In 1998 young actress Tanya Saracho decided she preferred creating dialogue to interpreting it and considered places she could get started on her ambition to be a playwright and have her own theater to produce her plays — including “Song for the Disappeared” at Trenton’s Passage Theater, October 8 to 25.
Chicago was the destination. The reason was Steppenwolf, the much-lauded regional theater known for spawning both plays and actors.
“I had no money, but life in Chicago was as vibrant and exciting as I thought it would be. The theater community was welcoming, and I soon became part of it. I can remember working all day, sometimes writing, sometimes building or painting sets. I loved it. I had no idea or much interest in knowing there might be another way to live. I was a starving theater artist, and I was happy,” she says.
Saracho may have relocated to Chicago, where she fulfilled her intention to found a theater, Teatro Luna, but her imagination, and the stories it spawned, remained in the towns in California, Texas, and Mexico where she spent her youth.
Saracho is a “border playwright” who finds her drama in the class distinctions and crime prevalent in her native Sinaloa, Mexico, and American hometown, McAllen, Texas, where most of her family remains. Kidnapping, killing, and other crimes fomented by the presence of law-defying, government-controlling drug cartels have changed the relatively quiet Mexico of her childhood to a country of tension and fear that has spilled into border towns in American states. Drug money has established a wealthy class that looks down on people who have normal jobs or, worse, perform domestic services. These are Saracho’s subjects, and she says the number of plays that can emanate from them is endless.
Saracho writes constantly, but her career has become a bit peripatetic since one of her plays, “Mala Hierba,” which means “bad weed” but also implies a wayward young woman, caught the attention of someone who realized she had a voice for television.
Earlier this year, while continuing to regard Chicago as the place her soul resides, Saracho made another move, to Los Angeles, Hollywood actually, where she works for TV’s premiere show runner, Shonda Rhimes, as a writer for the ABC series, “How to Get Away with Murder.” It recently made history by earning a primetime Emmy for its star, Viola Davis, the first black lead to win as Best Actress in a Drama Series in 67 years of Emmy presentations.
“Television is where much of the best writing is being done these days. I will never leave the theater, but I have respect for television. And HBO is looking at ‘Mala Hierba’ as a possible series. More than that, I receive a steady living wage, something I didn’t even know how to appreciate. It makes a difference to pay bills, have some reserve, and do little things I could never afford, such as buy a house.”
Saracho and I have to do our interview in two separate sessions because the episode of which she has primary charge is being written and shot that week, making time to chat tight.
And Saracho likes to chat. She keeps up a lively stream of consciousness that moves quickly from topic to topic but covers matters thoroughly — entertainingly, stories and reflections peppering the details of her life — her childhood move to Texas, her education at Boston University, her impulsive decision to write in Chicago, her recruitment by television, the decline of the border, her attraction to it, and her estrangement from her father.
Her work in California not only keeps Saracho from Chicago and her theater colleagues there but prevents her from coming to Trenton to watch rehearsals and attend opening night of the world premiere production of her play, “Song for the Disappeared” (Cancion para los Desaparecidos), at Passage Theater.
Saracho says she will attend late in the run and has faith in the show’s director, Alex Correia, and the Passage cast, some of whom she knows.
“Song for the Disappeared” is the second play of a trilogy that began with Saracho’s adaptation of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard,” “El Nogalar,” which means “the pecan orchard.” Unlike that play, “Song of the Disappeared” is a total invention. Saracho says it is also the most biographical of the plays she has written and was, therefore, the most difficult to complete.
“My personal emotions kept getting in the way,” she says. “The people in ‘Song for the Disappeared’ are people from my family. The main plot, about a boy who is missing in Mexico, parallels a similar situation that affected my family when my younger brother, thinking he was impervious, ignored all advice I, my parents, and my sisters gave him and wandered from McAllen into Mexico — where no one heard from him. We feared he was kidnapped, something that happens quite commonly to ‘Americans’ who go back and cross the border.”
“While writing it, I had to confront situations in my family. The skeletons and ghosts really came out. In the midst of all of this came my work in television. And my father (who works in customs) disowned me. Currently we have no relationship. To put it the most directly, he says I disrespected him, and he can’t forgive me. This is another drama that has to play out,” she says.
The U.S. and Mexican border is something that attracts her for several reasons. “That’s because the border is not just a physical place. It’s metaphorical. It’s split between two worlds, two cultures. Everything comes in twos. There are two tongues, two outlooks, two moral codes. I still have not sorted out all of my feelings about the border. Doing that is what compels me to write about it. I feel the symbiotic pull between the United States and Mexico. Simply said, it’s one of supply and demand, one country demanding, the other supplying. It all has to do with consumption, and it’s all complicated. That includes the drug trade. It doesn’t exist if there’s no demand for it.
“My story is about family and how individual members cope with everything. Some of it is funny. What I don’t want it to be is candy-coated. I am driven to tell these stories. I want people to know what is happening and to see the seriousness, the scariness behind the comedy.”
Song for the Disappeared, Passage Theater, Mill Hill Playhouse, 205 East Front Street, Trenton. Thursday, October 8, through Sunday, October 25, Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 3 p.m. $12 to $35. 609-392-0766 or www.passagetheatre.org.