"You have to question what the word classical is".

Jesse J. Perez Shares His Experience Playing the Role of Raúl in Tony Meneses's new play El Borracho at The Old Globe in San Diego 

by Alejandra Enciso-Dardashti

Tony Meneses sent a copy of the script of El Borracho to Jesse when he first finished it.

Jesse J. Perez as Raul in El Borracho, 2022. Photo by Jim Cox.
"I read it and it destroyed me. I was ripped open by the story. There are things on the surface that happen but it is really what is underneath it that really hits home and I recognized a Mexican-American family that I kind of was born into. I eventually got back to him and said "This is a beautiful piece".

The Globe had the script as well and was planning to include it as part of the readings of The Powers New Voices Festival in 2020. Meneses wanted Perez to play the role of Raúl, the dad that comes back to live at his ex-wife's house because of health issues. "Let me re-read it again and get back to you" added Perez. They got to read  El Borracho in person and with a live audience in January of 2020, barely making it, being that the pandemic was about to hit. (You look at things now through a pandemic lens, you know what I mean). Jesse's parents were in town and got to see the reading as well. "It kind of brings tears to my eyes because they were like "oh my God they have to produce this Mexican play", and it is so interesting right? because it is an American play. But they saw themselves in it you know? and what it means to be a Latino man and machismo, and the culture and what it is to maintain the culture in the household while you are still in America. What it means to succeed or to be content and pass the buck to your offspring, your children so that they can continue the legacy of who you are as a person. So many questions here as an immigrant in this new America and it wrestles with that a little bit".

Jesse also shared that it was tough to figure out how to give life to Raúl in a safe way. 

"It really opens up the heart valve in a way that I am just like AH! this is tough". 

But what aspects of the play, specifically affect Jesse?  
"The idea of alcoholism in the Mexican culture is huge. You can't go to a fiesta and not have a beer. You come in and it is just handed to you, you have to have a cheve, it's the hair of the dog. An interesting thing that's part of the culture and how we deal with it as a culture to actually succeed in life you know? How we tame that beast knowing that it comes from the top down from our parents. How we look at it and say, "how can I grab ahold of this?". Every Mexican household deals with some aspect of this. Of course, as you keep coming to America and the generational gap extends, I think it changes and I think that this play also deals with that or how we hold on to our culture. On how we hold on to our language even though it is complicated, even though it has an idea of "oh why are you telling this story that has all these negative connotations and trying to flip it on its head?" and it's like, that's actually the reality of it, you are thinking of images that you form in your own head and you create your own stories about the Mexican culture, and alcoholism in the Mexican culture, and it becomes different when you are a fly in the wall and, I think it is really interesting because people are not used to that. Different stories are what make us a culture. Otherwise, what are we catering to?".

After the reading in 2020, it took a while to produce the play because of everything that was happening in the world. Two years later, when the waters calmed down a bit, El Borracho was ready. "Being in the play is really a safe place to be now, knowing once I got over the hurdle on how personally I take it and how it affects me from night to night, and then I can just become an actor and doing my artistry with it. I think it is one of the best places to be for me as an actor/professor because I am learning with these two individual actors, one who is young and the other one who is my age, and we are just figuring out how to be together again after the pandemic and it has been really interesting to do theatre during this time trying to build a show that is really intimate".

Perez is also balancing his theatre creds with being in charge of the Globe's MFA (Craig Noel Distinguished Professor and Program Director of The Old Globe and University of San Diego Shiley Graduate Theatre Program) which gives him a dynamic where he learns onstage as he teaches off of it, I tell him. "I will forever learn" he responds.

Jesse J. Perez. Photo Courtesy The Old Globe
"I am a professor of practice is what they call it, so I have to continue doing it, I have to be in the practice of acting or theatre-making and therefore, I bring the knowledge that I am getting to the students because its what the temperature of the industry is now, as opposed to "oh I used to do it and now I just teach". It's a parallel thing and it is great because my students get to see me actually activate and do the acting part of it as opposed to just talking about it".

The other cool thing is that during the summer when The Globe does its Shakespeare production, sometimes Jesse gets to act with his students onstage.

Going back to the temperature of the industry, I ask Jesse how he sees that temperature now, surge after surge, after surge, and getting back to in-person theatre with this play in particular. "There are two BIPOC plays at The Globe right now, they are breathing next to each other, you can watch them, you can see one in the afternoon and one in the evening and have an amazing time in San Diego from culture with two POV's that you have not experienced even. And people start seeing themselves, you should see the people that are coming to see El Borracho, La Raza is coming! You know? and they watch it and they see themselves in it, and they are cheering for it, and they are responding to it. It is interesting to see what is happening in theatre and I hope it continues because I think it makes it more vibrant and alive to hear other people's stories as opposed to just the same stories over and over again". 

The themes in the play are also in Jesse's family. "My parents to this day in the household, only speak Spanish. I walk in the household and if I say a wrong word in Spanish, my mom will correct me in a heartbeat". -GOOD FOR HER!- I cheer... "And it becomes this thing, I think Tony addresses this too, they are sophisticated Mexican speakers. The way they talk is poetic and gorgeous and smart. So then when you see Tony's play and you are like "Oh Mexicans do not really talk like that", come to Perez's dinner over here in the City of Commerce right outside of East LA and let's have a conversation about what that is and really hear the Spanish language REALLY come into the space. It is different and Tony plays with that a little bit".

Perez emphasizes that we have to question what the word "classical" is in theatre. If classical just means Eurocentric then, where is the classical work in America? What are those American classics? And that is why I say, the Tony Meneses play is an American play, he is an American artist and if he is that personally involved in the story, you get to see what's become of him as a playwright in America. He is succeeding, and it becomes this thing of, how do we support more artists like that? because those are the stories that I think, bring my family to the theatre. 

If my mom wants to come and see one of my shows, I think we are doing something right". 

El Borracho is currently playing at the Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre until March 20.

For ticket prices and showtimes please click here. 

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