The Terrors of the Heart

By Julia Reynolds
Photos by Eugenio Castro


Octavio Solís is, perhaps, the most prominent Chicano playwright in the country. He is of the post-Luis Valdez generation that has gone beyond Chicano identity-seeking and is now looking at humanity, at issues revolving around love and death and why the world is such a mess.

His work has been called dark, but he thinks it’s funny. At least a lot funnier, he says, than most people realize. Critic Judith Green wrote in 1994 that Solís took a “brave new path” with his play El Paso Blue. “It moves fluidly from hunter to hunted, from past to present, from reality to dream, from the prosaic to the mythic,” she said in the San Jose Mercury News.

He can’t deny it: Solís deals with the underbelly of life, with secrets and hidden fears, violence and misunderstanding. His plays are about infidelity, deception and murder. But other than that, okay, he is funny, in a nasty sort of way. But his work reflects a love of humanity, a love of all its weakness and screw-ups, which is why Solís ends up coming across as tender, though his subjects are harsh.

His works Man of the Flesh, Prospect, El Paso Blue, Santos & Santos, La Posada Mágica, El Otro and the workshop production of Dreamlandia have been mounted at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the Dallas Theater Center, the San Diego Repertory Theatre and many other theaters around the country.

Solís received an National Endowment for the Arts 1995-97 Playwriting Fellowship, the Roger L. Stevens award from the Kennedy Center and the Will Glickman Playwright Award, among others. Solís is married to attorney Jeanne Sexton, and has a daughter, Gracie. They live in San Francisco, where Solís was interviewed for El Andar.

El Paso Blue opens November 9 in Philadelphia at Venture Theatre.

JR: What is your next play going to be like?

Solís: This is something different in that I’m starting with no script at all. I’m going to start with a couple of notes, some ideas of who the characters are, what their names are, who’s married to who.

JR: Do you have any idea what the plot is?

Solís: Sort of, very loosely. The idea is there’s three couples. I don’t know how they’re related, but there’s three couples married or living together. And in the course of this play these three couples have their own crises. And they’re all brought to the brink. Some of them are going to come back from the brink and be stronger.

One of the men or the women is going to have a gun in the house.

JR: Uh-oh. Chekov at work…

Solís: The thing that’s fascinating to me is that before, people used to fight and they’d get divorced, they’d break up and that was that. But there’s this trend, a real ugly trend, where a guy nowadays will hunt and kill his wife and then kill himself. That’s happening a lot. I want to figure out, what is this? What is it about these men that makes them want to do this?

They can’t believe that they’re being rejected, or that they’re losing their “possession.”

It has to do very much with ideas of possession. That women in this society are still considered cattle, property. And they’re murdered.

And at least one of the couples is going to be interracial.

JR: Is the theater scene in this country receptive to the playwright as an artist?

Solís: I don’t know if this country is more receptive because I don’t know the theater scene in other countries, except the few that I’ve visited. I visited Columbia, Puerto Rico, Venezuela. In the major cities there, people really, truly respect the theater. They really do. Poetry and theater are very highly regarded. In Venezuela the students have developed a very strong theater-going habit. It’s just part of the things they do. Like in England: they have the theater-going habit.

JR: But here we have New York...

Solís: You know the ones who go to the theater a lot in New York are the tourists. The tourists, when they go to New York, they think, “Well, gotta go to the theater!”

I have a hard time in New York, too, because the material and the part of the country that I write about is so alien to people in New York. To the theater directors and producers, it’s alien country. I may as well be writing about Africa, I may as well be writing about Mars as writing about El Paso, Texas, Mexico, and to write about people around the border in that desert environment.

JR: It will be interesting to see the reaction in Philadelphia when El Paso Blue opens there.

Solís: I’m curious! My plays have gone over well in Chicago, but there’s a huge Latino population in Chicago. Mexican. They know what’s going on. They know that things are going to happen around the border sometime in the future that’s going to blow this country wide open. It’s going to really be dramatic.

JR: And the other Easterners don’t get it?

Solís: No, they just think that it’s something so far away from their understanding. So far away. A friend of mine who’s a director, he and a set designer went to El Paso and Juárez just to walk around for several days. And they were stunned, absolutely stunned at how different that part of the border is, and how close it is to America and half of it is America. They just could not believe that they were on American soil, that just crossing a line in the sand or the river, all of sudden they’re in the Third World. They were confronted with such troubling, disturbing things about human society that they just thought, “My God, it’s here, right here.”

JR: Will you keep writing about the border?

Solís:For a time I think I will. I think it’s good for me. I think there’s a lot of stories there. It’s part of my cultural background. It’s part of who I am, having been born and raised there.

JR:You focus on the individual rather than on society. The political and social is kind of outside, in the setting. You don’t write a play about Proposition 187.

Solís: It’s always there. The audience should first be compelled by the characters and then the idea will blind-side them when they realize why the characters did what they did, or why they couldn’t act, what hampered them. What was it about our prejudices, our biases, our judgment as Americans, that makes us do what we do? That makes us not act? Those are things that are important in my work. At the same time as an artist I really want to open it up. I get to explore, in a non-linear way.

JR: Where is your work taking you?

