Salsa music resounds through the lobby of Lawrenceville’s Aurora Theatre. Tequila is flowing at the bar and the sound of people speaking Spanish fills the theater. It is Noche Latina (Latin night) for “Memphis,” the 2010 Tony Award-winning musical about a white radio disc jockey who falls for a black R&B singer.
This scene is one that artistic directors of theaters across the country can only dream of, as they try to figure out how to get the country’s fastest-growing minority group through their doors.
Aurora Theatre seems to have found the answer. Noche Latina is one piece of its Teatro Aurora initiative, which recently received a $20,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
“You have to study each culture and what they value,” Ann-Carol Pence, Aurora’s co-producing artistic director, said. Based on her experience, many Latino families like to come to the theater together, and they like plays based around faith and spirituality.
“We are looking for any and all outreach opportunities, because theater is for all people,” she said.
The theater plans to use the NEA funds to host a Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration and a flamenco dance night, and they recently hired Sergio Rubio as Teatro Aurora’s project manager.
Rubio came to Georgia from Bogota, Colombia, when he was 10, which was a difficult transition. He later enrolled at Central Gwinnett High School, where he was introduced to theater, and interned backstage at Aurora. Now 23, he is studying marketing at Gwinnett Technical College and busy planning a full schedule of Teatro Aurora events.
“Storytelling brought me to theater, because art makes it easier to make connections and understand other people’s perspectives on life,” Rubio said. “That’s why we’re coming up with new initiatives to get the Latino community to the theater, and get Americans to see Latinos onstage.”
The mainstay of the Teatro Aurora program, formerly called Teatro del Sol (Theater of the Sun), is a full production of a play by a Latino playwright performed in Spanish with English supertitles. The season kicks off with “Divorciadas, Evangelicas y Vegetarianas” by Gustavo Ott, Sept. 25-Oct. 18. It’s an ensemble comedy about three single Latinas trying to navigate a world that expects them to be married.
Teatro del Sol began in 2004, when Anthony Rodriguez, Aurora’s co-producing artistic director, staged “La Vida Es Sueno” (“Life Is a Dream”) by Pedro Calderon de la Barca. Rodriguez’s parents migrated to the United States from Cuba in 1961, and he wanted to create a space in his theater where Latinos would feel welcome.
The program is growing through a partnership with Georgia Gwinnett College and involvement with the Latino Theatre Commons (LTC), a national advocacy group for Latin theater artists. It is on the steering committee for LTC that Rodriguez met Abigail Vega, the director of “Divorciadas, Evangelicas y Vegetarianas” (“Divorcees, Evangelists and Vegetarians”).
“In the United States, we tend to have an arm’s-length approach to seeing theater in another language,” Vega said. “When you go around the world, so much theater is performed with subtitles in multiple languages. What Aurora is doing is such a special thing, because they are normalizing being bilingual and multilingual.”
Ricardo Aponte, who choreographs Teatro Aurora shows, credits Rodriguez for picking plays that he says capture the essence of Latino culture.
“It takes you back to your home country and reminds you of the food your grandmother used to make,” he said.
In addition to producing Spanish programming, Aurora also has bilingual box office staff and lists show information online in Spanish and English, and portions of the show programs are bilingual. However, they do not want to stop with the Latino community; they also want to reach Gwinnett’s large Korean and Bosnian populations.
“We’re going to have to make profound steps with every single culture in order to create trust; we can’t say us and them,” Pence said. “We want to ask what’s different, unique and special about each community, and because of that, all of these rich cultures are finding their way into our theater.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.