Book Review, Vol. 31 No. 1

Latinx Theater in the Times of Neoliberalism

Latinx Theater in the Times of Neoliberalism. Patricia A. Ybarra. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2018; Pp. 247.

Patricia Ybarra’s Latinx Theater in the Times of Neoliberalism rightly notes that the emergence of Latinx theatre in the 1960s and 70s paralleled the rise of neoliberalism in the Americas. From the beginnings of El Teatro Campesino’s and the Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre’s agit-prop theatremaking to the contemporary advocacy work of the Latinx Theatre Commons, neoliberal practices have been a staple of the United States’ domestic and foreign policies. Rather than primarily being in conversation with scholarship, Ybarra instead engages with Latinx playwrights themselves, thus viewing them as theorists. In this way, Cherríe Moraga’s The Hungry Woman serves as the point of departure from which Ybarra meditates on the effects of neoliberalism in the United States. With this in mind, Latinx Theater offers an exciting example of the possibilities of critical theatre scholarship that, put simply, takes the field to new heights.

Ybarra situates Latinx theatre in the times of neoliberalism as a “transnational, post-nationalist, and (mostly) post-cultural nationalist perspective aware of its own historicity” (4). Rather than concentrate on the origins of neoliberalism, the book focuses on Latinx plays written from 1992 to the present in which the playwrights react to a world where neoliberal economic practices are the norm and have seemingly always been around. Post-1992, Latinx playwrights speak about economic transnational capitalism in a less optimistic and post-revolutionary way. Nevertheless, they still use methods that harken back to the early days of Chicanx and Latinx theatre. As Latinx theatre artists responded to the political moment in the 1960s and 70s, their strategies were decidedly anti-capitalist and anti-assimilationist as they used theatre performance to protest against marginalization of the Latinx community in the United States. The playwrights in Latinx Theater build upon this legacy by critiquing neoliberal capitalism as a system of violence. Neoliberalism was not as legible then as it is now, giving contemporary playwrights space to theorize their economic, political, and social relationships to the Americas. As such, these playwrights tackle the agents and fallouts of neoliberalism such as NAFTA, forced migrations, starvation in post-Soviet Cuba, feminicide, and narcotrafficking. These challenging human conditions encourage Latinx theatre artists to criticize the US’s socio-political climate by rendering the effects of economic violence visible.

The introduction offers a tight yet comprehensive overview of neoliberalism that will be of use to any scholar doing work in contemporary cultural studies. Ybarra defines neoliberalism as “a political and economic philosophy whose proponents espouse free markets and privatization of state enterprises as the mode by which prosperity and democracy are best reached” (x). In light of the history of neoliberal economic practices, Ybarra demonstrates how Latinx theatre and performance form an ideal site from which to engage in political critique. From here, the book is organized into four well-balanced chapters that each examines a unique historical and sociopolitical circumstance resultant from neoliberalism in the Americas.

Chapter one explores how Latinx playwrights such as Cherríe Moraga, Michael John Garcés, and Luis Valdez utilize indigeneity, cosmology, and identity to comment on NAFTA. Considering plays including Moraga’s Giving Up the Ghost, Garcés’s points of departure, and Valdez’s Mummified Deer, Ybarra complicates the intersections of theatre practices and indigenous practices in the Americas by examining the exoticization of indigeneity in Latinx theatre.

In chapter two, Ybarra investigates the 1994 Balseros Crisis—when thousands of Cubans left the island on rafts due to the country’s poor economic conditions—through Eduardo Machado’s Kissing Fidel, Caridad Svich’s Prodigal Kiss, and Nilo Cruz’s A Bicycle Country. These plays shed light on the ways in which national narratives of progress are rendered inept by the lived realities of Cuba’s Special Period after the fall of the Soviet Union. Drawing from exile and migrant narratives, the works of Machado, Svich, and Cruz model new travelogues that are in constant motion and reveal new approaches to waiting that are not necessarily about outlasting Fidel Castro.

Chapter three analyzes plays that represent feminicide in the Americas, primarily in Juárez, Mexico, from 1993 to the present. Contrary to other chapters’ focus on U.S.-based playwriting, this chapter focuses on Latinx plays (ex. Coco Fusco’s The Incredible Disappearing Woman and Marisela Treviño Orta’s Braided Sorrow) in conversation with Mexican plays presented in the United States (ex. Humberto López’s Mujeres de Arena and Cristina Michaus’s Women of Ciudad Juárez). Ybarra examines the limits of dramaturgical strategies to understand feminicides as crimes that can be solved. Instead, the frequent dramatization of these violent crimes only reiterates that these crimes are continual under neoliberalism.

The final chapter stays in the same geographic zone but shifts the focus to narcotrafficking and the subsequent physical and economic violence that it produces. As opposed to filmic representation of narco-realism, Latinx performance uses heightened theatricality to demonstrate effectively the intersections of economics, masculinity, and violence. Plays in this chapter include Tanya Saracho’s El Nogalar, Octavio Solis’s Santos y Santos, and Matthew Paul Olmos’s so go the ghosts of méxico, part 1. Since many of the Chicanx and Mexican-American plays in this chapter were written in response to Mexico’s narco period under President Felipe Calderón (2006-2012), they speak to how the Mexican state inflicted violence in Mexico. Ybarra then concludes by shedding light on the stakes of using theatre and performance as a framework to understand neoliberalism in the Hemispheric Americas.

By exploring how Latinx playwrights have theorized neoliberalism since 1992, Ybarra offers a much-needed study that truly explains why theatre matters. As opposed to the predominant mode of scholarship that looks at Latinx theatre as a branch of social change, Ybarra illuminates how Latinx playwrights are the theorists themselves. Although neoliberal capitalism seems like an unavoidable systemic condition, Latinx theatremakers have cultivated productive dramatizations that illuminate its practices and help redress its violent acts.

Trevor Boffone
University of Houston

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 31, Number 1 (Fall 2018)

ISNN 2376-4236
©2018 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center
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