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An interview with Rodrigo Duarte Clark
Theater, Esperanza, and Mountaintops

Part 1 - Without needing us

Interview by Nic Paget-Clarke
near Kelly Fork, Kentucky

The following interview with Rodrigo Duarte Clark is part of a series of interviews with some of the members of a group of 25 artists from around the U.S. and Canada who went to Kentucky and Virginia to participate in the initial stages of a multi-year, multi-site community art project sponsored by the American Festival Project. The American Festival Project is based in Whitesburg, Kentucky with Appalshop, a regional community arts center. Also see: Fred Campbell, Harrell Fletcher, Shannon Hummel, Stephanie Juno, Suzanne Lacy, John Malpede, Robbie McCauley, Nobuko Miyamoto.

Without needing us

Rodrigo Duarte Clark: My name is Rodrigo Duarte Clark and I am currently living in Oakland. I work in the Mission district in San Francisco. Originally, I’m from Mexico, Sonora and then I came to the United States and lived in the Santa Barbara area, Carpinteria specifically.

In Motion Magazine: What do you do?

Rodrigo Duarte Clark: I’m a theater person. I write plays, direct plays, as the principal work that I do. But I also work in other aspects of theater. Often times the company does residencies in other locations and supports other efforts to create theater that has some relevance to our communities. The company’s name is El Teatro de la Esperanza.

In Motion Magazine: Is there community involvement in what you are doing?

Rodrigo Duarte Clark: Yes. Let me give an example. We were invited to Arizona State to do a residency and they communicated with various Latino organizations in the Phoenix area. We hooked up with an organization called Centro de Amistad, which is a social service center. They wanted to do something that would have relevance to their community. They wanted to do a pastorela, which is a shepherd’s play, a Christmas oriented play that was written about their situation.

Over the course of two years, we visited periodically and worked with people from that community. We learned the various stories that they had. Then we wrote an adaptation of the pastorela to suit this particular place and this particular community. Once the script was approved by them we presented it with actors from their community with the intention of passing on whatever bits of expertise we had.

We left them with a script. Left them with a set. Left them with the sound effects and so forth, with the idea that they would continue this tradition and build on it.

For the very first production of it we were there. We directed it and so forth. It was successful. Then this last year, Christmas of ’99, they did it on their own. Without needing us, which is good and bad. They can do it on their own. They changed the script. They re-painted the set. Did it differently. Now it’s ongoing. They developed a company that formed out of this and they are doing their own theater.

We like to think that our residency there connected with that community. That they were able to take us and use us and then continue. That’s an example.

Evil in those masks

In Motion Magazine: How in your work do you define the community since you live in Oakland, and this was in Phoenix?

Rodrigo Duarte Clark: Coming from the Chicano Movement, we in Esperanza defined our community as the Chicano, Mexican American community. We never defined it in any more detail than that.

Then, we moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and we were specifically in the Mission district. Now we were faced with a situation where we weren’t just a touring company. In Santa Barbara it had been a little different. From there we had toured a lot, so we defined our community in broad terms. Now that we are in the Bay Area, in terms of what you would define as a physical geographical community, the broader San Francisco Bay Area is our community and that of course is not exclusively Latino.

Though we are still a touring company, I feel like we still have connection to the broader Latino community. In the case of Phoenix, it was Chicanos and Yaquis.

Each individual has connections to things. I was born in Sonora and I grew up amongst Yaquis. Coming to Phoenix was an interesting re-connection for me. A lot of the words that I spoke in Spanish were actually Yaqui words, but I didn’t know they were Yaqui until I came to California. I would say these words to other Mexicans and they would have this blank look on their face. My mom had to explain to me that that wasn’t Spanish.

I remember as a child, the Yaquis would come into town during Easter, Pasqua they call it, and they would do a lot of dances and rituals. They had this one particular ritual in which they would re-enact Jesus walking with a cross. Then they actually put him up on the cross. They were dressed as Pharisees. They would put on these masks which were incredibly beautiful masks. Then at the end of it all they would put the masks in a pile and set them on fire. These gorgeous beautiful masks. My wildest dream was to sneak in there and take one and run.

