Students from East Los Angeles, West Hollywood, Compton and North Hollywood will be treated to a series of special morning and afternoon performances of “The King of the Desert,” in its current run at El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood. Organized by the play’s co-producer, David Llauger-Meiselman, and facilitated by Youth Policy Institute, these performances will be followed by informal discussions with the principle actor and the students about the issues raised in the play.
“King of the Desert” is a wholly introspective play, a profound and moving work about a Chicano’s coming of age, as he is transformed from a boy in a San Antonio barrio to achieving his dream of becoming a professional actor and a mature family man.
Plays about the Chicano experience are a rarity in American theater. Really great plays are rarer still. “The King of the Desert,” ranks among the very best plays that deal with what it means to be a Mexican growing up in America. For Chicanos and Latinos, this play speaks directly to their experience. When was the last time a movie or TV show did that?
René Rivera, the sole actor in the play, did go from a San Antonio barrio to attending the Juilliard School in New York City on a full scholarship. “King of the Desert” is based on his life. Rivera gives a brilliant performance, a tour de force that shows an actor in complete command of his art.
Many Chicanos have come out of the play saying “That was my story.” For Leno Daiz, who came to East L.A. from Juarez, Mexico in 1927 and who lived in San Antonio for many years before returning to L.A., the play reminded him of his own history.
“It has to do with identity. This man feels strong for his culture, his background, his forefathers, he’s a Chicano, a Mexican. I enjoyed it very much because I lived some of that stuff growing up,” Diaz said.
Rivera bares his soul on stage and doing such a personal play was an incredible challenge. “I’d never worked on something like this before, something as personal, yet big and universal and deeply, deeply rooted. I was afraid of it, I was intimidated by it and because of that I accepted it. I accepted the challenge and it continues to be a challenge,” Rivera said.
The deeply moving script was written by Rivera’s wife Stacey Martino. She spent many hours talking with Rivera’s family in Texas and with Rivera himself. Her script reflects part of her relationship with him. “The King of the Desert” grew out of my hunger to understand my husband’s life and to learn about my daughter’s Mexican American heritage. It was my own journey into the past in order to bring our family closer and alchemize the more difficult aspects of life,” Martino stated.
From a purely theatrical viewpoint, this is an interesting play. The plot does not follow a linear chronology but instead moves back and forth between past and present. The central question of the play, who am I, is established by no less an authority than the Prince of Denmark. Hamlet’s famous soliloquy is performed in English and then in Spanish, losing none of its power in the translation, and sets the tone for the rest of the play.
The play follows two streams of conciseness. In the present, the character address an unseen individual about his fears and concerns. In the past, key events in his life are revealed: His childhood in San Antonio, his dream of becoming an actor, attending Julliard, acting on Broadway and in films. Movement between present and past is generally seamless and the two streams merge at the end of the play.
There are many themes that are familiar to Chicano audiences. Growing up in a poor neighborhood, police harassment, being told you’re not American which leads to the feeling that the larger society will never allow a Mexican to succeed, no matter how many generations he’s lived here.
There is also the positive: the love within family; the teacher who believes and encourages you; the father who tells you to be proud of your ancestors who built one world’s great civilizations and to remember that you are a king of the desert, finally achieving his dream of becoming a successful actor.
René Rivera commands the stage and not just because he is the only actor. Rivera entices the audience to experience his life with him, to sit in the front seat of the emotional roller coaster ride Rivera takes you on.
Rivera plays all the characters and he is able to give each one a distinct personality, whether it is through a change in voice, stance or attitude or all of the above. In one humorous scene he is breaking up with four different girl friends, seemingly at the same time, and it takes just a few words and his expression to tell you everything about the relationship.
El Portal’s stage is surrounded on three sides by the audience which means that the actor has to act with both the front and the back of his body because the audience will generally be watching one or the other. In lesser hands, this could have been a real problem but in Rivera and Director Sal Romeo, who worked out Rivera’s movements on stage, we see true masters at work. Rivera seems to flow from one part of the stage to the other. One artist and former dancer who saw the play declared, “What we saw was a dance!”
Indeed, in the early scenes as he spoke to his mother and father, he was adagio, moving slowly his body under total control. He would pirouette, turning his body quickly, from one character to another, each with a distinct voice and attitude. Whether he was en pointe, standing on tip toes, as he created a werewolf or giving a vivid impression of a rider on horse back, un jinete, Rivera brought a physical reality on stage that was a joy to see.
“The King of the Desert” is firmly rooted in Rivera’s life as a Chicano in the United States. It is through the exploration of the particulars of his experiences that the universality of the human condition is found. All great literature works like this. One cannot separate William Faulkner from Oxford, Mississippi, James Joyce from Dublin, Ireland or Leon Tolstoy from 19th century Russia.
“This is a universal story. It’s a story that everyone, in my opinion, is connected to,” Rivera said. “I feel what I want to give to the people is that they walk away having feelings about themselves and being reflective on their lives and on themselves, in relation to their spouses and to their children and to their families in general and to humanity in general.”
Going to the theater is not something done as easily as going to the movies. But making the effort to go to North Hollywood to see this play is definitely worth the effort. Bring your friends and family. You’ll have an experience to remember.
The King of the Desert is in its current run at the Forum Theatre at the El Portal Theatre; 5269 Lankershim Boulevard (at Weddington Street), North Hollywood, CA 91601 on Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 3:00 p.m., until December 4, 2011. Except for the weekend of November 11th -13th A performance will be held tonight, November 10, at 8:00 p.m. Tickets are $20 each for General Admission. Tickets for Students, Seniors, Veterans and Guild Members are $15 each. For reservations and further information, call the Box Office at (866) 811-4111 or (818) 508-4200, or buy online at www.elportaltheatre.com. Tickets for Groups of eight or more are $10 each, call (323) 315-0015.
A portion of the proceeds from performances throughout the run of the show will benefit the National Latino Children’s Institute, The Oscar De La Hoya Foundation and The Youth Policy Institute. A Talk Back Question and Answer Session with members of the play¹s cast and crew will be held at the conclusion of each Sunday matinee performance.