By Jaclyn Jermyn
Just as the company of American Mariachi was finishing their final dress rehearsal at production partner Dallas Theater Center in March of 2020, the theater world as they knew it was put on pause. Now, nearly a year-and-a-half later, Director Henry Godinez traces his path from Dallas back to the Goodman stage and how that time has helped him dive deeper into the play’s emotional depths.
In your eyes, what are the big themes in American Mariachi?
It’s about love—love of family, love of music and also love of tradition, but finding new ways to look at tradition. Mariachi music is traditionally an all-male musical form. It’s so poignant right now in our society, the way women are staking their claim. I think it’s about women saying “no” and “we get to choose, we get to decide this tradition belongs to us too.” So it’s a play about love, music, community and the way traditions can become more inclusive and representative.
This production was having its final dress rehearsal at Dallas Theater Center when it was halted due to COVID-19. How does it feel to finally be getting it back up on stage—especially the Goodman stage?
It’s going to feel great to both finish it—a final dress rehearsal is far from the finished product—and to bring it home. Half the cast is from Chicago and half the cast is from Dallas so I think the Chicago actors are really excited to welcome them to our city as they did for us when we were in Dallas.
Have the events of the past year-and-a-half colored how you interpret this story?
I believe in theater—maybe in art in general—contrast is a very powerful thing. In the past year-and-a-half, we’ve come to learn just how precious and vulnerable life is. I’m excited to go back into this play and look at it on an even deeper level. It’s a very funny and touching play. The more that we really delve into that humanity and what it means to care for a family member who is struggling not just with physical health, but mental health as well, the more poignant it will be. At the same time, I believe we’ll also be able to mine more of the humor and charm present.
Between American Mariachi and performances in Chicago parks of Fannie Lou Hamer, Speak On It! and Zulema—for all of which you were a director—there are clear common elements of telling big stories through music, but they aren’t what audiences might recognize as musical theater. Why are you drawn to these kinds of productions?
As a director, I’m not what you would call a musical theater person, but to be able to work on plays where music is centrally positioned is super cool. I love music, I’ve always loved music. And I think that music is probably the most direct way to get to the soul of a person—and to really move a person emotionally and psychologically. It’s been really special to work on these three plays. I think for non-traditional audiences, it’s an automatic invitation to give themselves over to the work. It really touches them on a very basic human level.
My great mentor Luis Valdez said sometimes when people can’t come to the theater, we have to take theater to the people. I’ve been so blessed in my work at the Goodman to really champion underrepresented voices, particularly in the Latinx community. It’s been really moving to take these performances into the community and see the way that people respond to them. It’s been a huge gift to me.
What can audiences about to watch American Mariachi have to look forward to?
Audiences can look forward to having a really good time. I think they can also expect to look into what it means to be a part of a family in the traditional and non-traditional sense. They are coming back into the theater and reconnecting with this sense of community, what it means to be a part of the audience—but also a part of a larger human community—and finding that common ground that all of us share as human beings.