GALA Hispanic Theatre takes its last bow at the Sacred Heart School.
In the down-to-the-wire effort to save GALA Hispanic Theatre from eviction by its landlord, the allusion to the David and Goliath story just seems too appropriately—irresistibly—convenient. The story is being retold as a small, noble group of artists fighting a mammoth religious institution. Even those of us who didn’t spend afternoons in detention at Gonzaga or Georgetown Visitation know the basics of Chapter 17 in the First Book of Samuel.
David, in this incarnation, dwells not in the Valley of Elah but in the northwest corner of a Mount Pleasant parking lot, up concrete steps and through a set of institutional doors. On June 30, Grupo de Artistas Latin Americanos, known to most in the D.C. arts world as GALA Hispanic Theatre, will have to move out of its home of 15 years at the Sacred Heart School.
And the bronze-clad Philistine in this story? None other than the shekel- and land-endowed Archdiocese of Washington.
“SAVE GALA THEATRE,” read an e-mail message sent to many people in the local arts and activist communities this past month. “GALA Hispanic Theatre (and by extension Sol & Soul) got the boot from the Archdiocese of Washington who owns our performance space at 1625 Park Road NW in Mount Pleasant.” The e-mail was sent by members of Sol & Soul, a grass-roots arts collective that receives financial support as well as performance space from GALA. “We need just a few minutes of your time to help us put up a fight!!!” the note implored.
The stone that fells Goliath, in this telling, will be delivered most likely by the U.S. Postal Service in the form of a letter addressed to Archbishop James Cardinal Hickey. The e-mail encouraged readers to write to the archdiocese to protest its action and attached a sample letter to get the message straight.
The archdiocese has played Goliath to Washington audiences before, currently and notably along the 900 block of F Street NW. The underdogs in that battle are a group of artists who share studio space in this historic downtown strip alongside an eclectic bunch of pawnbrokers, wig shops, and discount clothiers (“Raze Be to God,” 7/30/99; “God Is in the Real Estate,” 3/31/00). The Catholic Church, which has owned the land for decades, plans to raze F Street’s old buildings and replace them with, most likely, an office building.
Up in Mount Pleasant, though, the intended beneficiaries of the church’s are not commercial real estate developers but approximately 200 schoolchildren desperate for classroom space at Sacred Heart School.
So the Philistines are a bunch of 4- to 13-year-olds, along with their teachers and parents. “The Gala Theatre was informed one year ago by the Archdiocese that the lease would expire on June 30, 2000 and that the space would be renovated for the educational needs of the Latino children and adults served by Sacred Heart parish and school,” reads a June 15 written statement from the church. “On that property, the Archdiocese provides not only a place of worship but also important services for the Latino community.”
After a decade and a half of performing in the Sacred Heart School’s former auditorium, GALA Theatre now needs to find a new home fast.
In 1973, Rebecca Read met Hugo Medrano, an actor with the now-defunct Back Alley Theater on Kennedy Street NW. Along with La Nacion publisher Jose Sueiro and another local artist, the foursome conceived Grupo de Artistas Latin Americanos.
“Our goal has been to be a Kennedy Center for the Arts for Hispanics,” says Read, who married Medrano in 1974. Since its inception in 1976, GALA has produced more than 100 classical and contemporary plays—many performed in Spanish with simultaneous English translation—as well as poetry, music, and dance events. It’s D.C.’s only Spanish-language theater company and one of two in the greater Washington area.
In 1994, GALA produced Kiss of the Spider Woman, which earned Hugo Medrano a Helen Hayes Award for his role as Molina . This past season, the theater company produced four plays—La Granada, El Burlador de Sevilla y Convidado de Piedra, Neruda 2000, and Mar Nuestro—and also hosted Ping Chong’s performance piece Undesirable Elements.
GALA has taken its show on the international road as well. The company has performed in Costa Rica, El Salvador, Venezuela, and, most recently, Cuba. In 1998, Hugo and Rebecca Read Medrano received the Cultural Alliance of Greater Washington’s Founders Award for their 22-year achievement in bringing Spanish-language theater to the nation’s capital and the world.
