Border Ballads

Corridos! Ballads of the Borderlands

At El Teatro Campesino in San Juan Bautista. Closed.

Reviewed by Carlos Morton

Is it a play, a variety show, a play with music, or a musical? El Teatro Campesino’s recent production of Corridos! Ballads of the Borderlands defies description. Corridos are Mexican ballads that tell a story and/or speak of human relations — love, death, sex, power, and violence. This production pushes the envelope of what a “corrido” is by injecting elements of hip-hop, techno-banda, rock ’n’ roll, and even songs of Chinese origin.

I saw a version of this show 35 years ago while a student at the University of Texas, El Paso. The show inspired me to run away from home and dedicate my life to the theater. Actually, I moved to San Juan Bautista to work with the famous company, and shared a house there with local Santa Barbara musician and actor Luis Moreno. I left after a few months to pursue my own path, while Moreno stayed and worked for another 17 years with the troupe.

The protagonist of this show, played by co-author Luis Valdez, is a professor of ethnomusicology who collects a trunk full of songs and narrates the action. We discover he has a grandchild, a Tejana played with passion by April Diaz, who is searching for her father, a punk rock musician who fried his brains using drugs. The professor and his granddaughter together create the tension that drives this theatrical engine. A strange subplot involves the mother (Sylvia Gonzalez) who went mad, and thus performs most of her numbers in a straitjacket.

Along the way, we encounter traditional, narco, rock, hip-hop and pachuco corridos. There’s even a wonderful version of “Lil’ Red Riding Hood.” Sometimes the show gets a little carried away, as in the opening number, “Yo Soy El Corrido,” which approaches the manner of dinner theater, or when the band breaks into Bob Dylan and Beatles songs.

The direction by Kinan Valdez (who shares co-author credit with his father) is crisp and vigorous, and makes full use of the Teatro Campesino style. Standouts in the production include Diaz and Freddy Avila, who appears in just about every number. Avila easily switches from English to Spanish in such numbers as the new song, “El Circo,” about corruption in Mexico.

The show changes every time one sees it. This production was developed and commissioned by the San Diego Repertory Theatre. Another version of the Corridos appeared during the 1990s and starred Linda Ronstadt. Luis Valdez was criticized for showcasing ballads that smacked of sexism and machismo. Here, he answers his critics by embracing a post-modern interpretation of the genre.

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