Octavio Solis could have adapted his memoir Retablos: Stories from A Life Lived Along the Border, by himself. After all, he’s an accomplished Latinx playright with two other plays opening soon: Quixote Nuevo in Houston, which had its world premiere at Cal Shakes in 2018; and Mother Road in Washington, D.C.
But for the upcoming adaptation of Retablos, which is about living near the U.S.-Mexico border in his native El Paso, Texas, he chose to work with Word for Word, the performing arts ensemble at San Francisco’s Z Space.
Solis took a break from the Houston rehearsals to talk with me about his decision to take the Word for Word approach. As the name of the company suggests, they perform every word written down in the chosen author’s book. “I wanted the stories to stay pure,” Solis explained. “These are special stories to me, very personal. They really feel like they were meant for the page. Once you write a play, everyone — including the actors and directors — puts their fingerprints on it.” That’s part of the deal.
Adapting his memoir for the stage began as a collaboration for the book release party in 2018. Instead of the author himself reading, Word for Word presented a few of the stories at the Elbo Room. Solis says that one of Retablos’ directors, Sheila Balter, particularly loved the story “Consuelo.” When his parents were away from home, Consuelo was a family caretaker. It’s brief, a page and a half, less of a story and more of a portrait.
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When Solis was writing his memoir, approximately 50 stories took shape as internal monologues. There was no dialogue in them at all. Plays normally engage audiences with actors reciting dialogue. But with a short chapter like “Consuelo,” Word for Word found its own way of dramatizing his sketch about her.
“I wanted to write this as a tribute to her,” Solis tells SF Weekly. He wrote it as if it were one voice but the directors, Balter and Jim Cave, found a way to incorporate 8-10 voices in telling the story. “That’s the magic of Word for Word. They know how to distribute the text in a way that makes it feel incredibly theatrical. And almost like dialogue, like they’re talking to each other.”
Solis describes a retablo as a hand-painted postcard to God. “They’re made to commemorate sacred moments of deliverance, of travail, of supplication, all in one flash fiction moment.” “La Migra,” another story dramatized from the memoir, is Solis’ version of a hand-painted postcard. He recounts one of his early experiences that led to a profound personal epiphany. When he was growing up, the Solis family lived less than a mile from the Mexico border. Seeing people cross it was a regular occurence. “La Migra” presents a tense, visceral moment that changes the author’s perception of both himself and the migrants.
Two border patrol agents approach him one day when he’s standing outside on the street where he lives. They’re looking for a boy in a red t-shirt, like the one he’s wearing. They ask him to prove his identity, to confirm that he is an American. “Sometimes we, as kids, felt threatened by the border crossers that we saw walking by. Sometimes we felt pity for them. But we always felt superior to them,” Solis says — until that day. That’s when he realized he wasn’t any different from the boy they were looking for.
“They equated me with him. When they did that, they did me a favor,” Solis says. It was an awakening. “I could no longer look at myself as superior from the people who were coming over the border.”
Retablos, Feb. 19-March 15, at Z Space, 450 Florida St. $33-$58; 415-626-0453 or zspace.org.
Following the performance on Feb. 27, Octavio Solis will be on stage in conversation with Greg Sarris.
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