Any Buffalo theater veteran will tell you that launching a new company here has never been easy.
Ask Victoria Perez, who tried for two seasons to build an audience for Latino theater through a small company called Raíces before calling it quits in 2004.
Or ask Kelli Bocock-Natale and Loraine O’Donnell, two actor-directors who helped launch the female-focused company Red Thread Theatre with great fanfare in 2010 but soon left the company after creative disagreements with its other members.
But those same veterans will also tell you that persistence pays off.
That’s why Perez is rebooting Raíces tonight, nearly 10 years after its last production, with the English-language premiere of Carmen Rivera’s play “La Gringa” in the Road Less Traveled Theatre. And it’s why Bocock-Natale and O’Donnell are launching the Buffalo Public Theatre, a joint venture with Ujima Theatre, with Bocock-Natale’s new adaptation of “The Wizard of Oz.”
Filling a need
For Perez, a Puerto Rican-born actor and singer who has appeared on more than a dozen local stages, the Latino community’s formerly anemic appetite for theater has grown into a full-fledged hunger.
Last year, she launched the Raíces reading series at Road Less Traveled with no intention of doing full productions, but said she was amazed at the response from audience members who wanted to see more.
“After every single reading, it was, ‘OK, what do we need to do as a community, what do we need to do in order for you to produce something?’ And then I started to realize, well then, maybe they’re ready now,” Perez said. “I think the younger people that we were working with 10 years ago are older now, so I think we have succeeded in instilling in them a sense of loving Buffalo and loving where you come from.”
“La Gringa,” which Perez first saw in a Spanish-language production in New York City, tells the story of Maria, a New York City woman of Puerto Rican descent trying to connect with her Latino roots. Sheila Lopez will direct the show.
“Maria is just hungry for that sense of belonging and that sense of figuring out where she comes from,” Perez said of the play’s protagonist, whose struggles with her identity are sure to resonate with Buffalo’s Puerto Rican population of more than 20,000.
“It’s (about) having one foot in one country and one foot in the other, and not realizing that you can have both.”
Perez said she intends to produce plays by contemporary Latino writers and also hopes to develop original plays and musicals that speak not only to local Latinos but to the entire theatergoing community.
Theater for all
Bocock-Natale and O’Donnell – two of the Buffalo theater scene’s most familiar faces – didn’t choose their first production, or the loaded name for their new company, lightly.
“I wanted something that could be cross-cultural,” she said. “The idea of the whole name of the theater, of Buffalo Public Theatre, is the idea of reaching out and making it accessible to everybody. That’s the kind of work we want to do.”
She and O’Donnell chose “The Wizard of Oz” precisely because of its history and potential to cross demographic lines and appeal to a broad audience. The production, directed and adapted by Bocock-Natale, who is known for her spare and stark directorial style, will eschew Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg’s famous songs from the beloved 1939 film in favor of contemporary music.
She described a scene in which the Scarecrow (Brian Riggs) talks with Dorothy (Cecelia Barone) about the loneliness of his field:
“I have him tell her about a dream, and that dream is why he can’t get the blackbird to like him, to be friends with him. ‘Why do they come and go?’ So I have him singing the Beatles’ song ‘Blackbird,’ ” Bocock-Natale said. “It’s not your standard ‘If I Only Had a Brain.’ ”
Nor are Buffalo Public Theatre or Raíces your standard Buffalo theater start-ups. When asked about Perez’s relaunched company, Bocock-Natale issued praise that might just as well apply to herself and O’Donnell.
“These are smart women,” she said, referring to Perez and director Lopez. “It’s not about just making themselves appear on stage. It’s about community. And that’s what I admire.”
What: “La Gringa”
When: 7:30 tonight through Sunday
Where: Road Less Traveled Theatre, 639 Main St.
What: “The Wizard of Oz”
When: 8 p.m. Friday through Dec. 22
Where: TheatreLoft, 545 Elmwood Ave.
Tickets: $15 to $25
Info: 883-0380, www.ujimatheatre.org