The power of storytelling, mentoring and the arts

Cynthia Carmina Gómez, co-writer of the play “Voz Alta: Generaciones,” is a friend and professional colleague at Portland State University.

I love books and I love movies, but sometimes live theater is the best medium for telling a story.

Last Saturday, Lori and I attended a matinee performance of “Voz Alta: Generaciones,” a bare-bones production in a tiny basement theater at Portland State University. We came away from the 90-minute experience enriched and inspired — and wishing everyone we know could have seen it, too.

What did we like about it so much? How about everything.

The story: On the surface, it’s a dramatization of the lives of two Latino artists, Rodolfo (Rudy) Serna and Jesus Torralba, who live and work in Portland.  At another level, it’s a story about how each of those men was mentored by someone here in Portland and, in turn, how they have mentored someone else.

The presentation: Forget the usual theatrical production, where you have actors moving about on a stage, sometimes on more than one set. Instead, imagine five actors seated on bistro-style chairs with a microphone in front of each of them, rising only to deliver their lives. They are wearing everyday clothes, there are no costume changes, and the only props are a scarf and a pair of eyeglasses. Three of the five play more than one character, relying on their voice, diction and body language to convey the differences. Stripped-down? You bet.

The cast: The ensemble is made up of three men, a teenage boy and one striking woman. She is seated in the middle of the row of five and it is she who uses that one piece of fabric and the eyeglasses to transition from one character to another, from an abuela (a grandmother) to two mothers (each one the parent of a different male character) to a newlywed teenage girl to a social services agency employee. Behind the actors are two musicians, one singing in Spanish and playing acoustic guitar, the other playing a pan flute and guitar.

The setting: If the Boiler Room Theater at Lincoln Hall sounds like a minimalist space, you’ve got the right idea. It’s intimate, all right. We were seated in the front row, less than 10 feet from the actors, with maybe three more rows behind us and four more rows ascending to the left of us. Two ceiling-to-floor murals and a third one behind the actors and musicians provided all the visuals.

The narrative: Two characters are at the heart of the story. One is a middle-aged man named Rodolfo, the son of divorced parents in Chicago who left home as a teenager (“I had to be my own dad,” he says.), marries young, divorces young, finds stability in the military and makes his way to Portland, where he is accepted at Portland State, earns a degree, and finds work as an artist and mentor working with at-risk and gang-involved youth.

The other is a teenager named Jesus, a light-skinned Mexican American kid and self-styled graffiti artist who finds trouble on Portland’s streets and seems headed for the gang life. Authorities steer him to the agency where Rodolfo works and he finds a connection there with the older man through their shared interest in painting. Jesus learns to trust, develops self -confidence and also gets hired as a youth mentor.

The reality: The beauty of this play is that it is the true story of four people who are giving back to the community. In real life, Rodolfo and Jesus work with at-risk and gang-involved youth in Multnomah and Washington County through the Community Healing Initiative, a collaborative partnership among several nonprofits and local and state agencies. The teenager who plays Jesus is Jose Ruiz Valentine, who in real life is an aspiring artist who was mentored by Jesus and who recently also became a youth mentor himself. Finally, real-life Rodolfo made it through college with the guidance and support of his own mentor — Cynthia Carmina Gómez, a Portland State administrator with a long record of directing community leadership and Latino mentoring programs.

The back story: Cynthia is not only executive director of PSU’s Cultural Resource Centers, she is also pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. This was her first play — co-written with Joaquin Lopez, the guitarist and singer who performed so beautifully during Saturday’s play — and she invited Lori and me to attend.

I met Cynthia several years ago when I was still writing for The Oregonian and she was working for the Latino Network. (Read my interview with Cynthia here.) We got to know each other as professional colleagues and I wound up writing a letter of recommendation for her graduate program, She was accepted, of course, and just before she began her MFA studies, she wrote a piece for my annual Voices of August guest blog project. (You can read that piece here.)

The big picture: I had three major takeaways.

One, you don’t need to spend big sums of money to deliver a message. The production was stripped down to the essentials, yet the simplicity helped drive home the idea of saving one life at a time through the arts and heartfelt mentoring.

Two, seeing a wonderful collaboration of Latino actors, musicians and writers filled me with Mexican American pride. There are other arts groups in the city, notably Teatro Milagro, that perform Latino-themed work. This one was particularly sweet because the experience was so intimate and the characters so relatable to the culture I grew up in.

Three, it made me appreciate living in a medium-sized city, where I not only can say I know one of the playwrights, but that I am familiar with the agencies involved in the Community Healing Initiative and their work. It was great to see this web of connections come alive in front of me.

If you’ve read this far, you owe to yourself to watch this: Jose, the focus of this video, is the teenage actor who plays his mentor, Jesus.


One thought on “The power of storytelling, mentoring and the arts

  1. Wonderful George! Thank you so much for this excellent post! It was a delight to read and I am excited to share it with others who are wondering what exactly I am doing in my MFA writing program.

    Voz Alta is in its 10th year and I was blessed to work with the creator/founder Joaquin Lopez. Check him out! he has an album coming out later this year.

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