On November 26th, On the Square Productions will present a
On the first night of the annual chile harvest, the Northrip-Valle family farm becomes the target of a cartel territory war. But why? As gunmen surround the farmhouse in the dark hours of night, the family unite to strategize their escape. But as family secrets unravel and politics collide, they learn that the more they uncover, the less they understand about the rapidly changing world just outside their door — and inside themselves. The Guadalupe explores the changing economic and political realities of America’s rural borderland, and the greed and desperation that fuels it.
In keeping with OtSP tradition, I asked Carol to answer some questions about the piece and what it is like working with the company. The play is an interesting choice for OtSP and I hope you will see why we wanted to work with Carol.
“We were drawn to The Guadalupe primarily because it’s a thrilling read! It’s smart and tightly written, and we were excited to represent a community we haven’t had on our stage yet and to work with new faces. Watching The Guadalupe grow through out our Square One process has been a tremendous honor, and Carol is just fantastic (on and off the page).”
- Deborah Wolfson, Literary Manager OtSP
The lovely Carol Carpenter.
Here, Carol Carpenter shares her thoughts on working with OtSP, where she is with the play right now, some of the challanges of this piece, and the all important question of: is a play ever really finished.
We hope you will join us for the reading!
The Guadalupe by Carol Carpenter
Monday Nov. 26th at 7:30pm
Can you talk a bit about your past relationship with On the Square and how did OTSP come to find The Guadalupe? ?
Jackie and Rachel approached me at a fundraising event for MTWorks, where I’m a company playwright. They had seen something I’d written – I believe it was an early reading of Sweet, Sweet Spirit at Planet Connections – and said they would love to work together. I checked out one of their readings, liked what I saw, and said “Yeah, let’s do something. What can we do?” They really wanted me to write something new and develop it with them, which I was thrilled about – creating something original with a company behind it from the beginning was new for me. It really served as a ticking clock, a constant incentive to keep moving forward even though I was neck-deep in revisions on another play. It was this process that led to The Guadalupe.
Can you talk a little bit about why this play? Why this story? — for you as a storyteller.
Before I can tell you about the play, I have to tell you about where I’m from. I grew up in the border region where Mexico, New Mexico and West Texas collide. It’s a fascinating place for a storyteller, one that has a long history of violence and poverty, where just surviving is an accomplishment. Culturally, it’s where the Texas cowboy meets the Mexican vaquero. It’s the land of Billy the Kid and Pancho Villa. It’s a rich place for drama, and is the heart of this play. For me, place is always the heart of my plays – and the place is always the same, it’s just populated by a different slice of the population. My last play, Sweet, Sweet Spirit, was about white evangelicals in a little Southwestern town. This one focuses on a very different family, but a family in the same damn place.
Little Carol Carpenter.
It’s only with the perspective of time and travel that I can look back and realize that my childhood was incredibly foreign to what most Americans could fathom. For me, there was nothing abnormal about having a relative who trapped live animals and sold their fur for trade, or a twelve-year-old cousin who tried his hand at preaching in country churches that couldn’t afford a preacher, or an aunt who killed a rattlesnake that ate her rabbit and then squeezed the rabbit back out – because that rabbit was going to feed the family. Sounds savage, right? But imagine living in a land with no water, arid soil, and almost every plant and animal you stumble across has some version of a fang with poison in it. One time, my brother Jeff and his friends were on the run from drug gang members in Juarez, and they all got away in a car except for Jeff. So he ran for his life through the streets of Juarez at 3 a.m., battling it out with a guy who kept trying to kill him with a metal pipe. He finally slipped away to hide in the bus depot. My other brother, Greg, was sound asleep in Las Cruces when the phone rings. He picks it up and hears Jeff pant, “I’m in the Juarez bus station, bring your guns.” So Greg threw on a trench coat to hide his sawed-off shotguns, and made the 70-mile drive to Juarez in forty minutes. When he threw open the double doors, guns raised, he found Jeff asleep under a bench. Now this seems like an outrageous story, right? Well. It’s actually very tame compared the kinds of stories that people tell today about Juarez. Today, that metal pipe is a semi-automatic weapon. For literary nuts out there, I’ll just say: this is the region Cormac McCarthy writes about. Remember Blood Meridian?
