by Desireé York
Currently, Amy Ludwig’s adaptation of The House on Mango Street is considered a politically charged play. Why should this coming of age story about Esperanza Cordero, a young Latina living in the city of Chicago, be the center of such controversy? Because until recently, Tuscon Unified School District in Arizona had banned the book of the same name by Sandra Cisneros (on which the play is based) along with their Mexican American Studies program.
The voluntary program for K-12 began in 1998 as part of a desegregation lawsuit filed in 1974; studies proved that over the years it had begun to close the achievement gap for the student population whose majority is Latinx. However, in 2010 the state of Arizona passed S.B.2281 which “outlawed any courses that: (1) promote the overthrow of the United States government; (2) promote resentment toward a race or class of people; (3) are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group or (4) advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.” As a result, the Tuscon Unified school district shut down the program and banned books like Cisneros’ for fear of losing State funding.
Fast forward to August 22, 2017 when federal judge A. Wallace Tashima struck down this law stating, “The passage and enforcement of the law against the Mexican American Studies program were motivated by anti-Mexican-American attitudes.”
This verdict came after students of the school district and their parents filed a lawsuit against the Superintendent of the Tuscon Unified School District. The record also declared, “the decisions regarding the Mexican American Studies program were motivated by a desire to advance a political agenda by capitalizing on race-based fears.” These conclusions stand to reason why most educational institutions across the nation include Cisneros’ book as required reading: to prevent this unfounded fear from spreading.
Having originally adapted the play in 1993, LA FPI asked Amy Ludwig what inspired her to write this play and how it has impacted her as an artist. Ludwig responded, “I was the dramaturg for a theater company of women of color in Chicago that was looking for a play that would show off their strengths, and not finding much. I was also studying at Northwestern, which champions the adaptation of many kinds of writing for the stage. So I went to Women & Children First, the amazing feminist bookstore there, and started reading novels. Cisneros’ words just leapt off the page and demanded to be read aloud. I knew I’d found the right piece. It was my first adaptation, and gave me the confidence that I could be a writer myself. Directing it in Chicago and San Antonio put me in collaboration with amazing communities of artists. Seeing it continue to be performed, in East LA, at high schools, or in Spanish – it’s a marvelous and humbling journey.”
And in 2017, Ludwig hopes “that audiences will feel the extraordinary humanity of Cisneros’ characters, and realize that no one deserves to be ‘othered’ or called illegal. We’ve all been children. We all have dreams.”
Director Alexandra Meda – who is also the Artistic Director for Teatro Luna: America’s National Latinx + Women of Color Theatre Ensemble and Touring Company – commented in a recent press release that “the special kind of fear and hate that is directed at immigrant families, is a very personal touchstone for so many readers over the last 20 years…The isolation, violence, and limitations that surround the character of Esperanza feel all too familiar in the current state of affairs we find ourselves in today in the United States.”
The House on Mango Street reaches beyond the stage in Los Angeles and into Fairfax High School’s curriculum as part of the educational program GreenwayReads by presenter Greenway Arts Alliance, celebrating its 20th Anniversary this year. Students will have the opportunity to read the novel, see the production and participate in other special events. The play’s powerful message travels next to Dallas, Laredo, and Iowa City. When asked about its future in Arizona, Ludwig shared, “there are no current plans for an Arizona production, but Arizona has a vibrant community of Latinx playwrights who are making exciting work about many issues.”
Not only does the play have a politically charged message, but this production promotes gender equity with powerhouse women serving as author, adaptor, director and actors. Ludwig expressed that the response to this female-driven story has been “overwhelmingly positive. The House on Mango Street conveys a specific story in such a heartfelt way that everyone finds something to connect to.” With strong female representation and support such as this, voices like those of Esperanza will surely continue to break the silence.
To stand with Esperanza and the women of this project, please visit: http://www.greenwaycourttheatre.org/now-playing/
The House on Mango Street runs through October 28, 2017 at the Greenway Court Theatre in Los Angeles.