Later on, when I went to Phoenix and I was explaining this to some of the Yaqui people there he just about fainted. He said, “Do you know how much evil is in those masks? Do you know that it’s everybody’s sins for the whole year in those masks? All this evil is in those masks. That’s why they have to be burned. If you had taken that mask you would have taken that evil.” It was a real interesting experience.

The devil is a very critical character. When we put the devil out there, because in Chicano theater you see the devil all the time, I thought it was appropriate and right. But one time, the actor who was playing the devil, who was half Yaqui, said to me, “You know, you don’t live here. You can leave. But after the show I have to live here. The fact that I’m playing the devil is not just a representation of the devil. For them this is the devil. The symbol of the devil carries a certain amount of evil.” That made me nervous.

Anyway, we did it. During the first part of the Pastorela, there is an entrance into the church, this Mission in Phoenix. The devil and his entourage enter in this wild dance. It was the most freaky experience. There were people screaming and yelling and laughing at the same time. They were frightened but at the same time they weren’t running out. They were enjoying it to some degree. They were confronting the devil. There was more going on there than I had ever anticipated. I think the actor sensed that and got somewhat intimidated but he carried it through.

It was a very frightening moment. I had the fear that people would somehow leave the church or attack him. He himself had said, “I’m not totally secure about all this. Their beliefs, and understanding of what a mask meant, symbols and so forth aren’t the same as I knew as a Catholic. It was a frightening, profound experience.

In Motion Magazine: Did lessons from that carry over to future work?

Rodrigo Duarte Clark: What it teaches me, broadly, is that you really have to fully comprehend what symbols mean to a particular community and Yaquis are a little different than other Chicanos. You can’t take anything for granted. I guess if I had to do something like that again I would be a little bit more careful. Even though I had grown up round Yaquis, I didn’t understand what certain things meant.

Blasting the tops off of mountains

High school students march to their meeting
High school students march to their meeting with officials of the Department of Surface Mining, Frankfort, Kentucky. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
In Motion Magazine: How did you come into this project. Were there things from your past work that you were thinking you would contribute. Or were you coming with a clear slate?

Rodrigo Duarte Clark: Well, Esperanza is one of the members of the consortia of the American Festival so I’m quite familiar with the American Festival’s concepts. I’ve been to Appalshop before. We have a relationship with other American Festival members, such as Roadside Theater. I’ve been here and I’ve seen their work.

Even so, it wasn’t absolutely clear to me what this was about. I had read the material that was sent to me and I realized that we were going to be immersed in some way. But apart from that, I didn’t have a clear vision as to what would be the relationship between the artists and the community, or what they expected of us. What would be the relationship between the artists themselves? I thought, “I’ll just go along with the program and see what develops.”

In Motion Magazine: What have you been doing for the past few days?

Rodrigo Duarte Clark: We have hooked up with a set of five students who have worked with the media program connected to Appalshop and are connected to the media class here at the local community school. They were doing a documentary on the local issues of this community. The central issue is direct and vital at this moment. We went to a demonstration about it today.

Over the course of the interviews conducted by the students we started to understand what they were talking about. We didn’t literally understand that they were talking about blasting the mountain tops off. We didn’t realize what digging out the coal meant in physical terms. We understood that the coal mines and the coal companies had exploited this area but we didn’t understand the very specific ways that they were talking about.

In this day and age, frankly, I was surprised at the directness of it. After twenty, thirty years of being involved in a social movement I had assumed that the nature of the oppression was a little more subtle, more complex. That the tactics used by these companies would be a little bit more refined. This was direct and blunt.

In Motion Magazine: For example?

Rodrigo Duarte Clark: Specifically, they were going to dig out the coal in a manner which physically threatened the structures of these people’s house. When they blast, they literally make an explosion and the blast causes direct damage to the houses of the poeple who live nearby. Things become tilted. Doors don’t fit any more. We were shown the direct effects of this.

The water. We were shown the color of the water. In fact, one of the interviews was with an older gentleman who was fixing his pump as we arrived. His hands were literally yellow from, I guess, the sulfur. Each of the three interviews talked specifically about the water and what was being done to their water. These people being interviewed have been here for years. Two of them were miners.

In Motion Magazine: The people you interviewed?

Rodrigo Duarte Clark: That the students interviewed. Yes.

