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Scenes From the Vault—Popol Vuh: Heart of Heaven

Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Happy National Hispanic Heritage Month! Throughout the years, Center Theatre Group has produced many shows that celebrate Hispanic, Latinx, and Chicano history in California, including Zoot Suit (1978, 2017), Chavez Ravine (2003, 2015), Valley of the Heart (2018), and more. These particular productions were presented in partnership with our artistic partners including El Teatro Campesino and Culture Clash, both important figures in the Latinx theatre scene. However, one work in particular, created with members of Los Angeles’ Latinx community at large, is providing us a moment to reflect not only on Hispanic heritage but also the power of community and togetherness.

In October 2015, Center Theatre Group, El Teatro Campesino, and members of the Boyle Heights community transformed Grand Park in Downtown Los Angeles into a giant puppet theatre to tell the epic Mayan creation story—the story of Popol Vuh: Heart of Heaven. The show was produced under the guidance of Center Theatre Group’s late Associate Artistic Director Diane Rodriguez and the direction of El Teatro Campesino’s Producing Artistic Director Kinan Valdez. It was essential that the show not only showed an authentic representation of L.A.’s culture, but also was a community-based effort from start to finish.

With the help of Estela Garcia, Tiana Alvarez and other integral members of the Boyle Heights community, Center Theatre Group and El Teatro Campesino were able to find local community members to not only create music and puppets for the show, but also cast the show with nearly 40 Boyle Heights residents varying from children to adults. The music was created with ETC’s Music Director Emiliano Valdez and members of L.A.-based bands Ozomatli, Quetzal, and Mariachi Divas in what Valdez describes as their “Mayan Orchestra.” Together, the Mayan Orchestra blended the pre-written score with the sounds of Los Angeles—salsa, jazz, funk, reggae, and rap. During workshops at our Costume Shop and our partner space, Self-Help Graphics, members of the Boyle Heights community gathered to design and create puppets for the production. Staff members described seeing participants more engaged than ever before. In fact, many of those who participated in the workshop also auditioned to perform in the show and don their creations alongside the 14-foot puppets of the Mayan gods. Between the uniquely L.A. vision and community enthusiasm, Center Theatre Group and El Teatro Campesino’s production of Popol Vuh: Heart of Heaven became an artistic celebration of Los Angeles’s Latinx culture and history.

As we continue reflecting on the power of Popol Vuh, we have been continuing our work in the community with Jesus A. Reyes, Center Theatre Group’s Community Partnerships Director, through the soon-to-launch Community Stories program and long-standing ongoing free workshops and events through our shop in Boyle Heights, local libraries, and beyond.

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