American Theatre Now: Interview with Carlos Morton

by Aikaterini Delikonstantinidou*

Prolific throughout his career as playwright, which spans well over four decades, Carlos Morton draws material for his theatre work from his many travels across continents. His family’s immigrant background and his experience of living throughout the United States and Latin America inspired early on a deep appreciation of different cultures that shines through his plays.     

One of the cultures that he pulled into his theatrical orbit was the ancient Greek—hence my initial encounter with his work. His play La Malinche (1997) brings together the Mesoamerican figure of La Malinche and the Greek Medea, and it was the first play by a U.S. Latino to tap into the so-called “Medea–Malinche–Llorona paradigm,” in which the three figures are explicitly correlated. The striking thing about that work, besides the productive transcultural negotiation it performs, is its idiosyncratic kind of tough compassion, extended to its controversial characters, at once victims and victimizers.

This same kind of compassion, for his characters’ and for our human failings, can be found lodged at the dramatic heart of all his plays, even when it takes on a more scoptic hue, as in his last play Trumpus Caesar (2018), which thematizes the so-called “Trump Phenomenon.” Our discussion touched on the latter, but it also revolved around developments in the American theatre landscape, his own work, the current state of affairs in U.S. theatre and, of course, the peculiar political and cultural moment in which the U.S. finds itself.

I met Carlos Morton at the School of English, in Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, where he offered a series of creative writing workshops to undergraduate students as a guest lecturer in early May. The eminent historian Francisco Lomelí, Morton’ friend and travel companion in his latest travels, was also present during our interview.

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Dr. Morton, your professional engagement in U.S. theatre began in the late 1970s, if I am not mistaken. Are there any particular changes in the theatrical landscape of the country since that time that you would isolate as most critical, or even transforming of its makeup?

Well, I think I can tell you that the theatre has become more diverse, not just Black theatre but also Asian American and Latinx theatre—which I teach; even the theatre of Native Americans; even the theatre of Middle Easterners that has just been established or exposed to new and divergent forms of theatre, and also of themes and of different ethnic groups. So, I would say, in the past forty years, there has been a great change. 

Poster of Morton’s La Malinche, presented at Arizona Theatre Company in 1997

Are there any minorities, apart from ethnic minorities, that you feel are not getting the representation that they should in the theatre?

No, not really. You have like gay, LBG communities . . . I mean, starting off with Angels in America, by Tony Kushner, there are plays about AIDS, about transgender people. You have plays about everything.

Beth Malone and Andrew Garfield in Angels in America. In the 2018 production of Kushner’s classic, directed by Marianne Elliott, the plague that threatens the world is not AIDS but populist nationalism. Photo: Brinkhoff & Mögenburg via The Vox

Regarding the Latinx community in particular, do you think it is now easier for a theatre artist to carve a space for himself or herself within the theatre landscape of the country than it was forty years ago?

Oh yeah…

Video 1
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s and Quiara Alegría Hudes’ In the Heights

Yet, there are people complaining about how difficult it is for Latina women, playwrights and [other] theatre artists, to get produced . . .

Well, you have Quiara Alegría Hudes, who wrote the book for In the Heights,which was the musical about the life of Lin-Manuel Miranda and his growing up in Washington Heights, who wrote Hamilton. And here we have the case of a Puerto Rican—his parents came from Puerto Rico, he is actually a “Nuyorican” (someone who lives, has grown up in Manhattan)—[who] writes a play called In the Heights about the Latinx community in the west side of Manhattan, near the Washington Bridge, and then writes a hit musical about Alexander Hamilton that’s cast with Blacks and Latinos, and he plays the lead, he plays Alexander Hamilton. It was the hottest thing on Broadway! So, he is a shining example of someone who has just hit the top, and he is only 37 years old . . . I mean that is just one example, and his collaborator is Quiara Alegría Hudes. But there are, you know, Latinas and queer[s], like Luis Alfaro, McArthur Genius, and Tomás Peña . . .  Evelina Fernandez is another writer from Los Angeles.

Can the label “Latinx” or “ethnic,” as a matter of fact, function as a marketing strategy now that diversity is something of a “trend”?

Well, I mean, ok, maybe you can say, before there was Barbie and she was a white Barbie, and there was Ken, and there was Ken and Barbie, and then Mattel decided, “oh, let’s cash in, and let’s make Barbie a Black Barbie,” which they did, you know, so that Black children can have a doll they can identify with. So, on the one hand, you could say, well that’s marketing and they’re doing it to sell dolls, but at least you have a Black Barbie, or at least you have someone who wins Academy Awards, instead of all-white Oscars. Now, we have Mexican directors, like Guillermo del Toro and [Alejandro González] Iñárritu that are winning Academy Awards for Best Director.

