LatinUS Theater speaks Clark-Fulton’s language — literally

On a frigid night in January, when four inches of snow glittered on the sidewalks at Denison Avenue and West 32nd Street, and most Clevelanders were happily ensconced in their warm houses, five Latino artists were camped out in Art House, a community arts center. They were spending their evening as they have been the past two months: in rehearsals for a new play.

<span class="content-image-text">Kivin Bauzos director of Divorciadas, Evangelicas y Vegetarianas</span>Kivin Bauzos director of Divorciadas, Evangelicas y VegetarianasThese five artists were learning lines for “Divorciadas, Evangelicas y Vegetarianas” by Gustavo Ott (English translation: “Divorcees, Evangelists and Vegetarians”). The play, which will premiere at Playhouse Square on Friday, Feb. 21, and run through March 1, is being produced by LatinUS Theater, Ohio’s first independent Latino theater company. This is the fifth production by LatinUS, which presents works by Latino authors in Spanish with live English supertitles.

Rocky Encalada plays one of the lead roles in the play, which is about three middle-age women—one single, one divorced, and one widowed—who “discover their power through their friendships with each other,” said director Kivin Bauzos.

Encalada grew up in Miami and is bilingual. “My parents demanded we only speak Spanish at home, terrified that we’d forget our language and culture,” she says.

So, it’s ironic that she’s having trouble memorizing her lines tonight, in part because she’s so used to performing Latino works translated into English. In fact, despite Cleveland’s diverse, lauded theater scene, few productions by Latino playwrights are staged at area theaters, Encalada says. And when they are, they’re usually performed in English.

That’s why Monica Torres, a pediatrician who moved with her husband to the United States from Puerto Rico 14 years ago, founded LatinUS Theater.  “First, we want to give the community back the culture it’s lost,” Torres says. “Second, we want to make the non-Spanish community interested in our culture, to help them learn from our culture.”

Torres acted in plays in Puerto Rico in college. But when she moved to the U.S., she was too intimidated to audition for shows. “I didn’t make theater for many years because I was afraid of going for auditions in English with my accent,” says Torres. Latino actors with accents often have trouble getting cast for parts, she says.

She joined Teatro Publico de Cleveland, “a local Latino theatre company, whose work reflects the artistic goals, interests, and ideals of its members,” according to the website of Cleveland Public Theater, which started the group in 2013. Based on these positive experiences, she became inspired to create a theater in the Clark-Fulton neighborhood for the city’s Latino community. Sometime next year, LatinUS Theater will open its doors in the Astrup building, a new West Side arts center at West 25th Street and Seymour Avenue being developed by Rick Foran.

<span class="content-image-text">Monica Torres and Rocky Encalada rehearse a scene from “Divorciadas, Evangelicas y Vegetarianas”.</span>Monica Torres and Rocky Encalada rehearse a scene from “Divorciadas, Evangelicas y Vegetarianas”.“People who live in the Clark-Fulton neighborhood may not feel completely integrated into the community,” says Torres. “CPT created connections, and we feel that with two Spanish language theater companies, there will be more opportunities to get involved and also more exposure.”

Head start

LatinUS got started with a small grant from Neighborhood Connections that allowed them to bring their Cabezudos, which are papier mache heads used in Spanish and Portuguese street festivals, to summer events like Parade the Circle and La Placita. Over the past two years, they’ve been staging performances in rented theaters across Northeast Ohio. This fall, they presented “El Insolito Caso de Miss Pina Colada” (“The Unusual Case of Miss Pina Colada”) at the Studio Theater at Cuyahoga Community College’s Metro campus. They presented the play again in October as part of Hispanic Heritage Month at Lakeland Community College and Playhouse Square.

The group’s focus on community outreach has proven effective, says Bauzo, an actor, photographer and fashion designer who is directing the current production. While the audiences were mostly Spanish speaking at first, they’ve attracted an increasing number of English-speaking patrons over time, so now it’s more of an even mix, he says. “I got involved because I saw it as extremely positive for the community, not only to create art for the community, but also to bring people into creating the art,” says Bauzo, who lives in Clark-Fulton.

To engage Cleveland’s Latino community, LatinUS is giving away free tickets to a special show Sunday, Feb. 23, for the Clark-Fulton neighborhood. These tickets are available through local nonprofit organizations such as the Hispanic Business Center and Metro West Community Development Corporation, as well as through LatinUS.

<span class="content-image-text">“Divorciadas, Evangelicas y Vegeterianas” has a female empowerment message that should resonate with the Latino community and others.</span>“Divorciadas, Evangelicas y Vegeterianas” has a female empowerment message that should resonate with the Latino community and others.Powerful women

“Divorciadas, Evangelicas y Vegeterianas” has a female empowerment message that should resonate with the Latino community and others, Bauzo says. It’s not all serious, though. There is some spicy sexual content and also some humor. “For the Latino community, they can see how people can move forward without continuing the negative message of their lives,” he says.

In its two-year history, LatinUS has produced plays by both contemporary and classic Latino playwrights. For example, in March 2019, they staged a production of “La Muerte y La Doncella” (“Death and the Maiden”), a 1990 play by Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman about a woman who was kidnapped and abused during the dictatorial Pinochet regime. One night, many years later, she becomes convinced that the guest who gives her husband a ride home after he has a flat tire is the same man who kidnapped, tortured and raped her years ago. Holding him captive at gunpoint, she repeatedly attacks him and demands that he confess his crime.

For Encalada, productions like this are particularly meaningful, because she sees Spanish-speaking cultures reflected onstage. She also sees Cleveland’s Latino theater community being given its due and reaching diverse audiences. “The English version is produced constantly, so for the Latino community to take back this production in our own language is great,” she says.  

<span class="content-image-text">Jessenia Velez rehearses a scene from “Divorciadas, Evangelicas y Vegetarianas”.</span>Jessenia Velez rehearses a scene from “Divorciadas, Evangelicas y Vegetarianas”.For Cleveland to embrace its role as a diverse, international city, it needs to foster more artistic opportunities for Latino artists and stage productions representing other cultures, Torres says. That is changing now that LatinUS Theater is on the scene. The entrepreneur has been volunteering most of her time so far, writing grants and fundraising to pay her actors and get her dream project off the ground, but she will soon join the company as its first paid part-time director.

“There is a want in the community for theater that is outside English speaking and representing other cultures,” Encalada says. “They’ve been asking for it, but up until now, it’s been offered in little pieces. Cleveland is a more diverse city. If you have a diverse city, you need to be able to feed people their own culture.”

Tickets for “Divorciadas, Evangelicas y Vegetarianas” start at $25 and are on sale through the Playhouse Square website and box office. The play, which is recommended for ages 17 and older, will be performed in the Helen, Playhouse Square’s 150-seat black box theater at Dodge Court and East 15th Street.

Lee Chilcote
Lee Chilcote

About the Author: Lee Chilcote

Lee Chilcote is founder and editor of The Land. He is the author of the poetry chapbooks The Shape of Home and How to Live in Ruins. His writing has been published by Vanity Fair, Next City, Belt and many literary journals as well as in The Cleveland Neighborhood Guidebook, The Cleveland Anthology and A Race Anthology: Dispatches and Artifacts from a Segregated City. He is a founder and former executive director of Literary Cleveland. He lives in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood of Cleveland with his family.