"The sun is a symbol of rebirth," explains Tony Garcia. "In our culture, death is not an end. It's part of a recycling."
The word "recycling," though, fails to convey the mythic scope and spirit of El Sol Que Tú Eres/The Sun That You Are. A stage musical written and directed by Garcia -- founder and head of Denver's Su Teatro drama company, as well as a teacher of Chicano Studies at Metro State -- El Sol encompasses vast themes of love, justice and mortality. And no wonder: The play reworks Marcel Camus's epic 1959 film Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus) -- itself an adaptation of the tragic Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.
"I was thirteen or fourteen years old when I first saw the movie," Garcia remembers. "What I didn't understand then was that the movie brought ancient European concepts over to the New World and was very African-based at the same time. I'm a musician, too, and the score by Luis Bonfa and Antonio Carlos Jobim was something that inspired me in everything I did."
Garcia brought an equally luminous musical influence to bear on El Sol: old friend and collaborator Daniel Valdez. Most famous for his work on the films Zoot Suit and La Bamba, Valdez has deep roots in Chicano culture. After becoming an activist for Cesar Chavez's United Farm Workers in the '60s, he formed the legendary El Teatro Campesino, then became a recording artist known to millions for his contribution to Linda Ronstadt's 1987 album, Canciones de Mi Padre.
"The title of the play comes from a duet that Danny did with Linda Ronstadt," Garcia says. "It's an old folk traditional. He learned it years ago on the picket lines in Delano with Cesar Chavez, and then added to it. It talks a lot about that whole historical struggle of the poor to survive. The song really lent itself well to the themes of the play."
In El Sol, Hugo E. Carbajal portrays Orfeo (Orpheus), a suave, streetwise poet from Los Angeles who meets Elizabeth Botello's Rudi (Eurydice) while in Mexico during Día de los Muertos. Enriched by Valdez's gorgeous songcraft and a five-piece band comprising strings and percussion, the play follows the star-crossed duo's desperate romance as it winds its way through temptation, sacrifice and the afterlife. But as rooted in ancient allegory as it is, the tale also tackles issues that resonate today.
"It's a very contemporary story," Garcia notes. "Both Orfeo and Rudi are, by definition, Chicanos, but they still come from radically different worlds. She talks about growing up poor, but she doesn't understand poverty the way he does. In the mythology, Eurydice has very little voice. She's just kind of there to look pretty and get stolen while Orpheus does all the talking. But Rudi is tough; she's kind of like the kids I see hanging out around the flagpole on the Auraria campus. The way these young girls negotiate is very verbal, very aggressively articulate. We really wanted to hear what Rudi had to say."
The play opens Saturday, October 1, but it's already garnered a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts and the attention of producers who are considering taking the show on the road. Although it's steeped in the language and life of the barrio, Garcia acknowledges El Sol's universal, border-blurring appeal.
"It's the story of the role of art and the ability to transcend all the restrictions of the mortal world," he says. "It's asking, 'Can progress, love and compassion triumph in a world with the encroachment of fascism? Can these ideas last?' -- very big questions about how we see ourselves and what kind of a world we want to live in."
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