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Border Crossing 

Playwright Gregg Barrios leaves Tennessee Williams upstaged in his play Rancho Pancho, which was presented as a staged reading at the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival. Barrios' intent is not just to revisit a period in the playwright's life but to revise popular and critical understandings of how his life intersected with Pancho Rodriguez. In the end, however, the play is much more about how Rodriguez was affected by their relationship.

Barrios is a journalist who spent two decades writing for the Los Angeles Times and other papers, including New Orleans' former weekly paper Figaro. While teaching at Loyola University one summer, he met Juancho "Johnny" Rodriguez, Pancho's younger brother, and eventually Juancho told him he had letters, diaries and other materials from his brother. In them was a rich portrait of Pancho and Williams' two-year relationship and longterm friendship. The play fictionalizes scenes in their life, but also reflects many actual events. One of the conflicts in the play concerns Tennessee's use of their relationship for inspiration, suggesting that Pancho at times felt that Williams was using him.

One such scene closes the first act of the play. Pancho comes home to their second-story apartment at 632 1/2 St. Peter St. to find Williams asleep, slumped over his typewriter. As Pancho reads manuscript pages on the desk, he becomes enraged over a scene that seems to recast a story he had shared about his own mother. In the heated argument that ensues, Pancho questions whether Williams is more in love with him or his own writing. Williams rejects the contrast and Pancho responds by throwing his typewriter out the window. Barrios says this event in their life happened and is the basis for Stanley throwing the radio out the window in A Streetcar Named Desire. If you miss this on your own, the play then has Pancho storming out of the apartment and yelling up from the street, "Tenn! Tenn!"

Barrios fictionalized how Tennessee actually met Pancho, which is where the play begins, in a coastal town in Mexico. In fact, Williams did meet Pancho in Mexico, where he was traveling and resting after his enormous success with The Glass Menagerie. Pancho and his brother both eventually came to New Orleans and stayed for most of their lives. Willams and Pancho lived together for a couple of years in the mid-'40s. Williams was working on two plays for much of that time, Streetcar and Summer and Smoke. Both Barrios and Elia Kazan, who directed Streetcar on stage and for film, believed that the brutish Stanley was based on Pancho and not Williams' subsequent love interest Frank Merlo.

Barrios' play takes place in New Orleans in Williams' French Quarter apartment and in Provincetown where Williams referred to his bungalow as Rancho Pancho and where both Pancho and Juancho visited in 1946 following Tennessee's time in New Orleans. Some snippets are set in Los Angeles during the same era, where Pancho and Williams' relationship seemed to be strained by Pancho's financial dependency on Tennessee and the limelight surrounding the playwright. Both the scenes in Provincetown and California detail a schism between Pancho's more traditional idea of a relationship and Williams' rejection of an exclusive one. The play partially illustrates that with the presence of writer Carson McCullers in Provincetown. She spent time there writing, conversing with Williams and drinking and carousing with them. The mood is libertine with everyone sharing tales of sexual adventuring, extending to a brief passionate encounter between Pancho and McCullers. Barrios provides entertaining banter full of innuendo and which romanticizes cultural differences.

Pancho struggles to have the relationship that he wants with Williams. He reels with jealousy when he sees his own life transformed into heterosexual scenes in Williams' work, a form of betrayal that suggests rejection to him. He strains to make Williams appreciate what he values in intimacy, loyalty and monogamy. Juancho frequently appears to stoke the fear that the ethnic divide is the problem. Through it all, Williams seems unfazed, moved by his affection for Pancho but always aloof.

In the end, it's hard to imagine that Williams would not have been more torn about their relationship. Both in Streetcar and Suddenly, Last Summer, also set in New Orleans but more directly focused on the issue of homosexuality, central characters are driven to the borderlines of madness or at least the social characterization of mental instability by sexual desire. If Streetcar reflects Williams as Blanche in the relationship between Pancho and Tennessee, it seems that there would have been a lot of drama on both sides.

Barrios' play is most intriguing during the passion of the relationship and loses steam in the second act as an older Williams returns to New Orleans and reminisces with Pancho. It gets a bit contrived when they agree to pay a tour guide for a special French Quarter tour recounting Williams' life. It's an opportunity for the play to reiterate how Pancho disappeared from history. Barrios' play would be better off not explaining that point at such length. But hopefully he succeeds in prompting scholars and archivists to fill in the true story of the relationship and question how it influenced Williams' life and work.

click to enlarge Tim Hedgepeth (Tennessee Williams), Michael Avila - (Juancho "Johnny" Rodriguez) and Anna Gangai (Carson - McCullers) presented a staged reading of Rancho Pancho at - the Tennessee Williams Festival.
  • Tim Hedgepeth (Tennessee Williams), Michael Avila (Juancho "Johnny" Rodriguez) and Anna Gangai (Carson McCullers) presented a staged reading of Rancho Pancho at the Tennessee Williams Festival.
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