MFA playwright Mauricio Miranda explores the Occupy Movement alongside the magic and trauma of his Peruvian roots
By Bruce Walsh
Last fall MFA playwright Mauricio Miranda directed an Indiana University student production, while writing his own play for the mainstage and acting in a professional production of Streetcar Named Desire at Cardinal Stage. All in the same week.
With so much on his shoulders, his fellow playwrights marvel at his ability to write prolifically. (His new play, Occupants, opens March 25th, in At First Sight, IU Theatre’s repertory of new plays.)
Since immigrating to the U.S. from Peru in 2005, Miranda has feverishly pursued his own version of the American dream, but has also wrestled with the shadows that come along with heightened ambitions and expectations.
In American Asteroid – which debuted in the 2015 At First Sight – he explored the violent underbelly of American ambition, utilizing exaggerated, grotesque characters, influenced heavily by Quentin Tarantino’s wry-yet-brutal approach to storytelling. (He admits his favorite English tutors as a kid were Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Kill Bill.)
“With Asteroid I just wanted to hold up a mirror, and tell people, ‘Look at how effed up we are.’ But now that that’s out of my system, I think I’d like to write a play that doesn’t depress people,” he says, sitting in IU Theatre’s offices in the Lee Norvelle Theatre and Drama Center.
Miranda’s American adventure has taken him through some challenging twists and turns: in and out of rural Tennessee, to the bright lights of New York City, and now to Indiana University.
In 2005 a wide-eyed 18-year-old Miranda suddenly found himself plopped down in western Tennessee at a conservative Christian College, Freed-Hardemen University. Recruited to play tennis for the school, he soon discovered there wasn’t much of a plan to help him with the language adjustment.
But as soon as he discovered the theater, his English skills took off.
“I think theater opened up some channels within me that I’m not even aware of,” he explains. “I know a bunch of people I played against that won tennis scholarships to go to the states, and none of them are as fluent as I am – to this day.”
Miranda was a star youth player in Peru. As a teenager he decided not to push for a professional career. But he knew it could be a ticket to the United States.
“Ever since I was old enough to watch movies, I always had the idea… One day I’m going to go to America and be a director, writer, or actor,” he explains. “When I think of it now, the idea that I thought western Tennessee was going to be my big break is pretty funny. But, honestly, I was like, ‘Yeah, whatever, I’ll play tennis for you, just get me to the states, and I’ll figure it out from there.’”
Upon graduation, he made his way to New York, living for a short time in Hamilton Heights and colliding head-on with the 2011 Occupy moment. The experience brought with it a barrage of contradicting thoughts and feelings.
“I fundamentally agreed with what they were trying to say, but I also struggled with the fact that a lot of the people standing next to me had it a lot better than most of the people I lived next to in Hamilton Heights,” he explains. “I looked at the people I lived alongside of, and they weren’t as well off as I was. They’ve been here their whole lives; I just got here like five minutes ago. It sort of crushed my youthful perceptions of America.”
In Occupants Miranda’s main character, Gabi, is a 19-year-old first-generation Peruvian-American. She finds herself frustrated by her mother’s traumatized perceptions – caused by the Peruvian internal conflicts of the 1980s – while negotiating her own struggle to make a life for herself in New York City. But when Gabi gets swept up by the Occupy movement, she finds that trauma and struggle can be appropriated by others for private gain.
While investigating the political history of his native Peru, Miranda found himself drawn to his literary heritage as well. Unlike anything he’s attempted before, Occupants utilizes aspects of magical realism, giving it a startlingly different tone than American Asteroid.
“When you grow up in Peru and you like to read, you’re going to read Gabriel Garcia Marquez at some point. It’s sort of unavoidable,” he says. “So I kind of wanted to jump into magical realism – see what it had to offer this story. But I hope that the magical realism of the play doesn’t make people go, ‘Oh, he’s Latin American, of course this is how he’s going to write.’”
“I want it to speak specifically to this play: We begin in a place of trauma, and end in resolution. Sometimes that requires a little magic.”
OCCUPANTS plays in the Wells-Metz Theatre, March 25, 26, and April 1, 2016 @ 7:30 p.m. with a matinee on April 2 @ 2:00 p.m. Tickets at theatre.indiana.edu.