Chris Chávez has directed both plays and musicals at theatres across the valley and this season he's set to tackle three shows that touch upon some serious topics - this winter he'll direct the Pulitzer Prize and Tony winning Angels in America and he'll follow that in the spring with another Pulitzer Prize and Tony winning show, the musical Next to Normal. This week he directs a more recent show, La Ruta, at Stray Cat Theatre, which opens on Friday and runs through December 17.
Chávez has directed plays in the past that also focus on serious subjects and issues; he directed the musical Carrie, which deals with the impact of bullying, and previously directed Next to Normal, the musical that centers on mental illness.
During final rehearsals of the show, Chávez sat down to answer some questions about La Ruta.
La Ruta is a relatively new play, having debuted in 2018, and Stray Cat Theatre is presenting the local premiere. Since most people haven't seen it or don't know the piece, what would you tell them the play is about?
Chris Chávez: "La Ruta is a play about six strong and resilient Mexican women and the continuous struggle to protect themselves and their loved ones from the 'invisible monster' who threatens their daily lives."
Why do you think what La Ruta focuses on is an important subject that people should know about?
"La Ruta focuses on the important topic of the Juaréz femicides that have been occurring in that city and along the U.S./Mexican border for at least the past 30 years, if not longer. This is a topic that when you tell people about it, they either have never heard of it, or are not aware of the magnitude of the issues and their impact on the Mexican people. Since these femicides have been occurring it always has appeared to be an 'them' vs 'us' problem. People have turned a blind eye for far too long to do nothing about these issues. That is only ONE reason that this piece is important."
Why did you want to direct this play?
"After Straycat announced that they would be presenting an all BIPOC season with all BIPOC directors, I was overjoyed. Then, Ron May (AD) approached me about directing a play in their season. My first thought was to direct a play that honors my people, but also has a message. I proposed a play that went up at Steppenwolf Theatre prior to the pandemic called, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter also by Isaac Gómez (and based on an amazing YA novel of the same name by Erika Sanchez). Ron checked and unfortunately the rights were not available at that time (I’m still putting it out in the universe that I will direct that play one day) so he asked if I had heard of this playwright's other play, La Ruta. I read the play and was immediately sold. It was a script that had everything I wanted: powerful characters, beautiful story telling, a powerful social justice component, and most of all a play with an all Latiné cast. "
Like the playwright Isaac Gómez, who lived in the area the play is set in but said he wasn't aware of the incidents until he was in high school, I had no awareness of the subject. How familiar with the incidents were you?
"As an immature college student I crossed the Juȧrez border when I was around 19 or 20 to go to the clubs when I was not legally able to do so in the U.S. Obviously a very unwise decision considering what I know now. The years following that 'trip' and with the internet becoming a household luxury, I started to hear more and more about the atrocities across the border. But what I was reading and watching was often through a U.S. lens, which often sensationalized the issues or worse, minimalized them. Since that time I have made it a point to educate myself further on the subject."
I know Gómez did a lot of research in writing the play, what type of research did you do to prepare yourself to direct the play?
"When it was decided that La Ruta was the play I would be directing, I immediately surrounded myself with as much media as I could on the subject in order to get different perspectives of these immense situations. I listened to podcasts, I read (many) books, I read articles, I watched a lot of documentaries. So to say that my summer was dedicated to my research of the subject in this show, is an understatement. A bonus of doing so much research on the subject is that I was able to connect with a local author, Stella Pope Duarte, who wrote a novel called If I Die in Juárez, which uses the femicides as a plot point and background for the novel. She was gracious enough to speak to our cast about her own personal experiences with the novel and in Juárez. If anyone wants recommendations on where to start research, I have a list."
|Chris Chávez and the cast of La Ruta|
What was the audition process like and what were some of the obstacles you encountered in being a male director where this is a play that features an all female cast and focuses on female empowerment?
