Preview: For Rodolfo Robles Cruz, ‘Oedipus el Rey’ at Selma Arts Center is a story that needs to be told
Rodolfo Robles Cruz is ready for Latine theater to explode in the Valley. He’s doing his part in directing the new production of “Oedipus el Rey,” an acclaimed play by Luis Alfaro, who sets the famous Oedipus story in contemporary East L.A. The production opens Friday, Nov. 18, at Selma Arts Center. The play continues through Dec. 3. I caught up with him via phone and email to talk about the production.
Pictured above: Carlos Sanchez, as Creon, and Mason T. Beltran, as Oedipus, in ‘Oedipus el Rey.’ Photo: Rodolfo Robles Cruz, Selma Arts Center
Q: A New York theater critic reminds us that “Oedipus el Rey” is based on Sophocles’s “Oedipus Rex,” the story of a king “who expends considerable energy trying to elude the prophecy that he will murder his father and sleep with his mother (2,500-year-old spoiler alert: he unwittingly does both anyway).” Do you think people need to know about the original before seeing your production, or even know who Sophocles is?
A: The story of Oedipus, I feel, is already deeply ingrained in the minds of the general public. Introduced by the philosophies of Sigmund Freud, the theory of the “Oedipus Complex” is something that is easily recognized by the general public. So even if you don’t know sophocles, or have read the original script, we all have the concept of a son attracted to their mother somewhere registered in our mind. This is something that makes this show so accessible, intriguing and disturbing. In accordance with Greek theatre as well, the Coro (Chorus) serves as a device to navigate the story, and to whisper in the audience’s ears as we progress. So even if you know nothing of the classic Greek play, you will still understand the story completely.
Q: Tell us about your Oedipus. When we first meet him, he’s spent most of his young life behind bars. What kind of person is he? What are his dreams?
A: This is a question that Mason T. Beltran (the actor who portrays this character, who goes by they/them pronouns) could answer beautifully, as they have sculpted this character so beautifully in collaboration with my direction. Here’s their answer: “He’s got so much energy, a lot of fuel he wants to burn. He would like to actually have things for once, an income, a place to call home, a wife, a community; Freedom in the way that it’s advertised. I would say that he’s kind of an asshole as a person, he doesn’t really like anyone or really care if anyone likes him. He’s spent his life doing what he wants and he wants to show his dad that he can make a life for himself on his own terms. It’s all for his father, in a way oedipus’ behavior and path is all about how he wants to make his dad proud, and do it in his own way. But somewhere along the way he gets lost in a different relationship that he’s not experienced before.”
Q: Playwright Luis Alfaro has set the action in modern-day California — the prison is in Kern County, and Oedipus hails from Chicano East Los Angeles. It’s pretty wild to combine such a specific setting with a timeless, ancient, classical Greek play. How do you think these two forms complement each other?
A: The marriage of these concepts works surprisingly well. The Greek plays offer us timeless themes and influence. And the Chicanx culture offers a sharp edge to the story. The interpretation of these themes through the modern voice of Latine people is powerful. It reminds us that what the Greek plays captured the human experience, and the human experience of today is just as visceral and passionate as it has ever been.
Q: You were born in Mexico and came to the U.S. at the age of 2. I know you grew up in Fresno and spent a lot of time in Mexico. Have you spent much time in East L.A.? If not, did you feel like you needed a crash course on that specific subset of Latine culture? I guess what I’m asking is, if Alfaro had decided to set “Oedipus El Rey” in Fresno, would it be much different?
The communities of Los Angeles have a culture of their own, the way Fresno has an individual and unique culture. There are many similarities, as the carriers of Chicanx culture have traveled and influenced each other throughout California. And as our families and friends are surprisingly, through my experience, interconnected. I have family spanning the entirety of California, and grew up with people influenced by the East L.A. culture as much as people who were influenced by the Bay Area culture. What we centered on as a cast, is getting to the core of the story, diving into the honesty of the words. Many of my actors have that influence instilled in their family, the East L.A./Cholo culture clearly ingrained in their memories through their family. So the inspiration and reference was easy to tap into.
Q: You talked on a recent podcast that your family’s deep immersion in Mexican culture shaped your love for storytelling. I can imagine you listened to a lot of stories as a kid. Do you remember the first time you made that leap and told one yourself?
A: Yes! I credit a lot of influence in Mexican Novelas. I would watch them religiously with my mom, and was so drawn in by the actors, the score, the melodrama. I would watch stories on TV then listen to stories every weekend with my family. But I never felt good enough to be a participant, for a very long time I was an audience member. When I got to high school, I asked for a theatre class as my elective, and Aly Fugman of Sunnyside High School took me under her wing and taught me to fly! The first play I was in was David and Lisa, and I played a train porter! In my two lines I felt such success! One of my favorite stories I told, and the first time I played a Latine character, was “References To Salvador Dali Make Me Hot” by Jose Rivera, directed by Summer Session. Summer has also been an amazing mentor, I’ve known her since I was 16! And credit her for my love of directing.
Q: You’ve said most of your family members might be stage-shy, but put them in a comfortable, family-type setting and they become enthusiastic performers. You, on the other hand, are making theater your career, whether it’s acting, writing or directing. Why do you think you went so “public” with your love of theater?
A: That’s correct! My family always gives me high praise for being an artist, claiming they have no idea where I get it from. I gain this artist confidence and passion through them! When they tell stories around the camp-fire, when they recount their days in the rancho, whenever they throw parties and have one too many they are artists in full effect. Their vision of the world in the U.S. has always been black and white, you do things by the book to succeed, and that never included art as a career. I am an artist to perform, write, and direct their stories. I owe it to them to make the public aware of our existence.
