A theater company with long-time community roots is set to open in a former furniture building in downtown Oxnard, bringing back live entertainment more than a year after COVID-19 shut everything down.
The Teatro de las Americas, a bilingual performing arts theater troupe that has been around for decades, will welcome guests to the venue near Plaza Park in what used to be Elizabeth’s Furniture at 321 W. Sixth St.
James Donlon, a Camarillo resident and Oxnard-born director, writer and actor, said the theater’s opening is important for a city that has significantly cut arts funding.
“I think Oxnard got hit pretty bad by the 2019-20 budget,” Donlon said. “It’s very important for Oxnard and the residents that the arts are still around. To me, it’s exciting, and I hope all the people and residents are excited. I hope it means as much to them as it means to me.”
An open house is scheduled July 17, and beginning July 30, the production of “Wrench/Llave” will begin.
Margaret Cortese, executive director of Teatro de las Americas, said the organization began in 1992 and has mostly been in “borrowed” spaces, including for a short time, at the Wagon Wheel before the building was razed.
“Now, we have our own place, and we are very happy about it,” Cortese said. She said the lease began in October 2019 and they had hoped to open in April 2020 but then COVID-19 hit.
“It delayed us for a year and a few months,” Cortese said. “We’ve been in rehearsal. It takes about eight weeks to prepare a show.”
State of the arts
Oxnard’s budget cuts in 2019 ended subsidies to the Oxnard Performing Arts and Convention Center, which celebrated 50 years in 2018, and closed the iconic 1906 Carnegie Art Museum in downtown.
The museum remains closed. But in February 2020, Oxnard entered into a five-year management agreement with The Canyon, a live-entertainment company with multiple venues in Southern California, to book shows at the performing arts center.
The pandemic forced the PACC to cancel and delay some dates or have performers play music outdoors. The center opened its theater to music audiences mid-June. An open-mic event for anyone who signed up was held on Sunday.
Ana Silva, an executive assistant for Teatro de las Americas who used to work at the museum, said the theater company is leasing the building from the city of Oxnard month to month.
“We’re very fortunate to be able to do that,” Silva said.
The lease arrangement began in fall 2019 after a location at Oxnard College was converted into a lecture hall, said Juan Gonzalez, Teatro de las Americas board president and a lead actor in “Wrench/Llave.”
The PG-13 production will run on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through Aug. 15. Adult tickets are $25 and students with identification pay $10.
The open house on July 17 will be a celebration of Teatro de las Americas, she said.
A new home
When the company acquired the building, the pandemic hit and all programming became virtual. One of those programs, the Donlon-directed “Words from a Cuban father,” starring his wife Alina Cenal, was previously taped and will premier for free at the open house.
“We’re inviting anybody,” Silva said.
People can observe the new space that is getting set up for “Wrench/Llave,” the first official play at the space. Silva said the location will seat 40 people with a maximum of 50 individuals, including performers and staff.
While “Words from a Cuban father,” focuses on Cenal’s life story, including her father being friends with Fidel Castro when the two were children, “Wrench/Llave” will hit closer to home with some Oxnard references.
Donlon, who has been a film movement coach for Oscar winners like Frances McDormand and Javier Bardem, said the action-packed production with live music centers on two mechanics – an uncle and a nephew who have inherited a mechanic shop.
Additionally, a shaman haunts the garage and teaches both how to “tune life’s engine, so to speak,” Donlon said.
Before the location was a furniture store, it was a machine shop, Donlon said. A long wall divides the two spaces and audiences will sit in what was formerly the machine shop.
A garage door will be partially open so audiences can hear the sounds of Oxnard outside. Future productions will have audiences sit inside the former furniture store.
Actors include Oxnard resident José Valdez, who is an assistant principal at Blackstock Junior High in Port Hueneme. Valdez, who will also perform on July 17 as part of José Valdez and the Latin Jazz Quartet, said this was his first time acting.
“It’s a little daunting being in a cast of more experienced actors but the director likes what I’m doing so I guess I’m not doing too badly,” said Valdez, who plays the shaman, or shape shifter. “I morph into different characters in the story.”
Oxnard resident Gonzalez, who has been acting since age 12, said the performers will address the audience directly, also known as “breaking the fourth wall.”
“They become our customers of the shop,” Gonzalez said.
He said the actors will have the freedom to translate phrases when they feel it’s needed.
“It is a Chicano body shop, right?” Gonzalez said. “So instead of saying, ‘Hey, pass me the wrench,’ you can say, ‘Pásame la llave.’”
The production centers on the hardworking Latino family, Gonzalez said.
Actor Angel Villalobos, 22, said the play’s focus on a working, blue-collar man is something the audience can relate to.
“James made it very easy for us all to dive into that world,” said Villalobos, who is an acting and sociology student at UC Santa Barbara. “I feel very connected to this play, these people and even Oxnard. I haven’t spent a lot of time in Oxnard before this but it’s very vibrant to me – the brown culture here and the Oxnard culture in general.”
For more information on the open house or production, head to https://teatrodelasamericas.org.