Longtime Chicago actor/director Henry Godinez was last seen on stage in the Goodman Theatre’s 2016 adaptation of Roberto Bolano’s epic novel “2666.” In the massive, 5-hour production, he gave a remarkable performance as a literary scholar — a frightened, broken man who fears for his daughter’s life.

‘Quixote: On the Conquest of Self’
When: Sept. 27-Dec.17
Where: Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor, Glencoe
Tickets: $35-$80
Info: writerstheatre.org

Now in what has become a rare return to the stage, Godinez takes on a legendary character from another epic novel, bringing to life Don Quixote in “Quixote: On the Conquest of Self,” a work inspired by Miguel de Cervantes’ literary masterpiece. It is written by Monica Hoth and Claudio Valdes Kuri, who also directs the show at Writers Theatre.

Godinez and Valdes Kuri, one of Latin America’s most acclaimed theater artists, are old friends going back to when Kuri’s Mexican company Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes performed at the Goodman’s first Latino Theatre Festival. He has long wanted to bring Valdes Kuri back to direct at a Chicago theater. When it looked like that would happen at Writers, Valdes Kuri convinced Godinez to take on the role of Don Quixote.

“Henry has the age and experience to portray Quixote,” Valdes Kuri says, adding, “He also has this inner force and compassion that can move an audience.”

The show, physical and humorous, is mostly a monologue by eccentric idealist Don Quixote as he time travels through his own time and the current world finding parallel realities in both.

“This play really makes you think about the things Don Quixote stands for, the notion of being a dreamer even though people think you’re crazy,” Godinez says. “And, when that dream is about doing good for other people, this is a good time, especially in American society today, to really look at this book and this character.”

Henry Godinez rehearses for “Quixote: On the Conquest of Self” at Writers Theatre. | JOE MAZZA

Godinez knows what dreams are made of. He was three when he and his parents left Cuba for the United States. He grew up in Dallas where his interests gravitated to band and sports. It was frustration with a very boring study hall that made a suggestion from his younger sister — to take part in a theater group during that wasted time — seem like the right decision.

“I immediately fell in love with theater and never looked back,” Godinez says.

He studied acting at the University of Dallas and had just finished a graduate degree at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee when a classmate said a Chicago agent wanted to meet him. It was 1984 and Chicago theater was beginning to boom, and Godinez took notice. Though he had planned to movie to New York, he instead was cast in “Kabuki Medea” at Wisdom Bridge Theatre.

“I had trained heavily in Japanese movement in grad school so this seemed perfect,” recalls Godinez, adding with a laugh, “The Chicago scene was just so interesting and I kept on working and thinking okay I’ll move to New York next year.”

In 1988, Godinez was in Michael Maggio’s Goodman Theatre staging of “Romeo and Juliet,” a production that he says “changed my whole world.” From that point forward, until his death in 2000, Maggio, an associate artistic director at the Goodman, was his mentor as an actor, a director and a teacher (Godinez teaches acting at Northwestern University).

“I look back on it now and can only think how lucky I was,” Godinez says. “Michael was remarkable. Anything that I am now, whatever career I have now is completely thanks to him.”

It was in 1989, that Godinez and Eddie Torres would found Teatro Vista, a Latino company still going strong. It was the start of Godinez’s move to directing. “We got together and looked at each other and thought “Who’s going to direct?,” Godinez says. “I had directed a show in college so I directed the first couple of shows.”

Named an artistic associate at the Goodman in 1997, Godinez was instrumental in bringing Latino works to the theater and curating the Latino Theatre Festival, which featured works by local and international artists.

“Henry’s vision has been integral to shaping the Goodman’s artistic priorities for more than two decades, and has ensured that the Goodman showcases a wide variety of Latinx voices,” artistic director Robert Falls says. “From curating six Latino Theatre Festivals, directing a wide range of plays, and galvanizing audiences with his onstage performances, Henry long ago proved himself one of the Goodman’s most versatile and visionary artists.”

For Godinez, 59, the past three decades have also been a “continual journey of self -discovery, awareness and reconnection.” He has no memory of his childhood in Cuba but has now traveled there many times and developed relationships with Cuban artists including Flora Lauten, artistic director of Teatro Buendia.

“All of these experiences have been as valuable for me as it has been for theater in Chicago. In a big way, it’s also been about me filling in who I am culturally. And I’m thankful for that.”

Mary Houihan is a local freelance writer.