On Jan. 6-10, PlayMakers Repertory Company will ring in the New Year with Highway 47, playwright and performer KJ Sanchez’s critically acclaimed one-woman show dramatizing what the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s professional-theater-in-residence calls “a true tale of tangled history, family politics, and land rights in a high-desert New Mexico town” and “a theatrical exploration of family, community, and the importance of place.”
Starting tonight, Highway 47 will be presented in the intimate confines of the 265-seat Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre in UNC-Chapel Hill’s Center for Dramatic Art as part of the regional theater’s provocative PRC2 second-stage series of timely, topical plays, followed after each performance by lively post-show discussions between the theater artists and selected subject-matter experts and the audience.
When Highway 47 premiered in 2012 at the Yo Solo Festival in Chicago, devoted works by Latino artists, the Chicago Sun-Times reviewer wrote: “KJ Sanchez’s Highway 47 (directed by Lisa Portes) is a riveting account, deeply rooted in New Mexico history, of a daughter trying to come to terms with her father (and herself). She does so by chronicling the tale of his lifelong obsession with a piece of land settled three centuries before him, and of the endless decades of litigation and vitriol he set in motion in the name of justice. What she discovers, and renders with brutal honesty, is the complex nature of her father’s quest, as well as the relentlessness of spirit she shares with the man. A tour de force performer and powerful writer, Sanchez (who, along the way does a fiery Mexican folk dance) should make a movie about her father’s life.”
A Chicago Tribune writer added: “Program B [of the 2012 Yo Solo Festival] kick[ed] off with KJ Sanchez’s docu-memory piece Highway 47. Sanchez, a hugely entertaining storyteller, well-served here by Lisa Portes’ direction, recounts the tangled history of the Tome land grant — a vast tract originally deeded by Spain in the 18th century to a group of families in what is now New Mexico, which became the centerpiece of acrimonious litigation involving Sanchez’s father beginning in the 1960s. She adroitly untangles a complicated thicket of legal proceedings, class conflict and family resentments.”
Playwright and performer KJ Sanchez notes “The very first line of Highway 47 is ‘My mother asked me not to tell you this story until she was dead. She wanted me to and, for most of my adult life, asked me to … but not until she was gone. This is the absolute truth. This is a story that my mom wanted told, but it’s so personal that she didn’t want to be around to see it. Well, actually, the part about not wanting to be around to see it is not exactly true. She was, in fact, around when I created the first iteration of this play, but that version did not have any of my father’s actions in it. I needed to wait a while before diving into my father’s role in these historical events.”
Sanchez adds, “Everything in the play really happened, and is well documented — in state archives, court records, and many newspaper articles. Our town and our family became rather famous, because of the feud over the rights to the Tome Land Grant. This is a part of American history that not many people know; and aside from my mom’s request, I also felt the burning need to write it, because it’s important to me that fellow Americans know a bit about the history of the Southwest, which was once called New Spain. I also think it’s relevant because the central theme — a daughter coming to terms with her father’s actions — is something that all of us can relate to in one way or another.”
KJ Sanchez recalls, ” This first time I wrote this play was about 15 years ago. That first iteration was written for an ensemble of 10 actors. The actors and I went back to my town, Tome, New Mexico, and conducted interviews together. See, the play is about my family, who has lived in the same town of Tome and on the same land for 13 generations.
“My ancestors settled in 1680, and the town was founded in 1734, when the King of Spain gave my ancestors 250,000 acres of land, a land grant,” says Sanchez. “For hundreds of years, the descendants of those founders lived in Tome and communally shared that big piece of land, even up to when I was born. Then as I was growing up, a feud broke out over the rights to the land. This was a feud between cousins, between brothers.
“Lives were threatened; guns pulled in church; and after 15 years and over a hundred lawsuits, we lost the land, and all that was left was hatred and regret. My father was a central figure in this feud. Half the town thought he was a hero; the other half the devil himself. So, the first version of this play was the ‘safe’ version,” says Sanchez. “We didn’t name names, but rather did a general coverage of the entire feud, making characters out of amalgamations of the real people. This first version was about healing, and everyone from Tome came to see it (we produced it in Albuquerque), and that version was about both sides of the fight understanding that they were more similar than different.
“Then my mom passed away; and a year after her death, her request kept ringing in my ears, so I knew it was time to tell the whole truth, warts and all,” KJ Sanchez says. “I knew it needed to be a solo show, and I knew I had to tell it. I premiered that version in Chicago [in 2012]; and after that run, I have continued to re-write the story every time I tell it, because as I get older and change, the play must change as well.”
