by Latoya Peterson
I thought I knew Oedipus Rex.
The first time I read Sophocles’ masterful Greek tragedy was in the 11th grade. There, scribbling out an analysis as part of a 40 minute timed writing, I focused on what epitomized Oedipus for me – the struggle between fate and free will. After hearing from the Oracle that he was fated to murder his father and to sleep with his mother, Oedipus does what any rational person would do – he tries to put as much distance as he can between himself and the only family he knows. Unfortunately, prophecies are not so easily averted – Oedipus never knew he was adopted, and thus did not know the man he slew on the road to Thebes was his father; nor did he know the beautiful widow he would eventually marry was his birth mother.
Back then, I wrote about the icy hand of irony in Oedipus’ journey - how he closed himself to what would have revealed the truth because of his hubris, but once he finds out he literally blinds himself. But what really stuck with me was the idea of fate. If your life is predestined – and all roads will lead to your eventual path – what is the point of having free will? Life never promised to be fair, but the fates are needlessly cruel, especially in Greek mythology. And so, when I heard about a retelling of Oedipus Rex, set in the barrios of LA with a Chicano protagonist, I could immediately see the connection.
Indeed, the idea of being trapped by larger, unseen forces makes a lot of sense when thrust into a modern context. Oedipus El Rey bases its narrative in California’s penal system, with the title character Oedipus (also nicknamed patas malas due to the torture inflicted by his father at his birth) growing up in juvenile detention. At one point, Oedipus confesses that after he was released at the age of seventeen, he robbed a Costco without a gun, just so he could be returned to jail. It was a powerful admission – that so many boys who go into the criminal justice system at an early age come out without any sense of what it means to function in society, that there are people who come to prefer the steady monotony of incarceration than be forced to cope with the unstructured chaos of real life. The idea that regardless of your own intentions, one might still end up ensnared in forces beyond your control resonated with me. I could understand that.
So, playwright Luis Alfaro threw me for a loop when he replied to one of my questions, saying the play, at its core, was “about love.”
I stumbled over my next question, mind reeling. Love? Oedipus isn’t about love! It’s about the cruelty of the Gods! Man vs. spiteful assholes who would happily smite you to punish your father! It’s about hubris! Incest! Patricide! Defilement! What the fuck is love in the time of oracles?
But there is a reason why Luis Alfaro won the MacArthur Genius Grant. Having delved deeply into the works of Sophocles before, producing the Electra send up Electricidad, he knew the source material – and saw more than the obvious message. Alfaro explained to me that the whispers of longing, of need, of separation and pain in the text were all about love. From what I remember, Oedipus married Jocasta as a sort of thank you – “We, the people of Thebes, appreciate you killing the Sphinx, and hey, here’s our king’s widow! She’s a total MILF!” But Alfaro’s take was informed by the time he spent learning about the toll that California’s penal system had on people. In an interview on the Woolly Mammoth blog, he explains:
Recidivism, it seems to me, is a symptom of a larger issue. Why is it that more than half of all Americans who end up in jail, when released, go back? A lot of times this happens within hours. My state, California, has the highest recidivism rates in the nation. As a playwright, interesting facts like this sort of lodge in my brain when I hear them. When they are coupled with some fascinating images or one’s own history—I have worked in the Juvenile Detention System as a poet and writer since I was young—they start to form the thread of an interesting story. When I think about recidivism among prisoners, I wonder not about what’s ahead, but what one leaves behind when they get out. The comfort of a family one never had, a structure where one might not have lived with rules, the need for protection in a world that seems unsafe. What fascinates me most about prisoner recidivism is that there might be an alternate society out there—actually in there—that functions differently from the one we live in, and for some this is a better place. [...]
