so go the ghosts of Matthew Paul Olmos
DEAD POLICE CHIEF
You Americanos, you see ghosts on all your days, but you never look at them—On the streets, in your home. But pretty soon, there will be no more homes, there will be just only ghosts. And tell me, Americano, what will you look at then?
The playwright Matthew Paul Olmos and I sit inside a nearly empty dive bar on a sunny afternoon on East 4th Street before the rehearsal of his show at La MaMa next door. Through the dingy bar window, we can see the steps of New York Theatre Workshop, where he is an Emerging Artist Fellow.
“Basically, you’re dominating East 4th Street,” I tell him. “That’s cool,” says Olmos with a humble smirk.
Olmos tells me that he didn’t catch the theater bug right away. The first play he ever saw was Miss Saigon. He hated it. In college, he was distrustful of theater people who “always seemed too happy and were always waving at each other from a distance.” It wasn’t until Olmos read Sam Shepard’s Buried Child that he realized that theater could be “alive, exciting, and cool,” and changed his major to drama. Over a decade later, Shepard has personally selected Olmos as the inaugural recipient of La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Emerging Playwright Award. The first piece in Olmos’s trilogy about the U.S./Mexico drug wars, so go the ghosts of méxico, part one, will receive a world-premiere at La MaMa this April, directed by Meiyin Wang.
“With the La MaMa production, my primary concern isn’t just about pleasing the East 4th Street theater crowd, it’s about hoping the play connects to the real world,” Olmos reflects as he glances down the theater-lined street he has made his artistic home.
Then Olmos explicates his core belief about the two categories of theater: “1. the type that “theater people” buy tickets (or get comped) to see and 2. the type that we feel comfortable taking ‘non-theater people’ to see.” Olmos uses members of his family as a litmus test. “While I don’t believe in creating work to appease an audience, I also would be saddened if my mother or brother were to see a play of mine and felt like they weren’t in on some joke. I believe that theater has become so ‘inside’ and that is one of the core reasons it is not a more widely accepted art form,” he says. “I often write from the voices that aren’t often heard. I write about people who probably have never been to a play in their life. And I suppose, hopefully, should they see my play, they would connect and have a ‘way in’ to the theatrics or hyper-realistic elements in the work.”
“Hyper-realistic” is also the term Olmos uses to describe so go the ghosts of méxico, part one. The first time I read Olmos’s lyrical and irreverent play, set in a chalky Mexican dreamscape, I had no idea that the lead character, Mari, was directly inspired by the life of the “bravest woman in Mexico,” Marisol Valles García. At age 20, García served as the police chief of a Mexican town until death threats from drug cartels sent her and her family into hiding. so go the ghosts of méxico, part one focuses on what happens when the political hits the personal. “It’s easy to ignore the political in our day-to-day,” explains Olmos. “But the political infiltrates Mari’s house and forces her to deal with it.” The second play in the trilogy focuses on the inner-workings of the cartel, from the points of view of women. Part three shifts the focus to U.S. involvement.
I ask Olmos about the link between the fantastical plays he has written and the true-life events that inspired them. It is important to note that so go the ghosts of méxico, part one is not a docudrama by any means. Within the play, Mari and her husband emotionally manipulate their imaginary child, a gruesome but hilarious Dead Police Chief offers Mari career advice, and a magic car radio plays music that is simultaneously the most beautiful sound Mari has ever heard and aural torture to El Morete, a member of the drug cartel.
Olmos explains his process: “Often times the world I read about is just so ridiculous, we as a people are doing so many unexplainable things to each other, that the only way to really approach examining it is through worlds not set in reality. I’ve never been interested in documenting. I’d rather create a landscape that illuminates people and the distance between them, that allows us to see it from a different point of view.”
In this excerpt of so go the ghosts of méxico, part one, Dead Police Chief, Mari’s predecessor, has just removed his head and proceeds to give her an account of his own grisly murder.
DEAD POLICE CHIEF
Then I hear the tires riding us just off the highway, the click of the car back opening up. And then the sounds of my knee’bones go crack as they empty us out the car and onto the dust. Ain’t that some shit? I think, even if I make it out this somehow, I’ll have fucked up knees. Just like everybody else who live too long.
Then the shots, one by one. Screaming. Body parts going gone. An I don’t know what about how your life sound, still’breathing man, but I couldn’t quite place the sound of my own head banging around the inside of that ice chest. Thumping. Bouncing. Sometimes a soft spot and it go squish. Then afterwards, I hear only darkness. I guess they quieted the book on me.