That said, it was also a wonderful place to grow up and showdowns in Juarez were certainly not everyday occurrences, or anything even close to the norm. Normal life was having a best friend named Missy who lived with her cowboy dad and brother in a red sand dune town called Loco Hills. It was having a softball coach with gold teeth and a gold belt buckle who parked his El Camino on the field while blasting ranchera music throughout practice. It was living in a place where two cultures were far more intertwined than either culture would like to admit: Our cowboy hats and boots came from them. Their budding evangelism came from us. Our fire-hot palette from them. Their giant trucks from us. For both, family, faith, and survival was everything. People in other parts of the country could never understand why George Bush got so many Hispanic votes. Well, if you put aside policy, and just think about the political power of symbolism and imagery, it should be obvious to anyone who understands the border region: the Texas cowboy and the Mexican vaquero are deeply, culturally intertwined.
So I really wanted to write a play where this reality was expressed. Where instead of seeing white people and brown people, we see border people living their lives on the border. I wanted to write about a family that had a mixed heritage, which we so rarely see onstage or onscreen but which are actually quite common, especially along the Rio Grande valley where agricultural communities are very integrated. I wanted to capture that culture.
And I also wanted to capture the reality that the border region, and Mexico itself, is a changed land. The cartel-related death toll in Mexico since 2006 is between 60,000 and 90,000 people, the vast majorities of those cases being unsolved – and those who attempt to solve them are likely to end up dead, even if you’re, for example, the governor of a state. There are many reasons for this, and we could sit around and talk all day about causes and solutions, and play the game of Liberal Kvetch: American buyers fuel the drug trade, American weapons manufacturers’ fuel the gun trade, and American capitalists have engineered an economic structure that benefits multi-national corporations at the expense of traditional Mexican industries like agriculture. Yes. But that’s not why I wrote this play. Beyond the politics is this reality that the border region of my childhood is different, and I wanted to explore that.
When I go home to visit now, I am struck by the way people talk about security. And I want to be clear: it’s not just paranoid, racist, right-wingers talking about security, though these people are certainly very real and very loud. But on the ground, you now hear people from all walks of life and backgrounds expressing varying levels of recognition and concern that things feel out of control. Expressing varying levels of suspicion that the institutions that exist to protect us are becoming compromised. To put it more simply: People are starting to wonder if you can trust the cops and the judges and the border patrol agents to not be on the payroll, to some degree, of people who are somehow connected to cartel money. Can you trust that people in your own family and community are “clean”? One of the actresses from the reading, Claudia Acosta, said it so poignantly: The border region is an open wound. I wanted to dive into that wound through the window of one family.
For me, plays usually begin with an image in an opening scene. And this play was born when I was at a family reunion a couple of years ago and a relative said that her friend, an older woman, had been home alone on her ranch one night. And when she looked out the window she saw two men with machine guns marching across her land. Now let me provide some context. It has long been quite common for ranchers, who have thousands and thousands of acres of land, to see immigrants crossing their land and to find the trails and the water bottles and sometimes, tragically, the bodies. But this addition of the machine guns: that’s a very different image with very different meaning. I knew I had to explore it.
The complication, of course, is that this play could so easily be written, and read, in nationalistic and racist terms. But, for me, I always know that my best work comes when I go straight into the heart of something that feels politically dangerous. I believe that politics, on both sides, gets in the way of good people sitting down and finding the common ground needed to find solutions. I believe that politics gets in the way of good art. So I went for it. But this was another reason it was important to me that the family in the play was a mixed family, and that we see, in the end, how the drug trade has affected everyone in the community of the play – and that guilt resides with people from all walks of life, from all cultural backgrounds.
I hope the audience hears the characters when they talk about feeling alone, out on the land, with nobody watching out for them. People from this region feel forgotten, and ignored, and judged. And they are. I hope the play also communicates that whatever America and Mexico are doing, from a policy standpoint, it’s not working. So while I didn’t write a cause-solution play, I did write a play that presents many different perspectives, and that I hope prompts introspection about solutions. And I hope, even more, that the answers people come up with are complex ones – because the US/Mexican border is as complex a region as Afghanistan or Iran or Israel and just as important.