I think that American theatre, as a kind of a vanguard, got into diversity very early on, and, now, we are represented in some of the mainstream theatres. Not as much as our population is. We still have a long way to go, if we consider that, in California, Latinos are the majority population. You can’t really generalize about the U.S., but, certainly big professional theatres are in the big cities. So, it just depends on where you are.

Edward James Olmos, left, in Zoot Suit in 1978, and Demian Bichir, right, in the 2017 revival, at Center Theatre Group. Photo: Jay Thompson, Craig Schwartz via American Theatre

Do you find that diversity in U.S. theatre has contributed so as to increase its overall quality; that is, the depth and resonance of the plays, their time resistance, their relevance in terms of how they respond to current realities?

Yes, I think so. Cherríe Moraga’s plays are going to be done after she’s gone; they will do Luis Alfaro; they will do Luis Valdez—Luis Valdez just had a revival of Zoot Suit after forty years. These plays that are now classics and, besides that, academia also recognize Latinx theatre and we have organizations as well as scholars who are doing their work on [Latinx theatre], like yourself, not only in the United States but in Greece, Poland, Hungary, and all over the world. And the reason why Francisco [Lomelí] and I are here [in Thessaloniki, Greece] now is the fact that we have made these connections . . . Because our literature has survived from 1965 on, and even before that. There is a deep current that is still creating new work. And even though the young people call themselves Latinx, and Francisco and I are the Chicano generation, you know, it’s still continuing. And that’s why the big change in theatre was that we moved from the provincial Chicano theatre—where all the Anglos were bad and all Chicanos were good, [and] which was, like, all about “let’s teach a lesson” and didactic—to now [when] we have Luis Alfaro and Josefina López and Caridad Svich . . .

The cast of Zoot Suit’s revival on stage. Photo: Craig Schwartz via American Theatre

And yourself!

Thank you. And they’re still doing my plays . . . You know, the Chicano Movement of the 1960s and 1970s was a deep, profound movement. We are now two, three, four generations on, and they’re still creating new forms. And that’s why they’re calling themselves Latinx and partner with the Puerto Ricans, the Cubans, and have meetings every year, festivals and presentations. We recognize our commonality.

The book cover of Morton’s collection of plays which also includes La Malinche

There’s also reaching out to other cultures. For me, your play La Malinche was a kind of gesture to cultures like the Greek that were considered “other.” Especially the [Greek] classics were considered a hegemonic “Other” due to their association with European imperial culture. Your work as well as the work of Alfaro, Moraga, Svich, and others on Greek tragic myth shows how this outreach can have many directions. So, you reach out to the Greeks, and the Greeks reach out to you.

Well, the Greeks invented theatre! In reading the Greeks, you see that they were human just like we are, and I think that I recognize that commonality. The theatre of Euripides is about human foibles and dysfunctional families and so is the theatre of Alfaro, Luis Valdez, Cherríe Moraga, Josefina López, and myself. As long as there are humans there will be dysfunctional families, and the students who are writing here in this workshop [at the School of English, A.U.Th.] are writing about dysfunctional families.

Video 2
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s sensational Hamilton

What about political militancy? Is theatre in the U.S. daring enough or able to shake up things socio-politically speaking?

Hamilton was very controversial. Some people didn’t like it because they said, “Why is a Puerto Rican, Neworican, like Lin-Manuel Miranda, writing a play about the founding fathers?” They were slave owners. Ismael Reed wrote an anti-play, attacking Lin-Manuel Miranda for writing this play.

What happened in the casting was all of the players were Black or Latino. So, to see the founding fathers, to see George Washington played by a Black man who looks like Muhammad Ali was astounding! I mean even Mike Pence went to see Hamilton, our current Vice President; Obama took his family; the day I was there, John Kerry was sitting behind us. Everybody wanted to see it. So, it really shook things up! It’s about the founding fathers; it’s also about what’s happening now!

So, the sting is still here . . .

Not all plays are political, but a lot of them deal with [challenging] subjects . . .  I saw a play about Baghdad . . . It was about the war in Iraq. Just like Aristophanes, with Lysistrata . . . We have now plays by playwrights of Egyptian, and Arabic, and Palestinian descent. It’s a whole new paradigm!

