Carlos Murillo: I’m not so sure it is abhorrent. I think it depends on how you define authenticity, who is making the determination of whether or not something is authentic, or even if you consider authenticity a necessarily positive value.
The play tells the story of two Latino playwrights in the late 80s who are sick of being pigeonholed by the expectations of their field to write a certain kind of play in a certain vernacular that people in power believe is an authentic expression of Latino experience. More interested in subverting monolithic notions of what constitutes “Latino experience” or a “Latino play,” they take on the true story of Danny Santiago, a young reclusive Chicano novelist who published FAMOUS ALL OVER TOWN, a critically acclaimed novel about growing up in the tough barrios of East LA. In virtually every review of the novel, the book was praised for it’s authentic depiction of Chicano life in Los Angeles. A literary scandal was unleashed when the New York Review of Books revealed that young Danny Santiago was in fact Daniel Lewis James, a white, a 70 year old, ex-Communist, blacklisted screenwriter, and scion of a wealthy Kansas City Family – a figure that couldn’t exist in a world further from the one he portrayed in his novel. Reactions ranged from “who cares?” to accusations that James was a vampire, a fraudulent cultural thief who had no right to pen this story. Both of those extremes are deeply troubling to me – on the “who cares?” end of the spectrum there’s the implication that that there is no such thing as cultural theft, and James’ actions hurt no one; on the vampire fraud end of the spectrum, the implied suggestion is that 1) artists are not free to imagine worlds, characters and stories outside the narrow experience of their own culture; 2) that there exists some clear, authoritative standard for measuring “correct” and “incorrect” depictions any given culture; and 3) that . The Latino writers in the play are faced with this very dilemma when they decide to tell James’ story – can they “authentically” write in James’ voice, and convincingly depict his world, which is completely alien to them? Understanding and coming to terms with where my own beliefs and values fall on this spectrum drove me to write the play.
Interestingly, James himself described writing in the voice of Chato de Shamrock, the protagonist of FAMOUS, as the closest he ever came to finding an authentic authorial voice. (Having read much of his extant work, I would wholeheartedly agree with him). In a sense, writing the novel he found in his fictional Mexican American family a metaphor to express the crisis of his own, very different, American upbringing. After fifty years of failure as a writer, I applaud James for having stuck it out and finding, after a lifelong struggle, a kernel of truth by wearing the mask of Danny Santiago. I also curse him – his formidable connections in the literary world paved a back channel way for his novel to be published by a major house, while real Chicano writers, lacking access, barely registered a blip on the literary mainstream at the time. I also find hilarious and enervating the role critics played in the whole debacle – they were, after all, the ones that declared Santiago’s book authentic in the first place. How much experience did they have on the streets of East LA to make such an authoritative determination?
Who can really claim to own cultural expression, what is appropriate/inappropriate appropriation, what is authentic/inauthentic… Recently, while researching a musical I am presently writing, I read an article online about the Jay-Z song “Takeover” (http://www.ethanhein.com/wp/2011/jay-z-and-alan-lomax/) that sums up my ultimate feelings about the impossibility of answering these questions. Strangely, the estate of Alan Lomax, the legendary folklorist who spent his life collecting field recordings of “authentic” singers around the world from the 1930s through his death in 2002, owns a piece of that song. Why? Well, Jay-Z’s song, like so much hip hop, samples and quotes from a ton of pre-existing sources, including Bowie, The Doors and KRS-One. The KRS-One sample samples a riff from an earlier Grand Funk Railroad song, that’s actually a cover of a song by The Animals’ “Inside Looking Out,” which in turn is based on a song called “Rosie.” Where did “Rosie” come from? No one knows for sure – it’s one of those ancient African American tunes passed down from generation to generation, and whose author was lost to history. But Lomax was the first to record it when he heard a chain gang sing it at Parchman Farm, a prison-plantation in Mississippi.
Peel open that onion.
Carlos Murillo’s play Your name Will Follow You Home, will be presented on Sunday, November 9th at 11am.
The reading is free and open to the public, but reservations are recommended.
To reserve, call 626-683-6883 or email JoeM@BostonCourt.com
Carlos Murillo is a Chicago-based playwright, director and educator. His plays have been produced widely throughout the US and Europe. His most recent play, YOUR NAME WILL FOLLOW YOU HOME, originally commissioned by Steppenwolf will have its Spanish language premiere at Repertorio Espanol in NYC later this fall. Other plays include A Thick Description of Harry Smith (P73 in NYC), Diagram of a Paper Airplane (Commissioned by The Goodman, Sundance Theatre Lab), Augusta and Noble (Adventure Stage), dark play or stories for boys (Humana Festival, Theatre der Stadt Aalen, Germany, Vigszinhaz, Budapest, Hungary), Unfinished American Highwayscape #9 & 32 (Theatre @ Boston Court, LA), Mimesophobia (NYC Summer Play Festival, Theatre Seven), A Human Interest Story (or the Gory Details and All) (Theater der Stadt Aalen, Germany, Walkabout Theatre, Hangar Theatre, Son of Semele in LA), Offspring of the Cold War (Walkabout Theatre, Sundance), Schadenfreude (Circle X in LA, Sundance), Never Whistle While You’re Pissing (Group Theatre Seattle, South Coast Rep HPP) and Near Death Experiences with Leni Riefenstahl (Red Eye, Minneapolis.) His work has been commissioned by Steppenwolf, The Goodman, Berkeley Rep, South Coast Rep, The Public Theater and the University of Iowa International Writers Program. His work has been published by Dramatists Play Service, Smith & Kraus’ New Playwrights: Best New Plays of 2007, Heinmann, and Theatre Forum. The Javier Plays, a trilogy of works, is forthcoming from 53rd State Press. Awards include: Met Life Nuestros Voces Award from Repertorio Espanol, the Frederick Loewe Award from New Dramatists, two National Latino Playwriting Awards from Arizona Theatre Company, the Ofner Prize from The Goodman, and the Otis Guernsey Award from the William Inge Festival. He is currently enjoying a year long residency at The Goodman Theatre where he is working on a play about the murder of Colombian soccer player Andres Escobar in 1994. Carlos is an alumnus of New Dramatists in NY and a former Resident Playwright at Chicago Dramatists. He heads the Playwriting Program at The Theatre School of DePaul University. He lives in the South Side of Chicago with his wife Lisa Portes and their two children Eva and Carlitos.