What kind of research are you finding to be the most helpful while you work on this piece?
I read a lot of the journalism coming out of the border region, from the El Paso Times, to El Diario, to the Dallas Morning News. The work of Charles Bowden is outstanding, and the book Contrabando by Don Henry Ford, Jr, really helped me imagine the character of Ricky. I also go to the Borderland Beat online and YouTube, where there are way too many videos on YouTube that will make you hide under the covers.
Which relationship do you find the most challenging to write for in this play? Which has really grown within the play and even surprised you – the playwrite?
Susy. She’s the 60-year-old mother who is Mexican-American and born in Juarez. She’s been in the country for forty years and is very classist, and even racist, against new Mexicans coming over the border. She’s an American patriot. I always knew she would be these things, but I’ve had to really find her heart and her vulnerability as I’ve gotten deeper into drafts.
Lucia has grown the most – she was a sketch of a character in the beginning – and she continues to grow. She plays a very important role, and one that has been challenging to get right. I’m not sure if I’m there yet.
What strikes me as I answer this question is that the two most challenging characters for me are the two who are from Mexico. That makes sense.
The Guadalupe is a work in progress – as many plays continue to be. Can you talk about where you are in the process? Where you came from and where it feels like it may be going?
I usually write fifteen drafts or so before I’m done, and this reading is from draft eight. . I’ve got another good year before it’s really done, I think. In terms of where it’s going: the plot’s not going to change, but these characters will get richer, and more layered, and their backstories and dramas with one another will become clearer and sharper.
What is the most gratifying part of the development process with OTSP?
Having two private development sessions before the actual reading, and having them in Rachel’s cozy apartment. It’s really, really helpful. And I just think that Rachel and Jackie have incredibly good instincts about building a company, and babying the playwright. I’ve felt very taken care of.
Our amazing playwright Carol Carpenter.
What are you hoping to get out of the reading on Nov 26th? What are you hoping to see?
I just have no idea how an audience is going to respond to the play. I want to see and hear honest reactions so I know where to go next. I really hope there will be people from the border region in the audience, because it means something very different when you’re from the area that’s been so impacted by the issues in the play.
If I’m an actor in your play, what really excites you about a specific performance? Any actor pet-peeves?
Well, I have a couple very specific pet peeves. Whenever I have characters of Mexican descent, they are often cast with any actor who has a Spanish last name. And most actors in New York with Spanish surnames are from Puerto Rico or the DR. And the cultures couldn’t be more different. I’m going to stereotype here so feel free to pull out your hatchets: but Mexicans, by and large, are a very mellow people. The opposite of how they are often played. And it’s not just the casting in my plays, I see this casting pattern everywhere in New York. I saw it in a big, mainstream musical last week. You don’t have this problem out West.
My other pet peeve is that my West Texas characters are often played by New Yorkers using Southern accents and mannerisms. Long, soft, sensual drawls. Well, Texans just ain’t no good at talkin’ purdy. I’m sure every playwright in New York who is from a region that is not highly represented here experiences the same challenge.
Is a play ever finished? Do you ever hit ‘save’ and think, ‘yep. that’s done now”?
I always think that and I’m always wrong. That’s why development programs are so essential.
How do you feel seeing your work performed in the moment?
I have a strange ability to compartmentalize my emotions, and then they come back and whack me in some kind of physiological way. So I usually am completely calm, no anxiety, and sitting down in the first seat I happen to notice. And then as the play proceeds, I realize that I am shaking or gripping my own hand so tightly that I have nail marks in it. But if the actors are good, and the script is really done, they take me away and I forget that it’s my play and I fly.
Please join On the Square Productions on November 26th in our second Write Angle Reading at University Settlement in the lower east side.
Seating is general admission — Tickets are $10 (cash only) at the door.
We greatly look forward to sharing this play with you!
See you soon!
Be There & Be Square!