When playwright Carlos Murillo first worked with Adventure Stage Chicago in 2013 on the play “Augusta & Noble,” he introduced a way of developing unique new plays by engaging in a creative partnership with children aided by the social service and educational organization Northwestern Settlement, where the theater is located.
Since then ASC, which focuses on plays for middle grade audiences, and Murillo, who is now playwright-in-residence, have established a Mellon Foundation residency in which a new play will be developed each year for the next three seasons using this method.
About a year ago, ASC commissioned playwright Lucas Baisch to create a work inspired by the Popol Vuh, a text that recounts the mythology and history of the Mayan culture of Guatemala and is in the collection of The Newberry Library.
‘Roots in the Alley’ When: Through May 5 Where: Adventure Stage Chicago at Vittum Theater, 1012 N. Noble Tickets: $7-$17 Info: adventurestage.org
The creative process began with Baisch and Murillo engaging with middle school students in CPS classrooms.
“It’s really a unique process to be writing for a young audience and engaging with them not just when they come to the theater but at the very beginning of the process,” Murillo says. “They are very responsive to storytelling and bring so many wonderful ideas and images to the table.”
ASC is now ready to debut this first play born of the residency. “Roots in the Alley” is one very wild ride, and, under the direction of Julie Ritchey, it unfolds as part magic realism, part video game, part real life.
(After working on the show for some months, Baisch had to back out of the project due to other commitments. The play is now billed as adapted by Murillo and based on a work by Baisch.)
“Roots in the Alley” begins as twin sisters Honey (a fashionista in training) and Blanca (sporty and fearless) leave San Francisco for Chicago’s West Town neighborhood, where they will spend the summer with their paternal grandmother. As the girls say, they are “halfsies” — their mother is American, their father Guatemalan — and they are about to take a deep dive into their Guatemalan roots in an attempt to understand the father they never knew.
That journey involves a magical tree, which is a doorway to a challenging, sometimes dangerous adventure in the Mayan mythical underworld of Xibalba, where they engage in a series of challenges to uncover their father’s fate.
“I think there’s a sense of erasure that happens as we assimilate into a culture,” says Murillo, who is half Colombian, half Puerto Rican and grew up in the suburbs of New York. “I think what the girls discover is how much there is to gain by understanding where you come from.”
Rinska Carrasco, who plays soccer-obsessed Blanca, says you don’t often see biracial Latinas on stage. “I have so many friends who live on both sides and sometimes feel that they are sometimes not enough of one or the other,” Carrasco says. “I think it’s so beautiful to show this on stage and to embrace it instead of pushing it away.”
Her co-star is Juanita Andersen as fashion-conscious Honey, who would rather have stayed in California for the summer.
As the twins embark on their adventure, there are many action-filled moments in this magical world.
“At first it feels like we’re headed for a more conventional fish-out-of-water summer romp,” Ritchey says. “But then all of a sudden a magical tree grows and the world of the play is flipped upside down.”
When asked how her design team would portray this underworld adventure, Ritchey wouldn’t give much away only saying, “We’re using live video and projections, big fights and delightful and surprising costume creatures.”
Murillo, whose previous work has been for an adult audience, admits the partnership with ASC has been a learning process.
“I’ve learned that this audience is far more sophisticated than we give them credit for; it’s an audience that doesn’t lie,” he says, adding with a laugh, “When you’re sitting in a room filled with 250 sixth- and seventh-graders, they tell you very clearly what they’re interested in.”
Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.