stipend and resources to support the writing of a new work for a year.

“We would love for them to be local,” said Teatro del Sol co-founder and artistic producing director José Avilés.“We want to start cultivating a pool of Latin playwrights here in Philly.”

The program, called Fabrica, is still fairly new. So far it has gone through two rounds of development: Iraisa Ann Reilly’s “Good Cuban Girls,” which Teatro del Sol produced in 2019; and Alexandra Espinoza’s “Solly Dreams in Spanish,” which was planned to be produced in 2020 but the COVID-19 pandemic did not let that happen.

The pandemic was devastating to Teatro del Sol. Last spring the company was about to launch its biggest production to date, “Oedipus El Rey” by Luis Alfaro, at the Arden Theater in Philadelphia, where Teatro del Sol is in residence.

A remake of the classic Greek drama set within the Chicano street gang culture of modern Los Angeles, the play involved a cast of six actors, more than the small company had attempted before. Avilés hired muralist Cesar Viveros to create a large, multi-panel mural for the production.

After a week of previews, the play’s opening night fell on March 13, 2020, the same day that Pennsylvania declared a pandemic shutdown and forced all theaters to close.

“The closing of ‘Oedipus’ really hit us hard as a small theater company. What’s good is that we’re a small theater company, right? So we’re able to get back on our feet a little bit easier,” said Avilés. “We have been trying to be more cautious with the little we have in terms of money. We’ve been trying to raise funds this whole time. Our main goal right now is to remount ‘Oedipus.’”
Avilés is considering packaging the production as a traveling play, able to drop into neighborhoods in South Philadelphia and North Philadelphia. Rather than asking his audiences to come downtown to see “Oedipus,” the play would come to them in their own neighborhoods.

The cast of "Good Cuban Girls" takes a bow
The cast of “Good Cuban Girls” takes a bow. The play was developed through Teatro del Sol’s new play development program. (Teatro del Sol)

Avilés has a lot to juggle. While re-imagining “Oedipus” for a post-pandemic return of theater, and shepherding Espinoza’s script for “Solly Dreams in Spanish” for the stage, he is starting a playwright search for the next round of the Fabrica play development program. All this while working as director of educational outreach at the Arden Theater and directing student productions at area colleges.

Avilés started Teatro del Sol in the 1990s as a young actor who had a hard time breaking into the Philadelphia theater scene. With not enough work on stage, he turned to arts administration.

“Me, as a young artist of color in the city, being [of] Latino-Puerto Rican background — it felt like I was the only one in the city at the time,” he said.  “And, truth be told, I might be right about that.”

Although Philadelphia had a sizable Latino population, Avilés said there was not a lot of theater being produced that reflected that population. He started self-producing plays that centered on Latino culture, and learned he had to bring both cast members and audiences up to speed.

Tanaquil Marquez, Jose Aviles, and Yajaira Paredes
The Teatro del Sol team (from left) Tanaquil Marquez, Jose Aviles, and Yajaira Paredes. (Teatro del Sol)

“I was literally pulling people off the street to be actors, because I couldn’t find actors who were trained in the city who are Latino, who would speak Spanish,” said Avilés. “It was really hard to get an audience. Our community was not used to having theater marketed to them.”

The strain of running a theater company got the better of Avilés; he stepped away for a few years until 2018 when he merged with another bilingual theater company, La Fabrica. The combined company launched as Teatro del Sol; the name Fabrica is used for the company’s new play development program.

Espinoza is still writing her play “Solly Dreams in Spanish.” Set in an unnamed South American country (Espinoza’s family has a Venezuelan background), the play is about a maternal line — grandmother, mother, and daughter. It is written in both English and Spanish, involving magical dreaming set against a violent popular uprising.

“There’s a lot of magic in the play, and I’m still fine-tuning the rules of that magic,” said Espinoza.

Espinoza worked with Teatro del Sol mostly in February 2020, just before the pandemic shutdown. At the time she only had about two dozen pages of script. Avilés gathered together a handful of actors to read and discuss those pages, to talk about what worked and what did not. Espinoza felt strongly that all of the actors personally identify as Afro Latinx, to better understand the motivations of the play.

“My particular experience of being a Black Latinx person is because of my family connection to Venezuela. I’m writing directly from those experiences,” said Espinoza. “Jose’s understanding of the community and his deep roots in the city were really helpful in finding actors who felt comfortable exploring the material.”

Espinoza says “Solly” is much further along. She’s now on the second draft and has been selected to another, international play development program, Ciminetos, a project of a New York-based bilingual theater company, Iati.

Avilés does not yet know what the 2020-2021 theater season will look like, nor can he predict when “Solly” will be finished, but hopes to bring it to the stage next spring. Knock on wood.

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