Earlier this week, I sat down with Melanie Queponds, the creative director of the Latino/a Play Project and a fifth-year theater and English double major here at UCR, to discuss the group’s mission, history and plans for the future. During our talk, she used a Spanish phrase that caught my attention, “ni de aqui o de aya,” or, “neither here nor there.”
Queponds related this expression to Chicano/a identity, and what it really means to feel like one from two separate places, or caught in between truly belonging to either. It’s a complex status — one that the organization explores through theatre.
The Latino/a Play Project was founded by then UCR professor Dr. Tiffania Lopez in 2012. Since then, they have risen in numbers to about 20 members and have hosted a variety of Latino-inspired productions.
Last year, they were awarded the prestigious Chancellor’s Research Fellowship, which enabled them to begin hosting more performances.
Originally they hosted what was called, “Segundo Jueves,” or, “Second Thursday,” during which they would perform professional plays (sometimes with guest artists) as concert readings, meaning the script is available for the actors on a music stand.
They now host a show once a quarter, rather than once a month. Before each show, there are only about six rehearsals, which keeps the actors on their toes.
Last year, they did a rendition of “Mariachi Girl,” which won over audience members with its determined protagonist: A girl who dreams of becoming a mariachi player despite her conservative father’s belief that she should not. Traditionally, mariachi is practiced by men, but the heroine in this play fights to establish herself as a female mariachi musician.
Queponds says that when looking for a script, what they look for is something that resonates and “a character that makes you say, ‘wow.’”
This year they have a couple of different shows scheduled. One, which will be done at the annual Tomas Rivera Conference, is called “Tomas and the Library Lady,” and is based on the children’s book with the same name. It’s about UCR’s very own Tomas Rivera, for whom the Rivera Library is named. Every year at the Rivera Conference, his work for the university and as an artist is remembered. The Latino/a Play Project contributes to the conference every year.
“We’ve grown at a really exponential rate I feel,” Queponds said of the group’s success, “It’s been kind of a whirlwind going from trying to email people and just trying to get them to go to our shows to having 260 people fill up the atrium — standing room only.”
Queponds herself has been acting since age three, and says that really what the Project is about is “letting people have their voices be heard,” along with bringing more diverse theater to Riverside.
In the future, she hopes that the group will branch out from the Culver Center (even though they all love it and think of it has their home), to travel and perform at other schools and maybe even become its own theater company.
In the meantime, the Latino/a Play Project will continue providing the Riverside community with a well-rounded, inclusive theatre experience. All of the Project’s shows are held at the Culver Center in downtown Riverside and are free to students and the community.