Solís: Relationships. I think at the heart, all theater is about relationships. But I really want to focus on marital relationships, the relationship between men and women, and men and men. I don’t know how my next script is going to take shape, but I do want to explore gay relationships as well. Interracial relationships. I want to explore how people fall in love, get along and then fall out of love — and fall back in love. How they can be restored, resurrected, and destroyed by the events in relationships. Those are the sort of things I’m trying to look at.

JR: Does having a kid and family make you think about these things?

Solís: Probably. I think so. Yeah. Because marriage is a tough contract. It’s really hard. It’s a very tough contract. And making a commitment to that is no easy thing. It’s not an easy thing. And sometimes when things don’t work out, people blame themselves or blame the other person. Or we get very confused and very lost. Then they get very violent.

So I’m interested in those things. In how somebody can, out of love, write in a suicide note, “I killed her to relieve her of her pain. Because she was suffering so much, I killed her.” I want to know what it is about love that drives people to that. Love to that kind of extremes.

JR: To help your writing, have you talked to people who’ve experienced violence?

Solís: I think we all have that capacity to love and to kill. It’s real easy to say, I’m not capable of that. Or she’s not capable of that. But in truth, we’re all capable of all the things, the horrible things, that could happen.

It might help, but I doubt if Shakespeare had to interview any killers in order to write Hamlet or MacBeth. He was on to something, because he understood human nature.

JR: People spend years trying to find answers to these questions. How are you going to get there?

Solís: I don’t pretend to be a psychoanalyst or a sociologist. I don’t even pretend that I want to approach it from that angle. I have to do research, obviously, in the issues and pathologies that are going to be key in the work that I write. And I do the research. But ultimately the impulses that I have to study and examine all are inside me.

There’s a script I’m writing right now called Bethlehem that I’m writing for [San Francisco’s] ACT. And it’s about a man who, twelve years before the play begins, committed this horrible murder. He decardiated a girl and raped her body. Took her heart out. He cut her open and took her heart out. And the thing is, nobody could find the heart. He doesn’t remember anything, doesn’t remember doing it. His lawyers got him off on an insanity plea, and he takes twelve years in a prison hospital. So he’s released.

And now a reporter wants to interview him to find out why he did it. To make him first of all, ’fess up to doing it. That he did do it. Find out why he did it, what was the root of his evil. And that’s sort of my interpretation of the work: what is evil? What is the root of evil? In a culture that defends that God is dead, we still cannot somehow get out of our heads the idea that Devil is dead. No, the Devil is very much present. But we think of it as some evil guy with horns and he’s sort of comical.

So if we choose to live outside of the spiritual realm, how do we account for things that we can only describe as evil? You know, scientists and psychologists say, “Well it’s something in his background that did it. Something in his background. He was abused as a kid.” That’s part of another myth.

JR: Do think we’ll ever understand it?

Solís: We’re getting a little closer to understanding why we should not hurt people and kill people, rather than understanding darkness and evil. I don’t think we ever can. Certainly it would be arrogant of me to just presume I knew the answer to why there is evil.

I just know that without love, you’re leaving yourself open for evil to enter.

I found out how it happened in this play. The reporter’s talking to the guy, day in, day out, day in, day out, getting his story and then trying to go back and back and back, thinking that there’s a Rosetta Stone in his history so he can say, “There! That’s the seed from way back then that made him do this. I can make him do it again.”

So the further he goes and reaches back into his psychic history, his personal history, the more he thinks he’s got it. And then the killer — his name is Mateo — reveals to him that he hasn’t in fact told him anything new and he hasn’t told him anything that is true. He’s been telling the reporter his story, the reporter’s history. It’s something the reporter has been denying in his mind for years.

JR: How do people go there?

Solís: I think I’ve become aware of my capacity for things that I didn’t think I could do before. When I first came to San Francisco I’d never hurt anyone in my life. But I was put in a situation where this guy started breaking into cars. He was a big guy. And I busted him over the head with a bat. Twice. And he couldn’t believe it. He said, “What’d you do that for? What’d you do that for? I’m going to sue you.” Then he passed out. And I knew if he started to get up again, I’d hit him again.

I hit him hard. And I almost killed him. It wasn’t even my own car radio, stereo, whatever he was ripping off. The thing is that no one, not even a low-life like this guy, is worth killing for a car radio. Or dying for. Because he could’ve had a gun, and here I have a bat. And yet at that moment when I did it, I knew that if I had to, I could kill him and I would do it. And I knew that if I was threatened or my family was threatened, I knew what I could do. I knew what I was capable of doing.

El Paso Blue takes women and men through the trials of interracial relationships — like poor Al, who says that without his Sylvie, he’s “just another Mexican.” Solís says he wrote the play to explore those issues, after a friend asked about his own interracial marriage.

Marriage, he says, is the ultimate challenge, the thing that will take his work forward because love is where the great test of our humanity takes place.

In the opening scene of Blue, the heroine Sylvie sings:

“I hunkered down in a sweet, sweet place

Between your arms and your chest

Sheltered and safe from all the troubles

That put lovers to the test.”

We know better. With Solís, there’s safety and no rest, and we’ll soon be off on an epic voyage through the terrors of the heart.

© 1999, 2000 El Andar Magazine