Beginning this month, Houston audiences will be able to see a level of collaboration between three theater companies — Main Street Theater, Stages Repertory Company, and Mildred's Umbrella Theatre Co. — that brings to the spotlight not only their working together, but also a contemporary story told in a contemporary voice.
They'll all be sharing the the story of an Iraq war veteran named Elliot Ortiz, written by Pulitzer Prize-winner Quiara Alegría Hudes, of In the Heights fame.
Elliot: A Soldier's Fugue
Show runs through March 1 at Main Street Theater; 2540 Times Blvd. Visit Main Street Theater online for tickets and showtimes.
Main Street Theater executive artistic director Rebecca Green Udden had known about this play for a while. She looked at it more closely after seeing its sequel, Water by the Spoonful, turn up on Stages Repertory Theatre's calendar.
"I’m always in search of stories from a perspective different from the traditional Anglo point of view that I feel will resonate with our audience and give insight into other lives," she says of opting to produce the play. "These plays are so accessible and current, the language is so poetic and yet so natural. Hudes just has a wonderful voice as a playwright, and I want our audience to embrace her work and look for more."
Udden approached McLaughlin with the idea that Houstonians should see the whole trilogy, and he loved it. Udden added it to the February calendar at Main Street, opening Elliot just ahead of Water at Stages.
"This is a very American play," says Luis Galindo, who plays Grandpop, Elliot's grandfather, in Elliot: A Soldier's Fugue. "Any time I get to say words written through a Latinx lens, I'm all for it."
Galindo loves the family dynamic in the story, weaving three generations of veterans into it. He also likes that Hudes doesn't shy away from the racial complexities and racism the characters face.
"My character fought in Korea at a time when all the Puerto Ricans were separated from the other soldiers," he explains. "Obviously, that's different today, but Elliot underlies the idea that these men weren't considered equal, irrespective of their sacrifice. Some of them gave the ultimate sacrifice, and it's not enough in some people's minds to make you a hero."
Water by the Spoonful
Show runs through February 23 at Stages Repertory Theatre; 800 Rosine St. Visit Stages online for tickets and showtimes.
"Water by the Spoonful won the Pulitzer in 2012; I've loved it for years," Kenn McLaughlin, artistic director of Stages, tells CultureMap. "It's a powerful story of the human spirit and it keeps going."
The story follows Elliot, back from Iraq, as he struggles not only with addiction, but with his place in the world. His mother, also a former addict, seeks ways to help, even as she realizes her own limitations. The show's themes of class and race and love of country are ones that ought to resonate with audiences.
As one of the most diverse cities in the country, McLaughlin believes it's vital for H-Town's arts organizations to reflect what the city looks like.
"As artists, our job is reflect the community back to ourselves," he says. "It helps us lead richer lives, and develop a more empathetic response to each other. This isn't about cultural tourism; it's about human connection."
The Happiest Song Plays Last
Show runs March 6-8 at Main Street Theater; 2540 Times Blvd. Visit Mildred's Umbrella online for tickets and showtimes.
"Becky asked me if we (Mildred's Umbrella) would finish off the trilogy by doing a reading of it at Main Street Theater," says Jennifer Decker, artistic director of Mildred's Umbrella. "It's a female playwright and a collaboration with two highly respected theaters, so of course I said yes. Houston is one of the most racially diverse cities in America, and more than a third of the population of our city is Latinx."
Gerardo Velasquez reprises his role as Elliot in the reading, having played the character in Elliot, A Soldier's Fugue. Rhett Martinez, who played Elliot's father in the first play, is also in the reading.
Taken together, the three plays offer an unflinching but compassionate look at military service and what we owe to one another.
More than that, though, all those involved agree it's vital that Houston theaters tell these stories.
"I think diversity in theater should always parallel the diversity in the population of the community," says Decker. "I also think Houston Theater is doing a better job of it in general, and this trilogy is a good addition to that."
That echoes Galindo's feelings, who's excited that Houston audiences can see all three plays. (He's only in the first; he does, however, have plans to see the other two). For him, it's not just about telling the story of Elliot and his family, however. For Galindo, it's about what it all represents.
"It's time," he says. "I look around and I see lots of black and brown faces. We think of theater as being this pretty inclusive place, and we can see it here. Stages doesn't have to dedicate a whole series to Latinx voices. [He's talking about Sin Muros, the company's Latinx theater festival, which runs concurrently with Water by the Spoonful.] I just did Miracle on 34th Street at A.D. Players and the way they cast the show, two of the main characters were an interracial couple. It's important for people to see that. It says we're here, and we're American, just like you."
"We have so many things to celebrate as a theater community in Houston," she says. "We are growing and thriving – look at the fantastic new spaces that have, and are, opening. The talent pool is so deep and growing so much more diverse. We were all happy to seize this occasion to acknowledge that."