Tucson, Ariz. — Luis Alfaro has an affinity for the classics. And prisons. And contemporary Latino society. He combines them all in "Oedipus El Rey," which Borderlands Theater opens Feb. 18.
Alfaro, the winner of the MacArthur "Genius" grant in 1997, isn't new to the classics: Borderlands staged his "Electricidad," based on Sophocles' "Electra," in 2003.
"Oedipus el Rey" is drawn from Sophocles' "Oedipus the King."
"The Greeks have this amazing structure," says Alfaro, speaking from his office at the University of Southern California, where he teaches playwriting.
"They go through love and tragedy — everything happens in an hour and a half."
Besides that, he adds, those Greek tales still have something to say.
"It's so amazing to find some from centuries ago that are still relevant," he says. "They speak to today."
Oedipus — in the classic story — is born to a king and queen, but when an oracle predicts that he will kill his father and marry his mother, the king gives the child to a servant and orders him to put the baby out in the cold to die. In this way, he thinks the predicted tragedy would be averted.
The servant can't quite go through with it and turns the infant over to a shepherd. Eventually, the boy ends up the adopted child of another king and queen.
It's that idea that one can go from one reality to another — one environment to another — that fascinates Alfaro.
"How can you leave one society and go to another and survive?" Alfaro wonders.
He was thinking particularly of prisoners — Alfaro has worked with incarcerated youth, and his family worked in the prisons in his hometown of Delano, Calif.
"The recidivism rates are really ridiculous," says Alfaro. "More than half of all prisoners who leave come back at some point."
Alfaro's Oedipus has spent much of his life in prison. In the struggle to adjust to a new life, he meets and seduces Jocasta. Their kingdom is the barrio, and the Greek chorus is played by a trio of cons.
Oedipus' destiny is charted, and no matter what happens, he must meet it.
"A lot of what I've tried to do is not mess with the big themes, because they do resonate," says Alfaro.
"It's finding the modern" in it, he says, that he concentrated on.
To find that, he looked to his family, his community, himself.
"I grew up in a poor area, and in some ways I was challenging the gods," says Alfaro, speaking of his desire to break away from the poverty and crime that infested his neighborhood.
"I'm a very lucky person. Why did I get to survive a very difficult community?"
Because of his experiences growing up, teaching and working with youth, he's grown an appreciation for the desire to change one's fate, as Oedipus attempts in this play.
"There's something extraordinary about the journey and a teen saying I want a bigger, better life," says Alfaro.
"It's arrogance that trips him up."
While this, like most of his plays, takes place in a Latino community, they are intended for a much wider audience.
"In my plays' early years, they never got produced by Latinos," he says of his works, including "Oedipus," premiering last year at San Francisco's Magic Theatre.
"Most productions were in regional theaters, and a lot of Asian companies. I realized it translates. The big lesson is you are a citizen of the world. Your heritage is very, very important, but you have to enter the world."
Information from: Arizona Daily Star, http://www.azstarnet.com