Inspiring young minds: La Jolla Playhouse tours ‘Astronaut farmworker’ to county schools

By Jennifer Chung Klam

(l-r) Olivia Espinosa, Luis Avila, Raymond Castelán and Kimiko Miyashima in La Jolla Playhouse’s 2015 Performance Outreach Program (POP) Tour production of THE ASTRONAUT FARMWORKER, by Jose Cruz Gonzalez, directed by Nick Avila, running at La Jolla Playhouse February 14-15 and touring local elementary schools through April 3. Photo by Jamie Lytle.

(l-r) Olivia Espinosa, Luis Avila, Raymond Castelán and Kimiko Miyashima in La Jolla Playhouse’s 2015 Performance Outreach Program (POP) Tour production of THE ASTRONAUT FARMWORKER, by Jose Cruz Gonzalez, directed by Nick Avila, running at La Jolla Playhouse February 14-15 and touring local elementary schools through April 3. Photo by Jamie Lytle.

In 2009, aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery, José Hernández became the first astronaut to tweet from space in Spanish.

“Espero la cosecha de mi sueño sirva como inspiracion a todos!” he wrote via Twitter. “I hope the harvest of my dream serves as inspiration to all!”

His story was an inspiration to playwright José Cruz González, whose new play “Astronaut Farmworker” is loosely based on Hernández’s trajectory from agricultural fields to outer space. The play will travel to elementary schools throughout San Diego County through April 3 as La Jolla Playhouse’s 2015 Performance Outreach Program (POP) Tour production.

As a child, Hernández spent half the year in Mexico and half in the United States. He worked alongside his family in the fields of California, harvesting crops and moving wherever the work went. He didn’t learn English until he was about 12 years old, when his family stopped moving back and forth between the United States and Mexico.

“His teacher was instrumental in convincing his parents to stay,” González said.

González himself was born to migrant workers in Calexico, Calif., and spent afternoons, weekends and summers working in the fields.

“I remember getting up really early and getting in the car, being constantly amazed by the stars,” González said. “José, who also saw the same stars, in his mind, he was asking questions. Where I didn’t become an astronaut, I became a playwright, I asked, ‘Why are we here, what does it mean?’

“It’s about looking up at the impossible and achieving it.”

“Astronaut Farmworker” tells the story of a boy who dreams of reaching the stars. He comes from a family of farmworkers from Mexico who toil under the hot sun for long hours and very little pay.

The play is told from the protag-onist’s point of view, so when he first arrives in school, the other kids speak gibberish.

Audience members will get a sense of what it’s like to be in a strange place and not understand the people around them.

“It’s overwhelming, but also compelling, moving and funny as well,” González said.

With a little determination and the support of his family and teacher, the boy finds success. The play is also about the ability of teachers to positively influence students, the playwright added.

“I thought this would be a great story for children to hear,” said González. “It’s a powerful story about never giving up on your dream, and working toward your dream despite all odds.”

González teaches theater arts at California State Los Angeles. He has written for “PAZ,” the Emmy Award-nominated television series produced by Discovery Kids for The Learning Channel. He is a playwright-in-residence with South Coast Repertory and Childsplay. Just a few of his plays include “The Long Road Today,” “The San Patricios,” “The Sun Serpent,” “Super Cowgirl and Mighty Miracle” and “Invierno.”

He is one of the most commissioned and most produced playwrights in theater for young audiences, and his plays address themes children face every day.

“He writes with honesty and beauty. His work can really be transformative for young audiences,” said Steve McCormick, director of education and outreach for La Jolla Playhouse.

Each year the Playhouse commissions a new play for young audiences. The POP Tour productions are seen by about 20,000 kids each year. “Astronaut Farmworker” will play for 2nd through 5th grade classes in close to 50 schools throughout San Diego County. The set, costumes and props are designed to fit into a van and be set up in just 30 minutes.

Prior to each performance, a Playhouse teaching artist visits each school to oversee an interactive workshop to explore the play’s issues and themes. Following the 45-minute performance, the cast and crew conduct a question and answer session with the audience.

There will also be four public performances, at 1 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. on Feb. 14-15.

The Playhouse has been committed to producing theater for children since 1987. McCormick said the Playhouse gives POP Tour plays the same resources and attention as other theatrical productions.

“We don’t look at it as a ‘precious’ experience, it’s not a ‘sweet’ thing that we get to do. We believe strongly in creating work for a multigenerational audience,” McCormick said.

As theater for young audiences has evolved, plays have become more meaningful and relevant, featuring more complex characters and themes. McCormick said it is vitally important for the Playhouse to do work for children that is challenging, and to provide shared experiences that are not static and passive.

“So much entertainment for young people is candy, pretty, simplistic, didactic, and assumes that young people aren’t smart enough to actually comprehend or wrestle with big ideas,” he said. “It’s important that we as artists are creating work that shows that these young people are capable of processing information, and deserve high-quality art that doesn’t speak down to them.”

Klam is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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