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Oedipus el Rey Playwright Luis Alfaro (posted 01-15-2014)

The poet and playwright talks with Woolly Mammoth Production Dramaturg John M. Baker about Sophocles, recidivism, and South Central LA grocery stores.

Why is the issue of recidivism—the tendency to relapse into criminal behavior—so important to you?
Recidivism, it seems to me, is a symptom of a larger issue. Why is it that more than half of all Americans who end up in jail, when released, go back? A lot of times this happens within hours. My state, California, has the highest recidivism rates in the nation. As a playwright, interesting facts like this sort of lodge in my brain when I hear them. When they are coupled with some fascinating images or one’s own history—I have worked in the Juvenile Detention System as a poet and writer since I was young—they start to form the thread of an interesting story. When I think about recidivism among prisoners, I wonder not about what’s ahead, but what one leaves behind when they get out. The comfort of a family one never had, a structure where one might not have lived with rules, the need for protection in a world that seems unsafe. What fascinates me most about prisoner recidivism is that there might be an alternate society out there—actually in there—that functions differently from the one we live in, and for some this is a better place.

I don’t think a play is ever really about one thing—it’s a combination of ideas, questions, opinions one has about the world and they start to resonate so strongly that they express themselves in the only way they can. And for me, that is as art.

The issue of recidivism starts to make sense when I start to look at the compartmentalization of our culture through a more collective prism. This is very much an issue in my plays—we can’t improve race relations in this country if we are not going to deal with class, for instance. One of the many lives I have lived as an artist is as involved in social issues. 

In what capacity have you worked with prisoners? One can argue that I have never stopped working with prisoners—I teach at USC and have pretty much been facilitating conversations about art with young people since I became a professional artist myself. I studied with Maria Irene Fornes, who in my first day of workshop asked me what kind of plays I wanted to write. I had already been arrested for civil disobedience a number of times, and I said that I wanted to write political plays. She laughed and said that she hated political plays! I was ignorant and didn’t know her work, so I didn’t realize she was lying. She said I should stop writing and go live these political ideas and then come back and write a play about nothing, a rock, and she promised me it would be political. So, I did just that. I spent over ten years protesting, working with at-risk youth in the California Youth Authority. At one point, I even worked for the ACLU teaching protesters how to get properly arrested! But sure enough, I came back to writing and wrote from my heart, and politics and humanity were simply part of a larger organic mix. People who have made really big mistakes in their lives are very complicated people. They represent the complexity we are looking for in our work. Incarcerated children are missing elements that many of us take for granted—a notion of family, security, love, or even intelligence about the world. The first gig I had in a youth prison was a poetry workshop with teen felons, 12-17 years old. Five minutes into it I realized that none of them could read and few could write—which didn’t seem to matter because I couldn’t use pencils or pens anyway. No one told me this beforehand. Out of sheer terror and desperation, we stood in a circle, created a rhythm with our hands and bodies, and each student had to tell their life story through rap. I set some parameters about language and violence, and they were able to adapt. I could not ask them to write down their lives and crimes, but there was no law saying that they could not say out loud their histories. And they did, and the stories were extraordinary and sad and full of regret and fear and lack of hope. And that is when I realized that everyone is a playwright. Some of us just have training.

What prompted you to use Sophocles’ Oedipus to examine the issue of recidivism? I wasn’t actually interested in Oedipus when I started. I wanted to write something that was not adapted, but then I went to visit Mary Hart, a wonderful Greek scholar at the Getty Villa in Malibu. She had presented a paper in Athens, Greece about another adaptation I had done, Electricidad, which is a Chicano take on Sophocles’ Electra. When I met Mary, I had just gotten back from visiting Father Gregory Boyle and his amazing organization in downtown LA, Homeboy Industries. Father Greg had agreed to let me interview some guys who worked or were clients at his gang-prevention organization. Mary had just come back from jury duty where she worked on a gang murder case. What I remember most about our conversation was that after that experience, Mary was truly convinced that the Greek classics were the stories of today.

Do you think the story of Oedipus posits that fate comes about through destiny or a series of personal choices? The older I get the more obvious and beautiful the color gray becomes in my life—both in my hair and thoughts. The other day I was listening to a doctor who was talking about children, diabetes, and obesity. An average supermarket in a populated area serves 15,000 people. In South Central LA, the average supermarket serves 30,000-40,000. Access to fresh, un-processed foods is nearly impossible. Coupled with lack of transportation, among many factors, most children in South LA get their meals from fast food outlets and liquor stores. And even worse, most have no regular salads or fresh fruits in their diet. They are dependent on sugar, high sodium offerings, and processed meat. Tack on the over 50% high school drop-out rate, the single parent/working parent scenario, the access to inexpensive weapons, lack of jobs, and having witnessed a violent crime, domestic disturbance, or harm to animals before the age of 10. Do these factors help you make a very specific choice, or is this just the way of the world for some? The thing I love the most about the Greeks is how they pose a question and leave the audience to answer it. I have thoughts about Oedipus and his choices, or lack of them, but I am much more interested in what the audience has to say. 

January 2020