"The audition process for La Ruta was not much different than it is with most productions. Once the announcement was made we had one initial round of auditions, then a round of callbacks. All in all, from audition to casting, it took 3 days. Regarding being the only male in the room (my AD and SM are also Latina), it has been an absolute pleasure and honor. I think the most difficult “obstacles” that come with being in such a unique position, is the external rumblings you hear about how others perceive these choices. The same happened when I directed another powerhouse Latina play, Real Women Have Curves, a few years ago. People were worried that a male could not fill the shoes of the director about a play about women. I will say what I said then, I was raised by a slew of strong and powerful women, and they have made me the man I am today. So to direct these types of play is a tribute to them and in doing so I hope to honor them. Additionally, for La Ruta, I also knew as a male I would not always “get it right”, so I made the request that my Assistant Director be female and now have the incomparable Luz Navarro by my side to provide her perspective when I’m not sure or I’m stuck."
Tell us how music plays a part in this play.
"La Ruta is a play with incidental music and NOT a musical. The difference is in a musical, you have musical/dance numbers that are part of/advance the plot, while in a play with incidental music, the music is used to enhance the mood, make some sort of commentary, underscore scenes, and so on. In La Ruta, the music is used to make a lot of political commentary. One of the most important is that all the songs within the show are songs that were originally composed and sung by men. La Ruta uses the musical numbers here to take back the power and the meaning of the songs and put it under the female lens, further supporting the theme of antipatriarchy and female empowerment. When you come to see the show, in the program you will find notes that I wrote that provide context for each song within La Ruta."
La Ruta sounds like a very intense drama, as it focuses on the disappearances, murders, human trafficking and sexual violence surroundig these female workers, but is there any hope for these women - many of whom are mothers desperately searching for news of their daughtters - or positive aspects you're taken from the play?
"To put it bluntly, no. No, there is no hope for these women or a lot of women who are in similar circumstances. These women are victims of circumstance. It is not their fault that they are poor, brown, and have no other choice but to work tirelessly, for pennies a day, just for survival. That is why this play is important. More people need to know about this epidemic and it must be stopped. Regarding the positive aspects of this play, I say and will always say, women are powerful and resilient on their own, and more so in numbers. It is such an inspiration to see, despite the threats and push back they get, that many women fight on the daily (sometimes to the death) to make us all aware of the unending issues. It is also an inspiration to work with such an amazing cast of powerful women baring their souls to ensure the stories of the women of Juárez are never forgotten."
For this season, Stray Cat Theatre is featuring all BIPOC focused plays directed by local BIPOC directors. What can you tell us why inclusiveness and diversity are important to the local theatre community?
"Since I started directing I have made in my personal mission to do most of my work with theatres that are not simply virtue-signaling, but are actually making good on their words (diversity/anti-racist statemets) and actually making attempts to create more inclusive and diverse spaces. Locally in theatre the two biggest issues as it relates to diversity and inclusion that I have observed is the lack of diversity in leadership/boards and theatres choosing to produce “diverse” productions, but not tell our stories. I use the old adage, “you can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig’ to make a point. What I mean is you can put on all the Annie’s, Oklahoma’s, and Our Town’s as you want with a diverse cast, but at the end of the day, these are still white stories. I want to see more shows like Fences, Yellowface, La Ruta and so on to be produced. Theatres always ask how they can get more diversity within their organization. The first step is by inviting us (BIPOC individuals) to the table, trusting us, and most of all telling OUR stories. I am not a gatekeeper and I do not have all the answers, but what I do have is the experiences of a 45 year old queer, Chicano, man and that alone should speak for something."
What do you hope audiences will take away from seeing La Ruta at Stray Cat Theatre?
"To date, this has been the most important piece of theatre I have directed. It is an awareness piece, but it is far more than that, it is a piece of hope and inspiration. With this play I hope audiences walk away with an awareness in their mind and a fire in their heart to fight for this cause long after this show is forgotten. With La Ruta, it has been my personal mission to ensure that through this production the missing and murdered women of Juȧrez will not be forgotten. Not now. Not ever."