Esperanza Rising marks a milestone for children’s theater

by Mark Burger

The Children’s Theatre of Winston-Salem is opening 2010 with a landmark production: an adaptation of the award-winning novel Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan.

Set during the Great Depression and inspired in part by Ryan’s own grandmother, this sprawling story examines the plight of Mexican farmworkers as they struggle to assimilate into the US culture, and is seen through the eyes of the young girl Esperanza, whose family is forced by circumstance to make the illegal migration northward.

Unlike the majority of productions which are presented by the Children’s Theatre, Esperanza Rising is a “homegrown” collaboration between the Children’s Theatre, Twin City Stage and the Hispanic Arts Institute — a first that the principals sincerely hope won’t be the last.

Jeana Whitaker, the artistic director of the Children’s Theatre, is directing the show, which opens Jan. 8 at the Arts Council Theatre (610 Coliseum Drive, Winston-Salem).

Whitaker has only been the artistic director of the Children’s Theatre since August, having been hired shortly after the demise of her own children’s theater company, the North Valley Playhouse in Phoenix, Ariz. — a casualty of the nation’s economic woes.

As unfortunate as that was, “it was a lucky break for us,” notes Karen McHugh, general manager of the Children’s Theatre. “It really was a ‘silver lining’ situation.”

Proud of what she’d achieved in Phoenix but always looking forward, Whitaker took the directorial reins of the Children’s Theatre’s production of Blue’s Clues, which kicked off the 69th season in September.

“She literally got off the plane, dropped her bags, and started rehearsing,” quips McHugh.

Not quite, Whitaker laughs, but not too far from the truth. There’s no bet ter way to test the waters than diving straight in.

“I felt completely at home,” she says. “Completely comfortable, a warm and loving atmosphere… just a great place to work.”

Whitaker admits that she had to hit the ground running, but “I love it,” she says. “The Children’s Theatre is a really well run company. They’ve done a lot of great things, and there’s room to grow.”

Plans for Esperanza Rising were already well underway by the time of Whitaker’s arrival, but as with Blue’s Clues, she had no hesitation in taking on the challenge.

At a time when the economy is a foremost consideration for arts organizations, collaboration makes financial sense. But, particularly in this case, it makes artistic sense. The sharing of resources and ideas has been “a perfect match,” says Maria Sanchez-Boudy, the executive director of the Hispanic Arts Initiative. “It’s one of those things where you wonder: ‘Why didn’t anyone think of this before?’” The timing for the production couldn’t be better, given that many Winston-Salem schools have the book on their student reading lists.

“It tackles the issue of immigration — which is very timely — but it shows the human side,” notes Sanchez-Boudy. “It humanizes the process.”

The story not only examines that facet of American (and Latin American) history, but also the Hispanic culture of that era — a culture that was dominated by the male. The story does not condemn, but explores and dramatizes.

“The family was forced to immigrate because it had no other choice,” she says. “The house burned down, the father died, they lost everything. A woman at that time was not allowed to own property. It was entrenched very, very much in the culture — and, even now, we haven’t totally overcome that. Without a male head of the household, they had no choice but to migrate to work the farms [in California].”

The message conveyed to today’s young theatergoers is “understanding the cultural and historical nuance,” she says.

As daunting a task as bringing that message to life is, there’s also the matter of mounting one of the largest productions in the Children’s Theatre’s history, replete with period design and costumes. In addition, much of the cast (which numbers 25) have had little or no prior experience in theater.

That didn’t faze Whitaker in the least. She knew she’d be working with good people who shared her curiosity and enthusiasm about the project. She also had the benefit of assistant director Guadalupe Riess, also from the Hispanic Arts Initiative, who is serving as the production’s dance choreographer, costume and sets supervisor, language and cultural supervisor and all-around troubleshooter.

“She has been a right arm,” Whitaker says, her sentiments echoed by both McHugh and Sanchez-Boudy.

wanna go?

Showtimes for Esperanza Rising are 10 a.m., noon and 7 p.m. on Jan. 8, and 11 a.m. on Jan. 9. Tickets are $8 (general admission) and $12 (premium seating), and reservations are strongly suggested. There is an invitation-only performance on Jan. 7 for members of the Hispanic community.

For tickets or more information, call 336.725.4531 or visit the official Children’s Theatre website: http://www.childrenstheatrews. org/index.htm

If the production of Esperanza Rising is successful, there has been preliminary talk of bringing it back at some point in the future. In any case, Sanchez-Boudy says, “This has been a great relationship. I love collaboration, and this has been a good fit since day one.”