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Luis Alfaro puts Chicago spin on Greek tragedy

“As kid I always felt I couldn’t quite express myself but once I discovered theater I got it” says playwright

“As a kid I always felt I couldn’t quite express myself, but once I discovered theater I got it,” says playwright Luis Alfaro. | PHOTO BY HEDY WEISS

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When: In previews; opens July 22 and runs through Aug. 11

Where: Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln

Tickets: $20-$60

Info: (773) 871-3000;

Updated: August 19, 2013 12:27PM

The more Los Angeles-born Chicano playwright Luis Alfaro delves into the works of the ancient Greeks, the more he finds correspondences with the lives of contemporary Latinos in this country.

“The Greek playwrights asked their community, their audience, to consider many wonderful, difficult questions, and then left them to answer those questions for themselves,” said Alfaro, a big, bearlike, intensely voluble man.

And that is precisely what Alfaro himself has been doing for the past decade as he has reimagined a series of Greek tragedies in ways that make them speak to our own time and place.

It all began with “Electricidad,” inspired by Sophocles’ “Electra,” which he set in a Southern California barrio (it was produced here in 2004 at the Goodman Theatre). Next came “Oedipus el Rey,” his bravura reworking of “Oedipus the King.” Set in a prison, and on the mean streets of gang-ridden South Central Los Angeles, it received a riveting Victory Gardens Theatre production here last summer that was directed by Chay Yew. It was followed by “Bruja” — his first look at “Medea,” which was set in San Francisco’s Mission District and debuted at that city’s Magic Theatre.

Now, in “Mojada,” opening July 22 at Victory Gardens, Alfaro has reworked the Medea story to specifically connect to Chicago and its vast Latino population. He has grabbed hold of this tale about a woman who sacrifices everything for her husband, finds herself living in a foreign land where she is scorned, betrayed and ultimately exiled, and finally is driven to exact the most horrific revenge. And he has used it as a way of exploring the relationship between a Mexican immigrant woman and her husband who have settled in the Pilsen neighborhood.

Alfaro is a fervent believer in community immersion. For the past 10 years he has engaged in a series of residencies at regional theaters throughout the country, where, instead of hanging around the green room he has gotten out and explored the surrounding “towns and cities in crisis.” He ventured into the impoverished areas of Hartford, Conn. that exist in the shadow of big insurance companies, interacted with teen felons in Tucson, Arizona, spent time at a clinic not far from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival that dealt with the health problems of the many migrant workers in the area.

“Being part of all that was the best way to learn how to ask the right questions,” said Alfaro. “In fact, it was while walking around after a poetry workshop for incarcerated teens in Tucson — a session during which I heard a story of a young woman who had murdered her mother in retaliation for her father’s death, that I bought a collection of 10 Greek plays for $10. And that book opened the door for me.”

In “Mojada” (the title refers to a derogatory term used to describe an illegal Mexican immigrant), the Medea character is no “old shrew” (as she was portrayed by the fabled Dame Judith Anderson). Rather, she is “a beautiful woman in her twenties who finds herself in a place where she is disliked, and who labors as a piece-worker who sews at home and earns less than $8 for a dress that costs more than $100 in a store.”

“She’s a woman who doesn’t know how to work the system,” said Alfaro. “Her husband, Jason, is older and ambitious. A construction worker, he moves into the real estate development business with the help of a female developer in the gentrifying Pilsen area who takes a liking to him, and who knows the ropes of the city’s permit process. In this way I was able to incorporate the attitudes and experiences of three generations of immigrants.”

The playwright himself, now 51, is the child of Mexican immigrants, whose family switched from the Catholic church to Pentacostal storefronts. At 17 he was arrested for heroin possession and his life changed — for the better.

“I was brought before a great judge who said I could choose between jail or serious community service time with a performing arts center downtown. Suddenly I was running lights, learning about stage management and all the rest. I had great mentors, which is why I try to be a mentor myself now.”

“As a kid I always felt I couldn’t quite express myself, but once I discovered theater I got it,” said Alfaro, who never earned a college degree, but has taught at many major universities, and is the recipient of the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (“the genius award”), and fellowships from the Mellon and Joyce foundations.

After “Mojada,” Alfaro will leave the Greeks behind.

“I’m working on a play about the business of religion, focusing on a California family in which the dad is a Pentacostal preacher. My inspiration is August Strindberg’s last play, ‘The Great Highway’.”

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