I studied with Maria Irene Fornes, who in my first day of workshop asked me what kind of plays I wanted to write. I had already been arrested for civil disobedience a number of times, and I said that I wanted to write political plays. She laughed and said that she hated political plays! I was ignorant and didn’t know her work, so I didn’t realize she was lying. She said I should stop writing and go live these political ideas and then come back and write a play about nothing, a rock, and she promised me it would be political. So, I did just that. I spent over ten years protesting, working with at-risk youth in the California Youth Authority. At one point, I even worked for the ACLU teaching protesters how to get properly arrested! But sure enough, I came back to writing and wrote from my heart, and politics and humanity were simply part of a larger organic mix. People who have made really big mistakes in their lives are very complicated people. They represent the complexity we are looking for in our work. Incarcerated children are missing elements that many of us take for granted—a notion of family, security, love, or even intelligence about the world. The first gig I had in a youth prison was a poetry workshop with teen felons, 12-17 years old. Five minutes into it I realized that none of them could read and few could write—which didn’t seem to matter because I couldn’t use pencils or pens anyway. No one told me this beforehand. Out of sheer terror and desperation, we stood in a circle, created a rhythm with our hands and bodies, and each student had to tell their life story through rap. I set some parameters about language and violence, and they were able to adapt. I could not ask them to write down their lives and crimes, but there was no law saying that they could not say out loud their histories. And they did, and the stories were extraordinary and sad and full of regret and fear and lack of hope. And that is when I realized that everyone is a playwright. Some of us just have training.
Alfaro infuses this complexity with wit, heart, and inside jokes – definitely intended for the Chicanos in the audience. Oedipus El Rey has been produced before in other cities – here is a clip from an earlier production:
Still, the beauty of live theater is that you never truly see the same performance twice. The clip above is not familiar to me – the Oedipus El Rey I watched was a bit slower in pace and delivery. Michael John Garcés, directing this version chose a more contemplative mood, shot through with music and sound director Ryan Rumery’s selections of eerie, single voice a capella renditions of classics like “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” providing the background for Oedipus and Jocasta’s ill-fated tryst. Andres Munar’s Oedipus flows through yoga poses, holding plank while other men do chin-ups, balancing in shoulder stand until his body gives out, conscious of, but not defined by his disability, which Jocasta likens to “a cholo walk.” (Side note: I would love to see a PWD analysis of Oedipus El Rey.) And this interpretation marks the only tragedy where I’ve seen the chorus break to deliver a physical beat down to match the verbal one they normally spout from the sidelines.
Still, Oedipus El Rey isn’t quite perfect. I never felt as if I connected with Jocasta, in all of her grief and sorrow. Her character has the potential to be rich – and yet, Sophocles’ original also left her as a question mark, a tragic, devoted figure, but with little else underneath. This may be due to Sophocles’ to the societal norms in his age. In Aristole’s treatise on writing, Poetics, he refers to Oedipus, as well as other classic works. Being a fan of Sophocles, it is interesting that Aristotle makes a point to note (emphasis mine):
In respect of Character, there are four things to be aimed at. First, and most important, it must be good. Now any speech or action that manifests moral purpose of any kind will be expressive of character: the character will be good if the purpose is good. This rule is relative to each class. Even a woman may be good, and also a slave; though the woman may be said to be an inferior being, and the slave quite worthless. The second type of thing to aim at is propriety. There is a type of manly valour; but valour in a woman, or unscrupulous cleverness is inappropriate.
If Aaron Sorkin is correct in his assertion that Artistotle laid out all the rules of writing in Poetics, then it kind of makes sense that representations of women on screen and stage are still stuck in the hookers-victims-doormats loop, so eloquently exposed by Shirley MacLaine.
Other than those minor gripes, the update just works, providing a beautiful retelling of the quintessential tragedy. But still, I found myself sitting in the theater and relating most to Creon – brother to Jocasta, next in line for the throne before Oedipus showed up. While Alfaro’s interpretation revolved around the love between Oedipus and Jocasta, it is Creon’s anguished cry protesting the idea of a pre-destined life that stays with me:
If it is all simply fate, then why not me?
Oedipus El Rey, written by Luis Alfaro, is currently playing at the Woolly Mammoth Theater in Washington, DC. The show closes March 6th.
(Image Credit: Luis Alfaro)