PLAYWRIGHT Julieta González is a native Tucsonan, and 47-year-old MFA graduate of the UA dramatic writing program. It's about half an hour before curtain on opening night for her premiere production of Claudia's Family, and enthusiastically she talks about the play's evolution from master's thesis to optioned screenplay. It's the kind of success MFA graduates dream of; and for González -- who returned to university life after an 18-year hiatus, and worked full-time for the four-and-a-half years it took to complete the rigorous program -- the three-year whirlwind of activity seems to be making up for lost time.
Well, not lost time. More like time well spent. She's worked hard on Claudia's Family, with several rewrites and readings before and after her graduation in May of 1995. They've transformed her diamond in the rough into a gem that's delighted a broad-based audience of World War II veterans, history buffs, high-school students, minority and community theatre enthusiasts, and the occasional Midwestern tourist. (She tells a story about attending a reading in Manhattan, where someone approached her afterwards to say, "You know, that's kind of what we remember about the reaction to German war brides in Indiana.") Between Tucson, Los Angeles and New York, nearly a dozen staged readings have introduced Claudia's Family to a national audience.
But it all began at the dinner table. "My dad was a WWII veteran," González says, "a medic in Europe...and a great storyteller. He told many stories about the war. His brother, my Uncle Gus, received a Purple Heart in the Pacific. And my aunt, their sister, worked at Hughes making airplanes. My dad called it his 'all-expense-paid trip to Europe.' "
Still, she says, "Claudia's Family isn't any particular family, but the experiences of many families in Tucson."
She's certainly right about that. Though documents of the era vary (with Mexican-Americans included with all soldiers of Hispanic descent), of the 14 million soldiers in the combined armed forces during WWII, an estimated 500,000 were "hispanos"(according to the Hispano America U.S.A. website, at http:// www.neta.com/~1stbooks). It's quite a number to contrast with the 500,000 Mexican-Americans who, by will and by force, returned to Mexico during the depression era (1929 to 1939) because of widespread unemployment worsened by anti-Mexican sentiment and an openly hostile anti-alien drive headed by the U.S. Department of Labor in 1931.
But the war changed all that, at least for a time. All Americans were put to work, including Hispanic women: Sgt. Vicenta R. Torres was among the first to serve overseas; and a Pvt. C. Contreras gives valuable insight into her era by signing in as the "750th Arizona woman" to join the Army. In Claudia's Family, Margarita and Ana put the wings on planes in Tucson, and complain about Margarita's mamá, who won't let them go to a dance without her as chaperon, let alone overseas. The family threshold for liberation ends with the young women's clandestine cigarette smoking, talk of attending college to become teachers or nurses, and Margarita's disdainful insistence on wearing pants.
Though the '40s were a time of tremendous social change, González gently reminds that opportunity and hypocrisy walked hand in hand. Prodigal son Raul (Carlos Acuña) returns safely -- even worldly -- from his war experience in Berlin, only to discover his "true" place in the Anglo work force, and his own family's prejudice against his new and unannounced German bride, Claudia. His sharp-tongued "baby" sister Margarita, now a young adult, responds by saying incredulously, "You married a Nazi?!"
Abandoned by their soldier-boyfriends and dismissed from their jobs to make way for the returning men, the girls (Rosanne Couston as Margarita, and Marie Reyes Lowery as Ana) struggle with conflicting feelings of rejection and freedom. With chaos erupting all around her, mama María Luisa (Ladesta Como de Llamas) clings to her fantasies of restoring order by relegating the war, and all the changes that came with it, to the past. "No more talk about the war!" she pleads and commands.
Her husband (Hector Ayala), himself a WWI vet, sees in his son's marriage a road he turned away from long ago. In a quiet moment, he comforts the besieged Claudia with his own fond memories of Germany, and of the love he left behind. When she says it's a sad story, he replies, wistful but content, "My place was here." Rounding out the cast are the omnipresent (at meal time) parish priest (Tim Como), oldest sister Alicia (Annabelle Nuñez) and her shell-shocked gringo husband (Dan Davis).
Though in addition to local workshops it received staged readings from the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts in Los Angeles (1997), and through Urban Stages in New York City (1998), Claudia's Family gets its first full treatment from the Catalina Players, many of whom González met and worked with early on through Old Pueblo Playwrights. If a little dinner theater inside a Methodist church seems an unlikely repository for high-quality small theatre, prepare to be surprised.
All the action is set in the Martinez family's combined living and dining room, impressively constructed and painted like a typical adobe house of that era. It expands to create the implied spaces of kitchen, upstairs bedrooms, and front and rear entries. Each prop tells a piece of the story, from a framed likeness of FDR and a painting of the Last Supper, to the lace doilies on every piece of furniture and the appearance of Christmas decorations in Act Two. Under the direction of Roberto and Angie Garcia (who respectively directed and acted in the play's 1996 reading at the Old Pueblo Playwrights festival), the well-paced production proceeds from Thanksgiving week to New Year's Eve, 1945, in just under two hours; and across the board, the acting is nearly flawless.
Issues of racism, xenophobia, religion, education, sexism and veteran's rights all make their way into the Martinez's circle of family debate; and though they stem from the flow of everyday life, these arguments (spurred on by the variously funny and vitriolic outbursts of young Margarita) are never pedantic or overtly political. This is first and foremost a story about family. If the climax seems a bit overwrought, or the pat ending unnecessary, it's only because we've already faced so many issues, serious and anecdotal, with such dialectical insight and verve.
González says one of her primary goals was to give an accurate depiction of the Mexican-American WWII experience. "I wanted to portray the pride in the service, the impact the war had on women, specifically Mexican-Americans in our community. My parents married in 1942, and my dad was shipped out a month later. He saw Paris, went to Belgium. It was very significant, very important. He was proud of his service, as all soldiers were in that war. They defeated a world enemy. Yet at home, they were still getting 'Mexican wages,' as were the women: the women built airplanes, flew them to the bases...they did all that, and got 'women's wages' at the plants. So that started evolving [in my writing]."
Claudia's Family captures both the innocence and optimism following "the war to end all wars," but lurking in the subtext is a reminder that for all our victories overseas, the first soldiers of the civil rights movement were yet a decade away from organizing on the homefront.
Claudia's Family, a Catalina Players production, continues at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, October 21 through 23, in Fellowship Hall at the Catalina United Methodist Church, 2700 E. Speedway Blvd. (between Tucson Boulevard and Country Club Road). For reservations and information, call 721-9640.