- Syncretic Sites in Luis Alfaro’s Electricidad
In recent years on the U.S. stage, a variety of productions of Athenian drama have been emerging that syncretize the ancient form with distinctly U.S. identities. Will Power’s (2006) The Seven, Allain Rochel’s (2007) Bacchae, the Classical Theater of Harlem’s (2008) The Trojan Women, Take Wing and Soar’s (2008) Medea, and Luis Alfaro’s (2005) Electricidad all engage with questions of gender and racial identities through the medium of Athenian drama. In what follows, I want to discuss the ways in which a contemporary revision such as these resignifies the traditional associations of classics with a monolithic Anglo-American identity1 and at the same time challenges any singular view of American identity itself.
In his Electricidad and specifically its performance at the Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles, in 2005, MacArthur Fellow and solo performer2 Luis Alfaro infuses Sophocles’ Electra with cholo charm and adapts the play’s murder-for-justice motif into the context of contemporary gang violence among the cholos3 living in the Boyle Heights district of LA. Electra becomes Electricidad, a plaid-shirt wearing chola who longs for her brother Orestes to return from “X-file” in Las Vegas to avenge their father’s murder. Alfaro has said that his interest in the Electra myth was inspired by his work in a youth authority program for teen felons, where he met
a young girl who had killed her mother. Shortly afterward I went into the Arizona Theatre Company’s bookstore, and they had a collection of the Greeks on sale. I thought, I should read this. And you know, you’re reading Electra and it’s basically the same story. Nothing’s changed. Why do we still have a need to avenge?(Johnson 2006, 64).
In connecting the violence in Electra to the violence in the urban barrio, Alfaro transforms the plot, the characters, and the corporeality (embodied social codes as exhibited through costume, gesture, voice, setting, etc.4) of the ancient Greek version into the movement, language, and Aztec mythology of the Boyle Heights cholos. The resulting revision, [End Page 193] which has been performed on major stages and workshopped with youths, demonstrates that Electra belongs as much to cholo culture as to any other.
While the play’s corporeality creates a distinctly cholo surrogate5 of one of the central myths related to Western democracy, the performance’s syncrisis of culture also raises provocative questions about issues of identity in contemporary America. The hybrid structure of the play, from its use of Spanglish to its cholo costume, metatheatrically addresses the identity issues at the heart of the cholo community, whose trouble identifying with mainstream America has been cited as one of the root causes of gang formation. In this way the form of the play functions as a sort of therapy for the sociological problems that contribute to violence in the cholo community and to the marginalization of the community at large.
The Cholo World
Electricidad’s setting and corporeality merge its precursor with the socio-cultural environment of the cholos. Like Sophocles, Alfaro localizes the Electra myth. He uses numerous references to the city of Los Angeles, from the Santa Ana winds to Mariachi Plaza, K-Earth 101, and Forest Lawn Cemetery. From Electricidad’s plaid shirt and baggy pants to La Ifi’s puffy goose-down jacket and heavy eye makeup, the costumes embody the dress style that, according to sociologist James Diego Vigil (1988, 112), “marks one’s closer associations to the barrio gang.”6 As Vigil discusses, the cholo’s style is a key part of their identity, and together with these clothing choices, “other gestural and demeanor patterns also reflect the cholo style” (1988, 113). In Alfaro’s work, tattoos, graffiti, low-rider culture, slow-dancing, and a leisurely gait function like the identity markers that Vigil lists in his study. When the grandmother “pulls a joint out of her cleavage” (Alfaro 2006, 77, col. 2) and talks about storing “knives, joints, [and] food stamps” in her hair (Alfaro 2006, 77, col. 3), the gestures reference cholo decorum but also seem funny...