The Power to Heal Ourselves

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A successful doctor struggles with repressed memories, a preteen boy copes with an abusive father and a teenage girl waits out her final week in a juvenile detention center. These three separate plays, each defined by their own distinct tones and protagonists, shared a single stage at the Stevenson Event Center last week to kick off Rainbow Theater’s 22nd season.

Thursday night’s Program A performance featured adaptations of Elizabeth Brown-Guillory’s “When the Ancestors Call” and “Boy,” written by UC Santa Cruz creative writing alumnus Steven Domingo under his pen name Esteban Sunday. Friday night’s Program B presented an adaptation of Patricia Zamorano’s “Locked Up” and an hour-long set by Poet’s Corner, Rainbow Theater’s slam poetry troupe. Both nights saw a full house.

“More [featured] playwrights have been coming out to our shows,” said Rainbow Theater Director Don Williams. “Several alumni have sat in on leadership workshops, and that has provided big insights for [Rainbow Theater’s] current leaders. Things are good right now.”

“When the Ancestors Call” follows Caroline, a black M.D. working in a mostly-white hospital, as she and her psychiatrist attempt to unearth her childhood traumas. “Boy” focuses on a nameless Filipino boy from East San Jose and his relationship with his strict and sexually abusive father. The plays’ depictions of familial dysfunction and the ways family members process that dysfunction — sometimes with resolution, sometimes with violence — fit well with the rest of Rainbow’s politically and socially-charged repertoire.

Williams launched Rainbow Theater in 1993 to bridge the gap between UCSC’s theater arts department and students from underrepresented communities. In 1991, he established the African American Theater Arts Troupe to provide performance and technical opportunities for UCSC’s African-American student population.

Twenty-two years later, Rainbow — the UC’s only multicultural theater program — is still running strong. Fourth-year Samantha Ridolfi, stage manager for “When the Ancestors Call,” was better prepared this year as a second-year crew member, but the five-week production schedule made for an unexpected challenge.

“We had difficulties memorizing lines, just because [‘When the Ancestors Call’] has so many,” Ridolfi said. “This weekend came up on us really quickly, but we pulled it together. [The play] has come very far.”

Third-year Cipi Espaldon co-directed “Boy” with Hector Contreras-Ramazzini, and said she felt an emotional and poetic obligation to take on the directorial duties.

“[Playwright] Steven Domingo was my director my freshman year,” Espaldon said. “Rainbow changed my major and my life, and the fact that his play is in it — and that he’s Filipino and I’m Filipino — made it all the more important for me to direct it,” Espaldon said.

Espaldon, who declared the theater arts major because of her involvement with Rainbow Theater, highlighted the program’s significance. It allows different stories — ones primarily focusing on underrepresented communities of color — to take the stage.

“I see some parallels between [‘Boy’] and my life,” Espaldon said. “The way Filipino family life goes on is not something many people see, especially in Asian-American families that aren’t really represented well in media. That story needs to be told.”

Friday night continued the thread of hidden narratives with the Xican@/Latin@ adaptation of “Locked Up,” an uncompromising profile of Santa Chavarria, a juvenile in the California correctional system. Poet’s Corner performed solo and group slam pieces all centered around nightmares.

When the lights went down in the Stevenson Event Center, a bond formed between the performers and the audience, one built on unconditional support and respect. When Don Williams finished his introductory speech and shouted “Rainbow, Rainbow!” — the program’s rallying cry — all of the members shouted back as one unit.

Unlike Thursday night’s productions, which focused more on internal familial conflicts, Program B’s productions dissected institutionalized racism, rape culture, transphobia, body dysmorphia and police violence — tangible stressors Rainbow members face daily. Amid these painful stories and recollections, however, was one takeaway: Rainbow Theater is, first and foremost, a family. All 140 of its members fail, succeed, learn and handle their pain together.

“In my freshman year … I was not doing really well,” Espaldon said. “One of the directors from Poet’s Corner sat me down … and said, ‘You don’t have to tell me anything. You’re a strong lady and you can do it.’ And that, I think, is the biggest thing I’ve gotten from Rainbow.”

Samantha Ridolfi, who regrets waiting until the end of her second year to join Rainbow, had similar words of praise for the program.

“The space and community that is Rainbow is unlike anything I’ve ever seen elsewhere,” Ridolfi said. “There’s this sense of everyone really looking out for each other, having each others’ backs, and a sense of genuineness that I haven’t seen anywhere else.”

Don Williams, the man who strives to make that space and community possible, is now in his third decade at UCSC. He has seen many students come and go — and return as alumni — but he doesn’t have much time to think about the past. With fall quarter’s performance schedule halfway done and preparations underway for next quarter’s performances, he wants his students to commit to their goals and continue Rainbow’s tradition of envelope-pushing theater.

“I want my kids to have the drive to finish whatever they start and bring closure,” Williams said. “Once you complete something, that’s a victory in and of itself.”

In that scope, Williams and the students of Rainbow Theater are off to a victorious start to the 2015-16 year.

Rainbow Theater’s Programs A and B will be performing their final shows at the Stevenson Event Center at 7 p.m. on Nov. 13 and Nov. 14 respectively. Program C, featuring Fifth Element and Rainbow Theater’s dance troupe, will run at the same time and location from Nov. 20-22.