They know what it means to mine a vein. What it means when it collapses and what effect it has on the mountain. What effect it has on the water. They get their water from wells. When you take the coal out of a seam it has direct ramifications on the water. They know the history of the mine companies and what they’ve done here. When the mine company gets a permit and says they will do right by them, whatever damage is done, whatever happens to the water they will rectify it, these people out and out don’t believe it. And they of course don’t want it to happen in the first place.

I’m used to kids partying and not really caring too much about issues when they are in high school. Here you have kids from little ones to bigger ones, to adults, and grandparents all down the line saying the same thing about the coal mines. In this particular case it’s the Diamond May Coal Company. They were very specific that no one here trusts these people. The refrain you hear over again is, “They are not from here. They don’t care what happens to this community. The coal is there and they are going to get it. Whatever ramifications there are to this community don’t matter to them. They are brazen in their position that they are just going to get it.” They are going to run over these people.

The second interview was with a man who had left the mountains. He had a very poignant quote. He said when he was young looking for work the mines were what he was going to do. His father said to him, “I’d rather kill you myself than have you work in the mines”. The father had black lung. He was going to die from the effects of the mining. So the son left to find work in Ohio with his heart always still in the mountains. When he retired, he came back to the mountains and built his dream home in one of the hollows.

Then, along comes the Diamond May Coal company and starts blasting and his dream home now is threatened.

He said also that there’s actually places where they blast the tops off the mountains and then they fill the valleys. Literally they are creating a flat. They are changing the geography of this place. The whole idea of you can do whatever you want. You can destroy these people.

He talked about the mountains that they live inside. The mountains protect people from tornadoes and the elements. This is their shelter. There’s a special relationship. The sincerity of these people comes through. It’s clear cut. “These companies are out to screw us. They’ve done it before and we’ve got to do something.”

The existing sympathies

In Motion Magazine: How was the interaction between you and the students?

Rodrigo Duarte Clark: We tried to explain to them what we could offer. We knew that they were going to Frankfort for a demonstration. If they wanted to do a little skit. If they wanted to do chants. If they wanted to do movements. We would try to provide our artistic skills. Fred (Campbell), in particular, being that he has the technical skills, helped a great deal with the editing of the radio interview. We also helped. We got on the QuickEdit with them to figure out the whole interview and edited with them. We picked sections of text and so forth. Then we went into their schools and did workshops. We did a little theater. We did a little dance. The visual artist, Gwylene Gallimard, helped them. It was actually quite developed.

They had their own strategies. We went for an organizing meeting for adults and kids where they had charts. Organizing 101. The goals were stated. The strategies were stated. Who are the targets we are trying to hit? All that was discussed in a strategic way.

Then we met in the classes. We know the target is so and so. What are the things to communicate to them? What is the tone of what we are saying? We developed quotes that they wanted on the pickets. The chants that they might want to say. It wasn’t great art or anything but if you looked at the picket signs, they had on them the quotes that were developed.

Gwylene taught them how to write on the picket signs. Contrast. What is the word of the six words that you think should stick out? The value of each word relative to the broader question. Artistic, conceptual things that applied to, “Somebody is going to look at this for ten seconds. A camera is going to go on you for ten seconds. What do you want people to see? What word do you want to stick out? What picture do you want to stick out?

One of the kids suggested using the circles with a slash. Another kid suggested, “It’s the number four,” referring to the mine being protested. We helped guide the existing sympathies, the obvious anger, and passion that was there.

Frankly, I’m sure they could have done it with out us. They would have done it without us. But I think having a little support like that helped them in a technical sense and, more, in an emotional, moral way it was significant to the kids to understand that there were people here from another place who understood and supported what they were doing.

In Motion Magazine: What was the personal feedback to that?

Rodrigo Duarte Clark: There wasn’t any direct conversation about it. At the demonstration, one kid stayed behind and posed a question to the officials in Frankfort. “How are you going to feel about this.” He put it on a moral basis. He’s the kid who as part of the project almost never spoke. It was mostly girls. He was the boy. He hardly ever talked. We thought, well, that’s just the way he is. But the second day he came over and sat next to me and said, “What do you think about this?” “What do you think about what we are doing?” He was trying to figure out if they were doing something crazy. “Do we have a chance here?” “Is this ridiculous?” He wanted some kind of response from me.

Published in In Motion Magazine October 18, 2000