By Collin Lessing, JVA Consulting
As I walked into El Centro Su Teatro’s new space at the Denver Civic Center, I was immediately overcome with feelings of inspiration. The walls of the lobby are lined with pictures of children from the community participating in educational, artistic activities. Handcrafted pieces of artwork also adorn the walls and tell their own part of the story of Chicano culture and history. A group of actors sit at a table with their director, dissecting lines for Su Teatro’s fast-approaching opening night performance. The feeling of excitement that permeates the air, the walls and the people at Su Teatro is contagious.
“You know it’s not just a theater, it’s a community center,” Yolanda Ortega explained to me as we toured the facility. Yolanda joined Su Teatro in 1974—just three years after the company was born out of an “Intro to Chicano Theatre” course at the University of Colorado at Denver. What started out in the classroom quickly poured out into the community as Su Teatro’s group of performers and artists began to produce plays that were inspired by the Chicano movement—embracing its spirit by dealing with social justice issues relevant to the local community.
Over the last 39 years, Su Teatro’s stories of social justice and the Chicano movement have played in venues including public parks, festivals, theaters and the Elyria School building. Su Teatro acquired the abandoned Elyria School in 1989, and the building served as the theatre company’s home for 21 years. On September 30, 2010, Su Teatro became the official owner of the Denver Civic Theatre in a transition that Yolanda describes as the “rebirth of Teatro.”
Su Teatro will host its grand opening at the Denver Civic Theatre on October 16 with the opening of The Last Night at The Rainbow Ballroom: El Louie and Other Post Pachuco Dreams. This original play was co-written and will be co-directed by Daniel Valdez and Tony Diaz. The story is derived from a 1970s poem by Jose Montoya that tells a story of Chicano street life through the eyes of a character named “El Louie.”
“In the rehearsal process you find these layers within the characters and the storylines,” said Yolanda. “It’s been a wonderful discovery of who we are as Chicanos and a community. People will find this story intriguing and relevant.”
“The production is for people of all ages but the largest emerging population—the baby boomers—will really enjoy it,” added Jesse Olgas, a member of Su Teatro since 2003. “This story will bring back memories of their beginnings.”
Jesse’s mention of “beginnings” drew me back to the beginnings of Su Teatro. The theatre company is approaching its 40-year anniversary—a remarkable achievement in organizational longevity. In addition to attributing the success of Su Teatro to the talented and passionate people who make up the troupe, Yolanda and Jesse emphasized that Su Teatro has been able to last this long because the group never lost sight of their mission and vision.
“Teatro was born out of a need to communicate what’s going on in social justice, to educate people on the Chicano movement and Chicano culture, and of course, to pursue artistic dreams. People will always learn something about social justice and history at Teatro,” said Yolanda.
The spirit of Su Teatro is grounded in ideas born decades earlier, but the company continues to evolve by applying the principles of the Chicano movement to the issues of today. Part of that evolution has been the welcoming and encouraging attitude that Su Teatro has toward younger artists and performers who want to get involved with the company.
“The young people are so talented and they keep us rejuvenated,” explained Yolanda.
Jesse agreed, saying, “Well, that’s another exciting thing behind the new space. It will keep the story alive for the new generation. This space will let them carry on the legacy.”
The world premiere of The Last Night at The Rainbow Ballroom: El Louie and Other Post Pachuco Dreams takes place at the Denver Civic Theatre on October 16. The play will run Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays through October 30. To order tickets, call the box office at 303.296.0219. For information on Su Teatro, go to http://www.suteatro.org.