Acclaimed playwright Octavio Solis continues to explore what it means to be an American in his new play "Marfa Lights," a dramatic struggle for survival set for its West Coast premiere on Nov. 9 at Saint Mary's College.
In a visit to campus on Nov. 1 to discuss the play, Solis said he finds himself constantly struggling with cultural issues in his work.
"When writing a play I always try to keep the stakes extraordinarily high," Solis said. "And the highest you can go is life and death."
"Marfa Lights" revolves around a fraternity hazing gone wrong, and the main character Jorge"s struggle to stay alive after being left in the west Texas desert, blindfolded with his hands tied behind his back. As with many of Solis' plays, "Marfa Lights" deals with social and racial tensions in his native Texas.
"Jorge is a character who has to deal with the fall out of a culture clash," Solis said. "He cannot forget his heritage, but he also knows that he will get ahead if he moves forward and away from it."
Saint Mary's performing arts seniors Beau Ballinger, Jon Bertain, Andrew Russ and Maggie VandenBerghe are cast as the quartet who leaves Jorge in the desert, and sophomore Vince Rodriguez plays the freshman pledge. The Marfa Lights, a strange phenomenon that shine over the small west Texas town, serve as the backdrop for the play.
"No one has been able to figure out what makes the lights appear," Solis said. "They look like colored headlights emerging and rising through the sky. Some think they're Native American spirits, or gas, or UFOs. Whatever they are, they're beautiful, and the locals don't want to know what causes them."
Solis, now a San Francisco resident who often returns to Texas, has written plays including "El Paso Blue" and "Gibraltar," a 2005 Oregon Shakespeare Festival premiere. Considered one of the foremost Hispanic playwrights, Solis has received a National Endowment for the Arts Playwriting Fellowship as well as the Roger L. Stevens Award and the Will Glickman Playwright Award from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
"He handles these dark themes with surprising tenderness," said "Marfa Lights" director Rebecca Engle. "'Marfa Lights' was written especially for college-age actors, and the playwright reveals a rare affection for his teenage characters, and for their misguided hunger to belong. â€˜Marfa Lights' offers a smart, funny and deeply engaging look at the frictions and fissures we all must navigate in a culturally diverse world."
Solis chose to have the West Coast premiere of "Marfa Lights" at Saint Mary's in part because he drew inspiration for the play from students who took a January Term course he taught with Engle for three years. He began writing the play through a class exercise where students were assigned to write scenes based on a variety of photographs.
"I wrote the play in two weeks," Solis said. "Initially, I didn't know it was going to take place in Marfa, but then I realized the play was about light and dark and seeing and blindness."
"Marfa Lights" will be performed at 8 p.m on Nov. 9-11 and at 2 p.m. on Nov. 11 and 12 at the LeFevre Theatre at Saint Mary's College. Solis will lead a post-show discussion following the 8 p.m. show on Nov. 11. Tickets are available for $15 general admission, $12 for non-Saint Mary's students with identification and $8 for Saint Mary's College students, faculty and staff.
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