Almost 6 million people watched a YouTube video of a 9-year-old boy who built an arcade out of cardboard boxes in his father’s auto parts store in East Los Angeles. One of them was playwright José Casas, who was from Los Angeles but spent two years in Austin working on a master’s of fine art at the University of Texas before getting a job at the University of Michigan.
Cases began creating a bilingual play for family theater called “JJ’s Arcade,” and elicited the help of Zach Theatre’s director of education Nat Miller to bring the play to the stage.
The play was one of six chosen for the 2016 Kennedy Center’s New Visions/New Voices workshop and festival. Last May, Miller and Casas spent a week in Washington, D.C., working with provided equity actors on refining the script and staging the play.
Now in a bicycle shop-turned rehearsal space next to Zach’s theaters, an Austin cast and crew is getting “JJ’s Arcade” ready for its world premiere three-week run at the the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center April 14-May 7.
In the New Visions/New Voices workshop, “JJ’s Arcade” was the only bilingual play. And, says Miller, there just aren’t enough bilingual plays for families available to theaters who are interested in staging them. “I have all the scripts I can possibly find,” Miller says. The list isn’t long, filling only a page. “Our purpose is to be able to add to that canon.”
Zach has made it a priority to stage at least one bilingual play a year and has been working with producing partner Teatro Vivo on that mission. Together they have staged “Mariachi Girl,” “Salt & Pepper,” “Tomás and the Library Lady” and “Cenicienta” Cinderella story. “JJ’s Arcade” is the third new work Zach and Teatro Vivo have created. They developed “Mariachi Girl” for the stage and helped it get published so it could be presented by other children’s theaters. Two years ago they created “Cenicienta” with Glass Half Full Theatre. They also made “Salt & Pepper” bilingual for the first time.
The commitment to producing more bilingual works extends into the future. Zach, Teatro Vivo and Glass Half Full Theatre will team up again next year for a show being developed by Glass Half Full’s Caroline Reck: “The Adventures of Enoughie: A Story of Kindness.” It will also be staged at the MACC.
While the bilingual theater shows often don’t make money, Miller says, it’s important to have plays reflect the audience that Zach serves, especially the 55,000 school children who visit a Zach show every year.
“JJ’s Arcade” actors are all bilingual and have helped add more Spanish to the play as they reflect how their families would say things. They add it where it will make sense for English-only speakers as well.
While teachers love bringing their kids to bilingual shows, Miller says, sometimes it’s harder to convince the public audience to come. More known stories like “Elephant and Piggie,” which is currently on stage, and “Good Night Moon,” which is coming next year, is an easier sell. English-speaking audiences might might think they wouldn’t understand what is happening or that they wouldn’t be able to identify with the characters. That just isn’t true.
“Bilingual theater is more interesting,” says Teatro Vivo’s Executive Artistic Director Mario Ramirez, who also plays the father in “JJ’s Arcade.” “Even more people feel welcome.”
In the play, J.J. — short for Jose Joaquin — has lost his mother and is having trouble in school. A meeting between his teacher and his father and J.J.’s fantasy conversation with his late mother reveals that J.J. should probably be tested for dyslexia. J.J. gets suspended from school for fighting, and while he’s home, he hangs out in his father’s auto parts store, turning boxes into arcade games.
“The play deals with a lot of real issues,” Miller says — death, trouble connecting with his father, learn disabilities. And while struggle is part of it, “There’s a lot to celebrate in the play.”
JJ’s father’s employee Oscar sets up a surprise. He gets the story of J.J.’s arcade posted on Facebook and suddenly there’s a line out the door waiting to play J.J.’s arcade.
“It’s really about celebrating imagination and intelligence,” Miller says. J.J. is the kind of kid who might not excel in school, but he’s got a different kind of intelligence. He needs to be encouraged and supported to help him find what he’s good at. “It’s a metaphor for the arts in general.”
It’s also a testimony to how important fathers and father-figures are. It reflects the Mexican-American culture of men being taught to be strong and to take care of themselves, but it also teaches a lesson of needing to ask for help and rely on one another.
“He has really positive male characters in his life,” says Martinique Duchene-Phillips of Teatro Vivo, who plays the mother and teacher. “It doesn’t have a lot of stereotypes of the deadbeat dad.”
Just like people lined up to play Caine’s Arcade, people will line up to play “JJ’s Arcade.” All of the cardboard games created for the show work. If you come to one of the public shows, you can play JJ’s Plinko, labrynth or another game. At a rehearsal for press and donors, the cast and crew had trouble getting the adults to stop playing.
For ages 7 and up.
When: 7 p.m. April 14, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays except April 30, April 14-May 7. 2 p.m. April 29 sign-language-interpreted and sensory-friendly performance.
Where: Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center, 600 River St.