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West Side story: LatinUs Theater thrives in Cleveland's Pivot Center

It's been five years since the LatinUs Theater company in Cleveland launched, and, despite the pandemic shutdown, its journey continues.

LatinUs Theater puts on Spanish-language productions from a black box space in the Pivot Center for Art, Dance and Expression in Clark-Fulton, the heart of Cleveland's Latino community.

Founded by Monica Torres, who remains the executive artistic director and one of the staple actors in the troupe, LatinUs Theater is a nonprofit that started with funding from Neighborhood Connections and Cuyahoga Arts and Culture. Since then, Gund Foundation, Cleveland Foundation and others have helped the theater grow.

"It had been a bunch of people helping us, you know, giving the support, believing in our work, giving us the the money... that have been adding to our list to be able to have our dream come true," Torres said.

"It's been awesome," said LatinUs actor Jono Rodriguez, referring to people in the neighborhood coming to the plays. "It's really cool when you can give them a show in their language."

The company started out without a permanent stage, touring college campuses and other spaces to give their performances and doing one show per season.

In 2019, while doing a radio interview, Torres mentioned that they needed a space and real estate developer Rick Foran, owner of the Pivot Center for Art, Dance and Expression, heard the interview.

"I said, 'Well, we need our own space, because right now we're just going all over Cleveland. And it's very hard to be a traveling company and moving everything– sets and people and everything that is needed– to different places, different colleges where we were presenting,'" Torres said.

The Pivot Center offered an elegant solution to LatinUs' problem, right in the center of the neighborhood they wanted to serve.

"The next day he offered me the space of the black box theater here in the building on the first floor," said Torres.

The Pivot Center now also counts Inlet Dance Theatre, the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Rainey Institute among its many tenants.

Since moving into the Pivot Center, LatinUs has increased their output.

"Now we're doing three shows per season, and we have our big show in September-October, which is when we celebrate the month of Hispanic heritage," Torres said.

Their next show in September is "Los Soles Truncos," written by Puerto Rican writer René Marqués in 1958. The play is a tale of the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Puerto Rico, during the Spanish-American War, seen through the eyes of a trio of sisters, heirs to a hacienda, who barricade themselves in their home to avoid the maelstrom outside their door.

"We like to bring classical theatre from Latin America and even from Spain that have a theme, that have a purpose, that have in between the lines, something to tell about our story," said Torres. "About, you know, South American countries that have suffered from these governments who have been ruling like dictators– they have been dictators– and how people have suffered."

Reaching across the Hispanic diaspora

LatinUs Theater has a relatively small roster of regular actors thus far, but they are growing across the Spanish-speaking communities of Northeast Ohio.

Omar De La Cruz Cabrera is a professor at Kent State University in the Department of Mathematics. He grew up in Venezuela and acted there.

"When I get the chance, I like to participate. And it is a lot of fun," Cabrera said.

"I would say maybe we are four or five actors, but it's kind of hard to find people that speak Spanish because all our shows are in Spanish," Torres said.

The shows are presented with supertitles, projected above the stage so audiences who don't speak Spanish can follow.

Raul Duran is a professional actor from Cuba who has performed in Chicago, Miami and other major American cities. He came to Cleveland to perform in LatinUs' most recent show, "Gloria."

"You see a lot of American people coming to see the show using the captions, the supertitles. And I'm happy about it, because in Miami, in my experience, it's more separate. It's not like this. I see a lot of Americans come to see the show, which is very nice. And of course, Latin Americans," said Duran.

A family affair

Torres has been involved in theater since she was young, but both her and her husband, Reinaldo Garcia, are doctors by profession. Garcia is the director of pediatric gastroenterology at Akron Children's Hospital, and he has almost no stage experience, unlike his wife. Nonetheless, Garcia plays a prominent role in LatinUs' activities and even took the stage as an actor for the first time in their most recent show.

"I'm not an actor," said Garcia firmly. "They needed one actor to play a small role. That is the one that I accepted... this is my first time, as you say, and most likely it's gonna be the last one. But I really enjoyed being with this fantastic group of actors. You know, I learned a lot from them... So it was fun to be in the other in the other side of of a play."

Garcia helps LatinUs with lighting, gripping, basically anything that they don't already have someone on the payroll to handle.

"Even though, you know, it is a small theater, we have a small budget compared with other theaters. We pay everybody. We pay the actors, we pay the technicians, we pay everybody," said Torres.

Everyone, that is, except the board members like Torres and Garcia. This is a labor of love for the couple.

As their scope widens, LatinUs is branching out into new partnerships, as they seek new sources of funding for future projects, and it will even branch out of purely Spanish-language plays as they soon tackle a play with some English speaking parts.

"Next year we're actually presenting 'Tropical Macbeth.' It is an adaptation of Macbeth written by John David Arresto, you know, with the main idea that is 'Macbeth,' but in a tropical island," Torres said.

They'll also be tackling their first play written in another language and translated into Spanish.

"Next year we're going to have kind of an international year for Latinos," she said.

Ygal Kaufman is a multiple media journalist with Ideastream Public Media.