In addition to playwright, performer, and co-director KJ Sanchez and co-director Lisa Portes, the PlayMakers Repertory Company creative team for Highway 47 includes PlayMakers production manager Michael Rolleri; scenic designer Tommer Peterson; sound/lighting designer, and production manager Zach Williamson; media designer Alex Koch; and stage manager Denise Cardarelli.
In Highway 47, KJ Sanchez says, “I wear my own clothes, then put on a Ballet Folklorico skirt.” She adds, “I play myself, narrating; but I also play my mom [and] my dad, as well as some of my father’s enemies. These are all people I interviewed, with the exception of my father, who passed away many years ago. That dialogue comes from court reports, archives, and newspaper clippings or from personal memories.”
KJ Sanchez says, “I love this set. It’s a series of large parchments, on which Tommer Peterson has hand-painted maps of Tome and recreations of the actual lawsuits and meeting notes. It’s gorgeous. We also project onto this paper at various times, so you can see the land at the center of this great feud.”
She adds, “[Highway 47] is the most challenging thing I’ve ever done, because it’s so personal. It’s a huge risk just to get up there, be as present as possible, and share something with such high stakes. There’s much about my family’s history that I am proud of, but there are also those actions that I really struggle with, and I need to lay all that bare. It’s also a physical challenge, because I do a Ballet Folklorico dance in the middle of the play [and] sing a Mariachi tune[. In] general, the whole show is rather animated … and I’m not the spring chicken I used to be!”
SECOND OPINION: Jan. 6th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview mini-preview by Byron Wood: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/highway-47/Event?oid=4802998; and Jan. 1st Chapel Hill, NC Chapelboro.com interview with KJ Sanchez, conducted by Aaron Keck: http://chapelboro.com/news/arts/highway-47-brings-family-drama-to-playmakers/.
PlayMakers Repertory Company presents HIGHWAY 47, written and performed by KJ Sanchez, at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 6-9 and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Jan. 10 in the Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art, 150 Country Club Rd., Chapel Hill, NC 27514, on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.
TICKETS: Tickets start at $15. For single-ticket discounts, click https://playmakersrep.org/box-office/single-tickets/.
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GROUP RATES: 919-962-7529, email@example.com, or https://playmakersrep.org/box-office/groups-and-special-events/.
SHOW: http://playmakersrep.org/show/highway-47/ and https://www.playmakersrep.org/kj-sanchez-brings-highway-47-to-prc%C2%B2/.
UNC NEWS RELEASE: http://uncnews.unc.edu/2015/12/15/playmakers-continues-prc2-series-with-kj-sanchez-in-highway-47/.
PRESENTER: http://www.playmakersrep.org/, https://www.facebook.com/playmakersrep, https://twitter.com/playmakersrep, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PlayMakers_Repertory_Company, and http://www.youtube.com/user/PlayMakersRep.
PRC BLOG (Page to Stage): http://playmakersrep.blogspot.com/.
NOTE: After each performance, there will be a post-show discussion between the theater artists and selected subject-matter experts and the audience.
Highway 47 (2012 Chicago play): http://www.amrec.us/current-projects/2011/2/16/highway-47.html (American Records page).
KJ Sanchez (playwright and performer): http://www.amrec.us/about/ (American Records bio), http://www.playmakersrep.org/artists/kj-sanchez/ (PlayMakers Rep bio), and https://www.facebook.com/kj.sanchez.9 (Facebook page).
Lisa Portes (Chicago director): http://theatre.depaul.edu/about/faculty-and-staff/theatre-studies/Pages/lisa-portes.aspx (DePaul University faculty bio), http://www.playmakersrep.org/artists/lisa-portes/ (PlayMakers Rep bio), https://www.facebook.com/lisa.portes.3 (Facebook page), and https://twitter.com/lportes67 (Twitter page).
Robert W. McDowell has written articles for The News & Observer, The Raleigh Times, Spectator Magazine, CVNC, and Triangle Arts and Entertainment, all based in Raleigh. He edits and publishes two FREE weekly e-mail newsletters. Triangle Review provides comprehensive, in-depth coverage of local performing-arts events. (Start your FREE subscription by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org and typing SUBSCRIBE TR in the Subject: line.) McDowell also maintains a FREE list of movie sneak previews. (To subscribe, e-mail email@example.com and type SUBSCRIBE FFL FREE in the Subject: line.)