Q: Midway through your time at Fresno State, a new faculty member was hired: Gina Sandi-Diaz. Why was this so important to you and for Latine theater in the greater Fresno area in general?
A: It opened up the world for me, isn’t it crazy that although we like in Fresno, greater than that, the Central Valley, I was not learning about “Latine” theatre until we got Gina? That’s insane! It was pivotal in letting me know that I did not have to conform to then Euro-Centric experience which is what dominates the theatre world. To my understanding getting a Latine theatre specialist has been in the works for a very long time at Fresno State, I’m just fortunate enough to have been there at the right time to gain a mentor like Gina.
Q: Sandi-Diaz directed “Electricidad,” the first in Alfaro’s “Oedipus”-inspired trilogy, earlier this year at Fresno State. Is that why you wanted to direct the second for Selma Arts Center?
Partially, both Juan Luis Guzman (Laius) and I wanted to submit it to the arts center. I was heavily inspired by the work after reading it in college years ago, and even more motivated when I saw it performed in 2020 at KCACTF. When Gina directed Electricidad, I knew it was the perfect time to continue moving the work forward. Juan and I got coffee together and had a powerful and moving conversation about the presence of Latine theatre in the valley, and he encouraged me to submit it, with his backing as producer. It did not matter who directed this piece, we just knew we needed to see it in the Central Valley.
Q: Ellie West, who plays the pivotal role of Jocanda (the mother of Oedipus) in “Oedipus el Rey,” was also in “Electricidad.” Is there anyone else common to both shows?
A: I tease Gina that I stole her entire cast. I have FOUR of her cast members in my show! And even an extra one as my assistant director (Dalicia Torrecillas!). I am honored to work with Agustin Chapa, Carlos Sanchez, Ellie West, and even Jen Rodriguez who played the titular role of Electricidad. Equally as excited to introduce Mason T. Beltran, Thomas Estrada, and Juan Luis Guzman into the universe we have created. One of my cast members said it best, it’s so easy to find trust and ease to develop characters when the entire room looks like you and has experienced life like you.
Q: Sandi-Diaz isn’t working officially on your show, but she’s been to a rehearsal. Were you nervous when she came?
A: Yes!! She is my mentor. One of my biggest challenges was getting this show to flow smoothly, it is written in a jagged way and it is the task of the director to ensure the navigation of this journey be smooth. She had no notes, so a big relief was flushed over me! It was also the casts most nervous performance, as many of them see her as a mentor and colleague of high respect as well.
Q: You love writing — and you won a national award from the Kennedy Center American College Festival National Playwriting Program for your play “La Norteña” — but you said on your podcast that you find writing draining because you don’t like to be alone. Is sociability one of the things that makes a good director? What strengths do you think you bring to “Oedipus el Rey”?
A: I’m surely not qualified to say what makes a good director. I’ve worked with a bevy of people who in my eyes are good directors and are all extremely different and qualified. I will say that I hope my love for people and the value I place on their time makes me someone who people like to work with. And that is the most important part of theatre, it makes people want to put-on a good show. I also am crafting a show, not necessarily for the regular theatre audience, rather I extend the arm forward to the audience who is new to the craft. I hope I make it accessible, exciting, and powerful for them.
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Q: In an area such as ours, cultural identity can be complicated and fascinating. You come from a Mexico-infused upbringing and heartily identify with that culture. Others with Latine roots, perhaps just one generation removed, ignore or sublimate any sense of that part of them, choosing to identify with white culture. I know you have strong feelings about identity and how important it is to acknowledge that everyone is on their own journeys, with no judgment involved. Does “Oedipus el Rey” acknowledge these various points on the identity spectrum? What do you hope people take away from the show in this regard?
A: You know, this play never addresses points of cultural identity, because it really isn’t needed. Some people like to rob others of their identity. This happens within your own family, in schools, and even in our own theatre community. This leads to people feeling like they aren’t latine enough to be doing shows about the culture. The popular media is notoriously culpable of highlighting the euro-centric Mexican person and ignoring the indigenous Mexican, that is something that needs to change. However our communities are filled of all people in between, and to rob someone of their identity because they don’t know the language, because their skin is too fair, because of some superficial feature is ridiculous. Claiming ownership of a culture, enough to feel like you can take it away from someone else, is ludicrous. If you love the culture, grew up with the culture, identify with the culture, there is room for you to do this kind of theatre. It’s a fine line to balance space for everyone, while highlighting the traditionally oppressed, but if we don’t find the balance we lose the talents of so many artists. It’s a line I am willing to look for in any project I take on.
Q: Do you think there is a base of support for an established, provocative, professional-caliber Latine theater company in Fresno? What would it take for that to happen?
A: YES! I also believe that the Central Valley has the potential to be a major hub, equally as great as broadway! Especially in the realm of Latine theatre. The stories here are rich and dynamic. California is so heavily influenced by the Mexican migration journey, that the art that can and is produced would be amplified and empowered so much by the support of a professional theatre company,
Q: Tell us one thing about yourself that most people don’t know.
A: I don’t think there’s much that people have yet to learn, I carry myself like an open book. Perhaps that I have a strong interest in philosophy, enough to consider a career change early on in my college days. I found that philosophy and theatre compliment each other beautifully.
Q: Anything else you’d like to say?
A: Latine theatre is such a powerful device to push storytelling, especially in a landscape so dominated by the Mexican influence. I’m excited to continue the work pioneer artists have started. Artists like Juan Luis Guzman, Dr. Gina Sandi-Diaz, and Dalicia Torecillas, to name a few, have been in this journey for a long time. I am excited to now be a partner alongside these powerhouse people. Thank you for your time, Donald!