Latino Chicago

I’ve never been to a cockfight. All I know about them is what you see on TV, or in B movies, where they throw in a cockfight scene to add some local color. Such scenes invariably conclude with a heartbroken campesino cradling a limp, bloody chicken and exiting silently as the victorious bird is held aloft to the crowd’s wild merriment. The crowd is always male, the chickens are always roosters, and the fight is always to the death. A cockfight, it seems, is a macho thing.

Working from this premise, playwright Milcha Sanchez-Scott has put together a rather symbolic drama about a Chicano family that raises fighting cocks. Gallo Morales, the father, has been away in jail for some time, leaving his son Hector in charge of the roosters. Hector, who’s 20, wants to sell out and leave town, but before he can even talk himself into it, Gallo returns home. The family doesn’t reunite very gracefully at this point. First, Gallo bawls out his wife, Juana, for allowing Hector to support her by working in the fields. Then Gallo and Hector get into a big argument. And just as it appears Hector may be harboring an Oedipus complex, Aunt Chata drops the monumental anchor line, “There are too many roosters in this yard.”

OK, the symbolism isn’t painstakingly subtle, and the cockfighting Morales family is somewhat less emotionally complex than the Tyrones in Long Day’s Journey Into Night. However rough cut, though, Roosters is still a strange and amusing play.

The best thing about Roosters is that it’s written by a woman. What I mean is, you get to see macho explored from a feminine point of view. And the best thing about that is that Milcha Sanchez-Scott is a fairly perceptive writer. Because it would be all too easy, even common, to dramatize a strident, feminist condemnation of a pathetically silly, cruel, macho blood sport. Fighting chickens, indeed! If they were real men, they’d strap razor blades on their erections and have at each other. (Kids, don’t try this at home.) But Sanchez-Scott discards attitude in favor of further investigation, and she allows the audience the right to come to their own conclusions.

I was struck by a novel insight in Gallo’s opening monologue. I had never considered, or even guessed at the existence of, the spiritual aspect of macho. Not until Gallo glorifies the sight of “those birds fighting in the air like dark angels.” This notion is picked up and enlarged upon later in the play, especially in the cockfight (choreographed by Michelle Banks, and danced/fought by her and Nilda Reillo). At first, it’s kind of ridiculous–a couple dancers in chicken outfits, accompanied by some bongos–but then it acquires a weird, atavistic beauty. And when Banks finally pecks Reillo to death, I got this suddenly elastic feeling that I was snapping out of some heathen ritual I’d been seduced into.

Macho is also a matter of pride. Gallo’s pride is offended when his son works in the fields. The Morales family should be known as breeders of deadly roosters, not as field hands. But, as Hector points out, roosters don’t support the family. And so Hector accuses his father not of being too proud to work, but of being too lazy. His pride is bullshit. He’s all talk. Gallo’s response to these accusations is ambiguous. You can’t tell if his pride is hurt or if he’s angry at having been found out. He just stands his ground and bristles, and there’s something in his posture that resembles a rooster.

The women, Juana and Chata, generally stay out of the fight. Juana, of course, is more involved as wife and mother, but Chata’s attitude (“Men are shits”) relieves her of all responsibility. Oddly enough, it’s Angela, Gallo and Juana’s little girl, who’s most affected. Angela has taken to hiding beneath the house pretending she’s the family’s guardian angel. She even wears paper wings. She keeps a shrine in the backyard where she plants crosses and inscribes them with epitaphs of her family. Twice she has visions in which she defends her father against two “shadows”–whom she names resentment and rancor–that threaten to harm him. So it’s clear that Angela is trying to transcend a conflict that she cannot quell. At the climax of the play she does just that, literally, in a miracle of levitation. The whole family comes out to watch her float there in the air above her little shrine. Only Gallo knows what to make of it: she reminds him of a rooster.

I can’t say I understand the end of the play, but I love it anyway. And there are a number of loose ends left dangling in Roosters, not the least of which is Angela. Indeed, the play is over before you realize it, with the father/son conflict wholly unresolved, and the Morales family suspended in a state of astonishment. I can only share in their astonishment, and revel in it. What’s that thing up there in the sky? It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s a deus ex machina. Who knows? But perhaps it will save us from taking ourselves too seriously.

Mary McAuliffe’s direction is hit and miss. She picks up deftly on Sanchez-Scott’s feminine perspective, even going so far as to cast women as the roosters. But McAuliffe’s staging is so uncertain that the cast often appears at a total loss as to where to go or what to do with their hands. Nor is there much of an ensemble. Different performers pursue different interpretations, which may or may not have merit in their own right, and only confuse the big picture.

Heather Graff gives the best performance, as Angela. No doubt that she has the best lines in the play, but she matches them with a very forthright yet wonderfully absurd portrait of a child who’s adapted religion to suit her own personal fantasies. Laura Ceron, as Juana, has a magnetic presence I can’t quite define. It’s something different from acting as artifice. Some people are just there more than other people. And when Ceron is there, a scene becomes more immediate and lifelike. Karol Kent plays Chata, the vulgar comedian, and Juan Ramirez (as Gallo) vacillates nervously between man and symbol, character and stereotype. Last–and least–is Mark Fraire (as Hector), who hasn’t a clue as to his character, and who might as well have memorized his monologues phonetically. As I said, it’s a mixed bag.

Somehow, though, there’s a coherent spirit to the show. I think that’s due in part to playwright Sanchez-,Scott’s sincerity in trying to translate Latin American psychology into English-speaking theater. And I can see how Latino Chicago might share that same interest. What a windfall for Anglo Chicago, when you think about it. I mean, you can eat Mexican anytime you want, but how often do you get a chance to think Mexican?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Rock Fraire.