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by Octavio Solis
When I was commissioned to write Dreamlandia for the Dallas Theater Center more than 20 years ago, Artistic Director Richard Hamburger and I were thinking of devising a straight adaptation of Calderón’s Life Is a Dream. But we felt that we had to craft something contemporary, something more connected to my Mexican culture, not the culture of Spain, which shares its surreal approach to life with Latin America, but ultimately remains firmly European. So, making use of the plot and characters and ideas as my template, I launched into my own dream version of this classic work.
Each scene is composed as a kind of waking dream; each dream opening its door to the next. Dreams of a violent birth, dreams of dragging a mother out of a river, nightmares of alienation, belonging and revenge, narco-dreams and dreams of a mad changeling, and even a dream vision of the original play with kings, princes, clowns and crowns. The language itself is dreamed up, employing a syntax that harkens to Shakespeare and Calderón, but also liberally blends in the Tejano-pop vernacular that roils around my border towns. Names are figments of identity themselves: Blanca means white, an allusion to origins unknown; Lazaro calls to mind the risen dead of the New Testament; Celestino is a stargazing narcoleptic; Pepín hints at both Clarín of Life Is a Dream and Memín Pinguín of the Mexican comic books of my youth; Sincero is honesty translated, and yet Frank is far from that. Cities are also evocations of longing. Ciudad Juarez is a riotous dream of a city, just as El Paso remains a fool’s paradise for those who yearn for El Norte. The entire play is a labyrinth of dreams within dreams within dreams.
But now there are new resonances with the current discourse over illegal immigration and border security. DACA and the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act (or the DREAM Act) have cast the spotlight on the status of young people born of undocumented aliens. The uncertainty around their citizenship status keeps them in a state of suspended animation. Like them, the characters in my play dwell in that same fluid state between belonging and disenfranchisement, between feeling utterly undocumented to feeling fully American, between life, death and the temporal plane that ghosts and demons dwell in. Conceived here, born there/American father, undocumented mother. This DREAM state is what the denizens of Dreamlandia exist in, and they suffer, exploit and buck against the shifting sands of their reality, trying to make sense of the most elusive chimera of all, the American dream.
And so I am delighted to be revisiting this early work of mine. Dreamlandia is feeling the burn of new relevance as El Paso once again becomes its own fantasia, disparaged by a President who concocts for it a false history of crime and violence; and acclaimed by a rising young statesman named Beto who knows how the city of his birth and mine captures the dreams and aspirations of so many on the other side. But ironies are also dreamlike, and they challenge our assumptions of what is real and what is Dreamlandia.
Click here to reserve your free ticket to the reading on Monday, March 18 at 7:30 p.m.