(Music reaches, DEAD POLICE CHIEF gains strength, MARI moves closer to him, as though drawn).
But then, from all my quiet that was my new home, I hear ... la música. Calling me to come close. And before I can even hear the sounds of my thoughts telling me how to make that happen ... I hear the walk of my own boot heels, going up your door, Señora Polícia.
When asked the meaning behind his trilogy’s title and why characters like Dead Police Chief still tread the boards, Olmos remarks, “I first began thinking on this project when I read a letter from a woman in Tijuana, addressed to the Mexican government, asking: ‘How do you expect us to stay here?’ And I began thinking: What happens to a country when its government can no longer provide for its citizens? What if the people in México began a mass exodus, what happens when the ghosts of the dead are all that’s left to populate the cities and towns?”
Thus characters like Dead Police Chief are born. I ask Olmos how he would like his audience to respond to his creative reimaginings of factual events. “If the audience is willing to come with me in seeing and believing that thousands upon thousands of ghosts are just outside a door onstage, then we are all sharing this unique experience in the same room together, and that connects all of us,” he says. “And I write as a means to connect and bring people closer together, as opposed to the separation that we all live by in the regular world outside. ”
The way Olmos has of allowing the possibility of a city of ghosts just outside a door is what first drew me to his writing. The other-worldly theatrical conventions within his plays do not exist solely for effect but are deeply rooted to the soul of his work. A thread which ties all of the “hyper-realistic moments” in his writing is his dialogue, which is both gorgeously heightened and utterly crude. Although, as Olmos says, many of his characters may have never seen a play in their lives, he fills their mouths with beautiful, poetic dialogue that packs a punch.
“I love the idea that people who perhaps normally aren’t given a voice, can all of a sudden find poetry in their limited vocabulary. And to be honest, that perhaps is where it really comes from,” Olmos explains. “I have one of the most limited vocabularies of anyone I know. Often when somebody is telling a story, I have to embarrassingly ask what a word means. I think that having limited means with language has pushed out some way of using words in a nontraditional way, which comes out rhythmically. I even had a graduate professor ask me to stay after class and ask me if I was dyslexic; I had to explain that it was a choice to have my characters speak that way.”
In the following excerpt, Mari talks about the power of language in a marital dispute with her husband.
You’re getting worse. You know that, right?
And you, you’re not even pregnant yet, but you’re already the worst mother I can even imagine.
(Music suffers. A few moments. MARI and HUSBAND both notice)
You talk like that. You do. On good days, you speak to me so sweetly that all I want is to make everything you want to come to true. But on your bad days, you take our daughter’s tongue, you use it against me, you look at me, you speak at me like that. You do.
Observant readers may have noticed that in both excerpts of so go the ghosts of méxico, music plays an essential role. Olmos explains that music is the landscape of the play, more so than the actual landscape in Mexico.
“While this play is set in Mexico, I specifically don’t say where, or even give much in the way of logistics about it. I say some abandoned cars. I mention some dusted or chalky streets, and that’s about it. Perhaps this brings us back to the idea that I like to give just enough to set somebody’s imagination off, then I’m really so very curious about how they see it, what their mind created.”
All of this ties into the artistic rather than realistic portrait that Olmos is striving to create in his trilogy. However, despite the hauntingly beautiful landscape of music and language, it is impossible to forget Marisol Valles García, the real-life woman who is at the heart of the play.
Because while Olmos’s play is in rehearsal at La MaMa, García and her family remain in hiding. But she would like to come to see Olmos’s play. She would like to participate in a talkback. Currently seeking asylum, Garcia’s lawyer is using press from Olmos’s production to plead her case for political asylum. Perhaps even these words that I have written here about the real Olmos, who writes about a fictionalized García, will be used by García’s lawyer as a legal document in her real-life court case. It’s a strange thought, but that’s just the kind of surreal thing that happens when you start to investigate the play-worlds of Matthew Paul Olmos.
so go the ghosts of mexico, part one, by Matthew Paul Olmos, runs April 11 - 28 at La Mama (74A East 4th Street, Manhattan). For further info and tickets, visit www.lamama.org or call 212-475-7710.
ContributorSusan Soon He Stanton
Susan Soon He Stanton is a member of the Public Theatre's Emerging Writers Group, MaYi Playwrights Lab, and TerraNova's Groundbreakers. She was the inaugural recipient of the Van Lier Playwriting Fellowship at the Lark and received a feature film development grant from the Sloan Foundation. From Honolulu, Susan lives in New York City.