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Family, Fate, and Magic: An Introduction to the Greek Adaptations of Luis Alfaro

Mary Louise Hart

J. Paul Getty Museum

Luis Alfaro, a Chicano writer/performer known for his work in poetry, and theatre, has become a powerful force in the field of theatrical adaptation. Recipient of numerous fellowships and awards, including MacArthur and Ford Foundation Fellowships, Alfaro has also been honored for his specific adaptations of Greek plays, in 2017 winning a Los Angeles Ovation award for Mojada (his adaptation of Medea).

Alfaro uses his now familiar voice to articulate complex social issues shaping the experiences of urban Chicanx families. His plays and based on ancient Greek classics – Electricidad (2005), Oedipus El Rey (2010), and Mojada (2012) have been produced in dozens of regional and international venues, including 2017’s sold out performances of Oedipus el Rey at the Public Theater in New York.

Alfaro’s first venture into adaptation came naturally. At a poetry workshop for incarcerated teens, he heard the story of a young woman who had killed her mother in revenge for her father’s death. “The Greeks were an accident that fell into my lap,” he has stated, describing his find of Greek classics at the local theater company’s bookshop. There in Tucson he picked up Elektra, leading to the transformation of Sophokles’s classic and the tragedy of La Casa de Atrides into Electricidad, subtitled (with Shakespearean flair) “A Chicano Take on the Tragedy of Electra.” From the experience of “falling into” the Greeks in order to understand a current tragedy, through the years Alfaro’s attention became laser-focused on the ability of Greek tragic plays to explore his contemporary commitment to social activism. To most readers, the classical world evokes – say – the idealistic Parthenon sculptures, standards of nobility and beauty, not necessarily compatible with a group of terrified immigrants making their hopeful way north, only to find themselves at the heart of gang violence, recidivism, and family betrayals. Paradoxically, a literary plunge into the overlapping layers of these two seemingly diametrically opposed societal structures shows how very like they are.

Alfaro consistently references Greek dramatic forms and features in his adaptations; specific descriptions of the local community and the role of a chorus are two major tools. In Electricidad, East LA replaces Argos; in Oedipus el Rey the central Valley or southeast Los Angeles stands in for Thebes; in Mojada Boyle Heights (across the Los Angeles river from downtown) sets the plot as Euripides had in Corinth. When the production travels, the script is edited to feature the local landscape, with the intent of making the geography of the play as familiar as the action is current: Mojada staged in Chicago is set in the Latino neighborhood of Pilsen; when it travels back to Los Angeles the setting is changed to a backyard in Boyle Heights. The chorus of an Alfaro play gives the playwright a place to paint the scene and express moral and political commentary, as it does in Greece. For example, in Electricidad, Las Vecinas (the three Chicano housewives La Carmen, La Connie, and La Cuca) take on the role of Sophokles’s chorus of Theban Women. Alfaro introduces them entering the stage at the beginning of the play:

            “An East Los rooster crows. Daybreak. The sound of work begins. The sweep, sweep, sweep of brooms. Electricidad sleeps at her altar. The faint sound of chisme approaches as we see a trio of Vecinas sweep down the street. A Griego chorus in house dresses and aprons. Very mitoteras these mujeres. Their chisme is accompanied by the rhythmic sweeping of their brooms.”

Characteristically in an Alfaro adaptation, this “Spanglish” chorus leads the audience through the story, the familiar ancient actions driven by a contemporary Chicanx vocabulary and accent.

This paper will be presented as a power point to introduce the audience to the look and feel of Alfaro’s three Greek-inspired productions.

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Theatre and Social Justice: The Work of Luis Alfaro

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