Trump as Julius Caesar, played by Gregg Henry, in the Park’s production of Shakespeare’s play, 2017. Photo: Handout via The Guardian
Elizabeth Marvel as Mark Antony and the cast in the Park’s Julius Caesar mourn the death of the title character. Photo: The Public Theatre via The Vox

This is very heartening, if I may say so. And yet, recently Bonnie Marranca, editor of PAJ Publications, in her interview for Critical Stages characterized American theatre as “provincial,” in the sense that it has not responded sufficiently to the multiple crises going on all over the world. Do you feel that U.S. theatre is “provincial” that way?

I don’t see this at all. If it was provincial, they would still be doing Tennessee Williams. You have schools that are still doing it, but I don’t think we’re stuck in that. Sure, Shakespeare is done all over the world, and in the U.S., there are Shakespeare festivals. Joseph Papp called his theatre the “New York Shakespeare Festival,” but he produced some of the most cutting-edge playwrights that the world has ever seen. They did a play recently about Trump. They did Julius Caesar and they cast the player who played Julius Caesar as a Trump look-alike who was assassinated. The Right-Wing media protested, some of the sponsors pulled out their funding from the New York Shakespeare Festival, and the production received a lot of push-back. So, you know, theatre is provocative, and it will go to extremes, which is why they cut the funding.

The artwork that was created for the promotion of Morton’s latest work, the play Trumpus Caesar

How would you describe your own work for the theatre regarding the questions of global scope and outreach?

Well, it’s based on the Chicano community or the Latinx community, but I think people can recognize the humanity and the fact that we’re like the Greeks, or like the Romans, or like the British, and that we have dysfunctional families, and that we have taboos, and fears. And one of our fears right now is Donald Trump . . .  a figure like Erdoğan, in Turkey, or like Putin, which is why I wrote Trumpus Caesar.

Is the fear of Trump the fear that the U.S. currently deserves a person like Trump?

That’s a good question. You know, in a way, we asked for it. Everyone thought he wasn’t going to win; everybody thought Hilary was going to win. So, the people obviously stayed home and did not vote for Hilary in certain key states that would have given her the presidency and, as a result of that, we got what we deserved. I think there’s a grain of truth in that, that we got what we deserved, and now democracy is . . . We suddenly realized how fragile it is. That this one individual can turn the whole world around. He can start a war tonight with Iran. If you are following the news, this is just what he needs to turn his candidacy, and it makes you realize how stupid we were to take him for granted. And everybody thought he’ll never win, but yet here he is. Now, if democracy is to survive, we really need to make sure that this person goes back into TV land where he belongs, but it’s still . . . Anything can happen.

The evocative Morton Salt advertisement

Back to your own work: Are there any specific thematic strands that weave through your work for the theatre over the years?

Well, not really. I mean the basis of my work is what I call “Mesoamerica.” Because I’ve lived in Panama, Ecuador, Costa Rica, and then in Mexico; I’ve lived in Chicago, New York, San Francisco . . . That to me is my homeland, you know, I’m an American. And I mean that from Argentina to Alaska. So, I think all my work deals with that. And Trumpus Caesar is just who I am, I’m an American, that’s who I am; I’m also a Mesoamerican, a Native American, a Mexican, Mexican American and Chicano . . . And that’s what I write about. Probably, the next play I’m going to write is going to be called “How I got the last name Morton.”

My grandfather immigrated to the United States, to Chicago, in 1917, and his name was Siro Perez, and he couldn’t get a job in Chicago. He didn’t know why, but he could see they were hiring Eastern Europeans, Jews, Russians. And so, one day, he saw this billboard, “Morton Salt”—it was advertising for a salt company, Morton Salt—and he changed his name to Morton. And besides, he didn’t like his first name either, Siro, so he changed it to Carlos Morton. And you know what? He got a job and that was what changed the course of his destiny, and my destiny, and the destiny of my children.

So, I’m thinking about writing a play about that, about how I got the last name “Morton.” That’s my next project, I’m thinking of how to frame this and how to tell the story of my family, instead of writing a memoir. But, meanwhile, I’m just content to travel around the world and teach courses and meet people like yourself! 

*Katerina Delikonstantinidou holds a PhD in Theatre Studies from the School of English, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. Her articles have been published in numerous volumes and journals, her research work has been presented at national and international conferences, and she is the recipient of several grants and scholarships. She is currently working as a post-doctoral researcher at the Department of Theatre Studies, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, focusing on applications of Digital Theatre on Adult Education. She has been a member of the web team for and a regular contributor to Critical Stages since 2014. Her research areas include Theatre and Performing Arts, Greek Tragedy, Ethnic Studies, Digital Literacies and Education.

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