Friday, October 10, 2008

Tennessee Williams Has A South Texas Connection

On a Saturday afternoon in late September the San Antonio Classic Theatre performed the play "Rancho Pancho" for 150 people in Provincetown, CT, as part of the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Festival. According to the San Antonio Express News:
By the play's emotional conclusion, the audience was so quiet that the seagulls outside could be heard.
"Rancho Pancho" by San Antonio playwright Gregg Barrios, was one of a half-dozen full productions staged at the festival but it was the only piece not written by Williams himself or adapted from Williams' work.

The Express News continues:

“Rancho Pancho” digs into the little-known relationship between Williams and Pancho Rodriguez, a South Texas man. The men spent part of their time together in Provincetown, and some of the play is set here.

Barrios was surprised and delighted to spot a photo of the two men hanging on the wall at the Atlantic House Bar: “I hadn't seen that photo before,” said Barrios, who spent a great deal of time researching the relationship. “No one else had asked who this man was with Tennessee Williams.”

Williams based the character Stanley Kowalski and his relationship with Blanche and Stella in the play "A Streetcar Named Desire" on the volatile and emotional personality of his friend Rodriquez.

Barrios writes about the story behind his play in The Texas Observer:
But luck was with Williams as he crossed la frontera at Piedras Negras/Eagle Pass: He met Pancho Rodriguez, a young Mexican American. The tale of that meeting would later be embellished—with Williams’ car breaking down and a border guard’s son helping to rescue a manuscript that border guards had confiscated.

The rising 34-year-old playwright was immediately smitten with the 24-year-old Pancho—the border guard’s son—and invited him to New Orleans as his live-in muse. The rest, as they say, is history. But the chronicle of their relationship was forgotten and, to a large extent, whitewashed from Williams’ life story.

The future playwright met Rodriquez in New Orleans some time during the 1970s while teaching summer classes at Loyola University. He says Pancho and his brother Johnny were hungry for news from the Eagle Pass and Crystal City area where they still had family, and never bragged about their close association with Williams. Years later, Barrios began the research about the friendship between the two men which resulted in the play "Rancho Pancho".

I was moved by the poignancy of some letters discovered by Barrios in papers included in the estate of Johnny Rodriquez and by the reminiscences of the Rodriquez sisters as related by Gregg Barrios in the Texas Observer article.

During one of their last visits, Williams informed Pancho that he had selected Anthony Quinn and Katy Jurado to star in The Red Devil Battery Sign, set on the Texas border in Eagle Pass. Apparently, the news had moved Pancho to tears.

Decades earlier, he had argued that the lead character of Stanley in Streetcar should have been Mexican American and not Polish, since there were more Latinos than Poles in New Orleans. Moreover, he pointed to the wrought-iron balconies and grand courtyards as a legacy of 40 years of Spanish rule. (Scholars say Williams named the character after a friend in St. Louis.) Pancho further argued that the part should go to a Latino because Marlon Brando was unknown. The particular Latino he had in mind: Mexican American actor Anthony Quinn (who, indeed, was cast as Stanley Kowalski on Broadway when Brando left to do the film version).

In one of his letters from Hollywood, Pancho had urged Johnny not to abandon New Orleans.

“Don’t come to California,” he warned. “[H]ere in Los Angeles, we are considered peons like we were in Texas. In New Orleans, we live in an international city, and we are treated with respect and good jobs. Both Tenn and I can’t wait to get back to work, to be back home.”

For more information about the play by the former Los Angeles Times journalist, read La Bloga: RANCHO PANCHO: A new play by Gregg Barrios

Actors pictured in photo: Benny Briseno as Pancho and Rick Frederick as Tennessee. (photo from La Bloga)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I understand that the playscript along with an introduction by theater director and Barrios' Texas Observer article will be published in April, 2009
in the Hansen Publishers new Theater script series.

Barrios will be doing book tours and traveling with a short DVD sampler of the play's performance at P-Town.

I can't wait. Thanks for letting us know about the Texas Pancho and the Texas playwright Barrios.

Monty Hale