If Hispanic theater has a natural home in D.C., it’s in Mount Pleasant. The Northwest D.C. neighborhood hosts many families who have emigrated from countries such as Guatemala and El Salvador, and its commercial strip is filled with Latino-owned restaurants and businesses. So the Sacred Heart School, with its large Latino student body, seemed a natural place for GALA to make its home. When Hugo Medrano first scouted out the school’s auditorium in the mid-’80s, the majestic space with classical moldings and high ceilings had fallen into disrepair. GALA negotiated a low rent with the archdiocese in exchange for renovating the performance hall. The company expanded the stage, replaced seats, and spruced up the interior.
More recently, GALA invested more than $20,000 in the space’s infrastructure, putting in a new heating system, replacing old pipes, and upgrading the auditorium’s power system. Then, last summer, Medrano received a letter from the archdiocese. The church had decided to end GALA’s lease after 15 years and two renewals.
And when the calendar flips to July this week, GALA will be homeless. “In the interim, we have actively searched for space,” says Medrano. “It’s not as if we just sat here thinking, We’ll convince them. We knew we had to get out.”
At first, GALA hoped to move into the abandoned Tivoli Theater a few blocks away in Columbia Heights. But the Tivoli property has been entangled in a fierce development dispute between the city, the community, and developers, leaving its status in limbo. The company then considered performance spaces at the Duke Ellington School of the Performing Arts in Georgetown and the Church Street Theater in Dupont Circle. After the Church Street Theater became the new home of the Stanislavsky Theater Studio, Medrano looked northward. GALA says it now might move to the Takoma Theater at 4th and Butternut Streets NW, near the Maryland line. It might also consider a move to the Warehouse Theater, a much smaller performance space on 7th Street downtown.
The Takoma location lies across the city from Mount Pleasant, but the commute is not what daunts the Medranos about that location—most patrons already trek into Mount Pleasant from the Virginia and Maryland suburbs, notes Read Medrano.
Rather, it’s the symbolism that concerns her. GALA has an international reputation and brings in actors from all over the world, and she fears that the new suburban D.C. digs might send the wrong message. “If you’re bringing people from other countries, why not bring them to the nation’s capital?” Read Medrano says. “You could bring them to the suburbs, too, but it doesn’t have the same pizazz or impact. We see ourselves as belonging to D.C. We don’t want to leave the city.”
How could the archdiocese—with its burgeoning Latino following—tell the city’s only Hispanic theater company to leave its home? “Unfortunately, sometimes you have to make practical choices,” explains Sacred Heart Principal Juana Brown. “My hope is to grow as an institution.” The Catholic school has experienced a boom in enrollment, and the school’s five-year plan includes building new classrooms around the auditorium. GALA currently uses that space for exhibition and storage.
Sacred Heart enrolls approximately 200 students, from pre-kindergarten through the eighth grade. Brown estimates that more than 90 percent of her students identify as Latino. “My kids live on the other side of 14th Street NW,” explains Brown. “Most of the parents work as domestics, laborers, gardeners….[They] come here and say, ‘I don’t know how I’ll pay you.’ We buy shoes for them, uniforms, find health care for them.” In that context, Brown argues, it’s hard to see the church as insensitive to the community’s needs.
“When I became principal, I said [to GALA], ‘It’s a shame that you have space here and we’re working around you,’” Brown says, suggesting that the school and theater might have worked harder to create synergy. Read Medrano says she felt the same way, though she believed the school had set up barriers around GALA.
During the past school year, Brown and GALA worked together to expose Sacred Heart students to the performing arts. But Brown believes the effort may have come a little too late for the archdiocese. “When I first came [to teach at Sacred Heart], there was a sense of separateness—that the children would be in the way of the theater people,” recalls Brown. One of the only times Brown remembers interaction between GALA and the school in prior years was during a production of Fresa y Chocolate. Brown says she spotted one of the Cuban actors in the parking lot and asked him if he’d share his experiences with her class.
Brown may use the available space in the back of the theater for Sacred Heart’s art program and as a parent drop-in center. “I in no way want to silence Latino theater. I want to know the possibilities of theater, but at the same time I need to educate kids,” says Brown. “My hope is [that], as I educate kids, they’ll be advocates of their community….I want my kids to be painters, dancers, scientists. What GALA does is very compelling. If I could find a space for them, I would.”
Read Medrano, in turn, understands the school’s needs, but says she used to hope that the church would be more open to further negotiations. As Medrano wanders around the renovated auditorium, she says she’d like it if the archdiocese’s plans preserved GALA’s longtime home. “I hope they manage not to tear down this beautiful space,” she says, “and keep it as a public facility.” CP