“References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot” is a story that almost didn’t get told here.After all, most people in the area have very different backgrounds, cultures and opportunities than the Puerto Ricans portrayed in the play. Still, the story will be told; the play opens today at the Palouse-Clearwater Environmental Institute in Moscow.
In February, AnaSofía Villanueva, an undergraduate student in theater at the University of Idaho, won the Society of Directors and Choreographers Fellowship Award at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. For the competition, she directed a scene from “References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot,” a favorite play of hers, both for theatrical and personal reasons. After winning the national award, she decided to direct the show in its entirety.
“It has all the elements I love most about theater in it,” Villanueva said, citing the juxtaposition of passion, magic, brutality and heartbreak.
At the same time, the story is connected to her own as a second-generation Puerto Rican.
“It’s tied to my upbringing,” Villanueva said.
The story in the play is similar to that of her grandparents and the character who serves in the U.S. Army reminds her of her father, both in his military service and masculinity.
The play portrays two people who have had a loving relationship but are pulled apart by the harshness of their circumstances. Villanueva explained that Puerto Ricans who live on the island often must choose between serving tourists or serving in the U.S. military. The telling of the story is circular with elements of magic, reflective of Latino culture.
Villanueva struggled with whether it was ethical, primarily in terms of racial and cultural issues, to tell the story in a place and by a cast with very different culture and stories. She also was concerned with issues of representation because this story is not the story of all Puerto Ricans.
Theater, Villanueva said, is not devoid of the racial issues that exist in the rest of society. As a Puerto Rican, one of the first overt mainstream misrepresentations she encountered was in “Westside Story,” which portrays Puerto Ricans living in New York — and in Villanueva’s view, in a negative, stereotypical way.
“That play is not OK,” Villanueva said. “It has hurt me since I was child.”
As she became involved in theater, she found herself in predictable roles: the Latina/over-sexed female character or frumpy friend/maid.
“I lost a love for acting because of that,” Villanueva said, adding right away that the break revealed a deeper love for directing.
“As far as (white) privilege, there’s a history,” Villanueva said. She explained that the stories told in theater have primarily been told from a white American perspective, which inadvertently perpetuates stereotypes and omits the stories from another perspective.
And that’s why Villanueva wants to stay in theater.
“Theater has always been my way to fight back,” she said. “Whose story you tell, that changes the world.”
Villanueva wasn’t the only one who struggled with the tension of producing “Salvador Dali Makes Me Hot” in rural Idaho. At the first rehearsal, cast members — none of whom are Puerto Rican — shared the same concern. She told her cast it was appropriate to feel uneasy about the situation, but that its biggest element, love, crosses culture and because of that, it was a story that needed to be told.
“There is no conclusion, no ‘Yes it is OK’ or ‘No it is not,’ ” Villanueva said. “It came down to I love this play and I don’t think it’s right to not be able to do it here.”
Because of its connection to nature, Villanueva sought an outdoor setting to produce the show and partnered with PCEI, trading volunteer hours for use of space for the play and rehearsals leading up to it.
IF YOU GO:
WHAT: “References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot”
WHEN: 8 p.m. today, Friday and Saturday
WHERE: Palouse-Clearwater Environmental Institute Nature Center at 1040 Rodeo Drive in Moscow
NOTE: The production contains mature content and nudity