Alley Theater Hosts a Visiting Latin American Production, But Let's Not Talk About It

Houston Press file photo

Hey Houston, did y'all hear that the Alley Theater has invited a Mexican company to come perform the first ever show done entirely in Spanish (with live English translation) on the Alley stage? Did you know that the show, Gorguz Teatro & Universiteatro's Misa Fronteriza (Border Mass), is a satirical comedy about life near the U.S.-Mexico border? Did you know that it’s running April 12 – 15 in the Neuhaus Theatre?

No? Heard nothing? Nothing at all?

Us either. Well, not until April 9, when the Alley decided that they would send a softball press release to the Houston Press. Not directly to the editor or the theater critics as they normally would, mind you. To the general arts email address, [email protected] Checking around with the other theater writers/critics in the city, it seems that nobody was contacted to do any kind of preview or interview or asked to engage in any media that might promote the show, nor were we asked to attend the Misa Froneriza and review.

Compare this say to the other show the Alley is presently producing, Cleo, by Texas native, Lawrence Wright. Prior to its April 11 opening, thanks to the aggressive marketing efforts of the Alley team, every major media outlet ran substantial preview stories on the play. Heck, the Houston Chronicle even ran two stories. And you can bet that every arts writer/critic in the city was invited to attend/review the show.

So what gives? Why would the Alley drop the ball so hard on promoting a play that could have resulted in a huge diversity pat on the back for them? Especially after the official 2018/19 season announcement where James Black, interim Alley artistic director, stressed that it was crucial for the future of the company to, “Hold a mirror up to the community.” Given that just under 45 percent of Houstonians are Latinx, this lack of promotion hardly seems mirror holding.

We reached out repeatedly to the Alley for comment, telling its representatives specifically what this article was about and they did eventually respond, first by telling us that "We believe our marketing and media efforts are not a story" in an email signed by Director of Communications and Marketing Rachel Applegate and Public Relations & Communications Manager Whitney Spencer. Obviously, we beg to differ.

And then they said: "For a broader Latinx initiative, there is indeed a plan. In fact, Alley staff met with city leaders yesterday to further discuss next steps. More details will be announced as they are solidified."

To which we say, well that sounds good.

Which still doesn't explain why Miza Fronteriza wasn't promoted more widely to the usual critics and general audience at the Alley.  They say they promoted it, but where? While it's great that they reached out "to a wider community than the internal Alley audiences," shouldn't the usual Alley audiences have been included in that effort through, among other things, interviews and previews of the upcoming performances that are usually done several days in advance of the show being staged?

In an interview with the Press, Trevor Boffone, Ph.D. in Latinx Theater and Founder of 50 Playwrights Project, feels the silence is indicative of the Alley’s disinterest in truly engaging with and developing a Latinx audience. "I know the Alley has been in the middle of a PR nightmare with the Greg Boyd fiasco and issues post-Hurricane Harvey, but they have done a perfectly fine job in promoting every other show in their season,” says Boffone.

“So we have to ask why this has completely taken a back seat to more or less all of their other programming," Boffone says. "Why does their first attempt in many years at developing a Latinx audience base have to have so much silence surrounding it, rendering it invisible by any measure?”

Boffone was there at ground zero in 2015 when the Alley invited him to a meeting to discuss the possibility of a Latinx theater festival. Although excited by the prospect that the Alley might finally produce some Latinx work, Boffone saw red flags immediately. “The Alley’s Managing Director, Dean Gladden, made comments about Latinx not going to the theater, Latinx not being able to afford to go to the theater and Latinx only wanting to see theater in Spanish,” says Boffone who was shocked and insulted by Gladden’s words.

Additionally, Boffone says that Gladden didn’t seem to understand or want to understand that while a Spanish show brought in from Mexico is a great thing, it’s not representative of the Latinx community – namely a community of North American persons of Latin American origin or descent. “I offered countless suggestions to work with U.S. Latinx artists—many in Texas—who are producing this type of work”, says Boffone. “But Gladden continued to focus on bringing Misa Fronteriza, which from my understanding as a Ph.D. in Latinx Theater, is not Latinx theater, but Latin American theater. When they produced Let the Right One In, did they call it Scottish-American theater? “

Writer-performer, Jasminne Mendez, speaking to the Press in a separate interview, says she was also involved early on in the festival, and she too was put off by what she saw on the education side of the program. Misa Fronteriza is a part of the Alley’s El Zócalo Initiative, a community engagement program supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts and funded in part by the City of Houston through Houston Arts Alliance. Mendez, already a Teaching Artist for the Alley, was asked to lead various classes they wanted to offer at community centers as part of the El Zocalo program.

But red flags also tarnished Mendez’s belief that the Alley was truly committed to Latinx programming/community engagement. At a meeting with Mary Sutton, Alley Director of Education & Community Engagement, Mendez asked if El Zocalo was an ongoing initiative and what the Alley envisioned for the program moving forward. “Mary Sutton clearly stated, no we don’t have a plan for this continuing. If the money shows up, great. But we’re not making any money off this so we probably won’t continue after this year,” said Mendez.

Not long after that meeting in the fall of 2017, Mendez left the TA position due in large part to her disappointment re what she felt were the Alley’s window dressing efforts at true Latinx community engagement. “It felt like the Alley was just checking the Latinx box off their list, like maybe next year we’ll do Asian American and last year we did Synching Ink, so we got the black community too”, says Mendez. “And they get grant money for it. Money that could have gone to organizations committed to making this a long-standing program.”

Boffone agrees that the money behind what has turned into an almost invisible Latinx festival is troubling. “El Zócalo wasn’t included on the Alley’s website until about a month ago and the only communication I received from the Alley was from the Group Sales Manager who attempted to sell me tickets for 10 or more people starting at $20 for adults, $10 for students, and $18 for seniors”, says Boffone who points out that initiative that has received over $175,000 in grant funding ($50k from the City of Houston and $125k from the NEA. “Given the massive amount of public funding, I question where this money is going and if culturally-specific organizations wouldn’t have been better served with this money to create programming for Houston’s Latinx population.”

Better served, better engaged or better promoted, the feeling is that there were a number of betters that the Alley could have achieved in this situation. However the one thing the Alley’s missteps can’t do is mess up is your ability to actually see the production, should you be able to fit it into your schedule at such short notice.

Misa Fronteriza runs through April 15 at the Alley Theater, 615 Texas. For tickets, call 713-220-5700 or visit $24. The Alley is also partnering to produce Misa Fronteriza at community centers in Houston on the following dates: April 20-22 at Multicultural Education and Counseling through the Arts (MECA), 1900 Kane Street. Free Event. April 27 – 29 at Talento Bilingüe de Houston, 333 S Jensen Dr. Free Event