THE PERFORMANCE OF A GENERATION

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YOLANDA ORTEGA PROVIDES THE PERFORMANCE OF A GENERATION

 

-By Anthony J. Garcia

“Yolanda has created unique and interesting roles on Su Teatro’s stages for the last 42 years.”


Photo by Valeriana Sloan

Now that I don’t have to give notes to the actors after each performance and I can watch the production of

Bless Me, Ultima as an audience member, I have some thoughts.

 

Yolanda Ortega provides the performance of a generation in her portrayal of the lead character in Rudolfo Anaya’s adaptation of his much lauded novel. She follows in the great tradition of the leading ladies of theatre: Yolanda has created unique and interesting roles on Su Teatro’s stages for the last 42 years. She has played some of the great roles in world theatre such as Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Federico Lorca’s

Bernarda Alba and it is that weight and experience and importance that Yolanda brings to her portrayal of Rudolfo Anaya’s Ultima.


“We saw the teatro as social justice work and the development of our craft as a mean of better serving our community.”


As someone who has been involved in Teatro Chicano since 1972 and for the last 44 years, I have seen much and I have been fortunate to experience the growth and evolving dynamics of our performers.

 

In its initial stages the “Teatro Movement” was led by males. They were our first playwrights and they wrote from a malecentric perspective. It was a male world and they were responding to it. The lead characters were male, and the stories centered on the male world. But an interesting effect occurred: our strongest actors were always the women.

 

Although the roles available did not always present the best opportunity for the women in our companies, a good actor can make even the smallest role significant. And this is in fact what happened. Although perhaps not represented in the script, women were powerful on stage.


 

Yolanda Ortega has Tony Garcia in a very vulnerable position - performance at Sloan's Lake - 1970s
Yolanda Ortega has Tony Garcia in a very vulnerable position –
performance at Sloan’s Lake – 1970s

By the mid-70s and from that point on, the emergence of Latina playwrights created even greater opportunities and more dynamic roles for women. In 1974, two women joined the company and really created an new trajectory for what we presented on stage. Debra Gallegos and Yolanda Ortega became members of Su Teatro.

 

Su Teatro was different from some of the other teatro companies, who, taking their cue from El Teatro Campesino and the United Farmworkers movement, gathered organizers and developed their performance skills.

 

Su Teatro members had come to Su Teatro as performers who saw the work of the company as a means of carrying out social justice work. We saw the teatro as social justice work and the development of our craft as a means of better serving our community.


“Ultima is special and blessed by a spiritual power that commands respect and attention. For a lesser actor, this might be where the depth ends”


As the director and the primary playwright, I looked around the rehearsal space and the company members and Yolanda and Debra were our strongest performers. It made the best sense to create, explore and present them and the role of women at the forefront of the teatro.

 

Yolanda and Debra created and performed the matriarchal role in “El Corrido del Barrio,” really Su Teatro’s first major successful production. Debra emerged in a breakout role, playing both the grandmother and granddaughter in Ludlow: El Grito de las Minas. She also was standout in Cherie Moraga’s Shadow of a Man.

 

Yolanda took the lead as the dedicated church lady in “The Miracle at Tepeyac”. Over the years both have created and performed unique and powerful roles. They offered an example and provided nurturing to other members of the company as well.


“In the Chicano/Latino theatre world we have a tradition of great female actors…Denver’s duo of Debra Gallegos and Yolanda Ortega stand proudly in this category of great female actors.”


Deb and Yolanda at Sloan's Lake.
Deb and Yolanda at Sloan’s Lake.

This weekend will mark the last five performances of Bless Me, Ultima, this seminal work of Chicano literature by Medal of the Arts Awardee Rudolfo Anaya. While watching the show, a few performances removed from the rehearsal and preparation process, I was able to take a more objective view of Yolanda’s  work.

 

The first and most obvious impression is Ultima’s presence. Yolanda enters with great carriage. Ultima is special and blessed by a spiritual power that commands respect and attention. For a lesser actor, this might be where the depth ends. That might also be a difficult level to reach for some. What is so fascinating about Yolanda’s role is her interaction with Antonio, portrayed by nine year old Christopher Pettis.

 

Their interactions are conversational and intimate. Sometimes so quiet and intense that we feel we are intruders. In taking an objective view of the production, Yolanda does very little. My fellow directors from around the country who have seen Yolanda perform are always taken with her “economy of action”. Because of her tremendous presence, Yolanda can make so much happen with less. She is always at the center of the play without calling any attention to herself. Ultima does very little transformation, no major catharsis takes place, yet her character is transformational.


Phil Luna, Yolanda Ortega and Christopher Pettis - Bless Me, Ultima -The Play. Valeriana Sloan photo.
Phil Luna, Yolanda Ortega and Christopher Pettis – Bless Me, Ultima -The Play.
Valeriana Sloan photo.

The play is fortunate to have such a strong cast. Angel Mendez-Soto provides a counter balance as the evil Tenorio Trementino. His black heart masks a heart of loss and ostracism. The young Chris Pettis is engaging and capable of capturing the innocence and fascination of Antonio. Phil Luna inserts the Narrator into the action as Antonio’s adult self, reliving in the first person the experiences of his emotional childhood.

 

There are more standout and strong performances throughout the production. But the play is driven by Yolanda. There is more nuance as well as dynamism in her performance. Before it sounds like I am in love with my play, I will tell you what any other experienced director will tell you: You can not direct this. The actor has to bring it. One of our younger actors commented “I get to stand backstage and watch Yolanda perform every night”.


“…I will tell you what any other experienced director will tell you: You can not direct this. The actor has to bring it. One of our younger actors commented ‘I get to stand backstage and watch Yolanda perform every night’.   


In the Chicano/Latino theatre world we have a tradition of great female actors: Miriam Colon (who played Ultima in the film) and Carmen Zapata who made Lorca her personal domain; in recent times we have Ruby Nelda Perez from San Antonio; in L.A., Evelina Fernandez and Alma Lopez, who have brought strong and interesting Latina characters to the stage and Rosa Maria Escalante of  El Teatro Campesino who helped blaze this trail. But Denver’s duo of Debra Gallegos and Yolanda Ortega stand proudly in this category of great female actors.

 

Yolanda Ortega’s performance in Bless Me Ultima brings to the stage an intersection of 42 years of acting and theatre experience in a role that she has been destined to perform. It is something that we have waited a long time to see, and something that we will not see for some time to come. It is the performance of a generation.