In the fourth grade I learned that our California Missions were founded by the good friars who wanted to help the Indians live and save their souls when they died. The Indians’ views on this project were not discussed, nor were their descendants in evidence in Santa Cruz where I grew up.
This was around 1948. America had won the war and made the world safe for democracy. The doctrines of American Exceptionalism seemed self-evident to my nine-year-old brain. Discovery of people for whom democracy itself was dangerous—that was not on my horizon.
I was a little secular evangelist, convinced that the spirit of California would lead America, and then the world, to a condition of peace, and prosperity. My parents were progressives, Liberal Republicans, convinced Optimists. I would go on to win speech contests sponsored by the Santa Cruz Optimists Club. It was a wonderful world.
As the years passed troubling news had to be absorbed: Korea, McCarthyism, racial conflict, Mutually Assured Destruction, the murders of Kennedy, King, and Kennedy, Vietnam. The list went on.
I learned critical thinking. My early education had hidden all manner of ugliness about the imperfections of the “American Experiment.”
Especially, it was Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee that made me confront my sentimental notions of the California Missions. It angered me that I had been so eager to swallow lies transmitted by well-meaning teachers and relatives. I discovered that I still harbored emotions invested in the Peaceable-Kingdom myth. I had to do something about it.
Since I was becoming a dramatist, the thing I had to do was write plays, dramatize the suppressed truths about my heritage. The obstacles were considerable. How to write a play about Native Californians without poaching on their preserve? Who would produce such a play by a pale-skin? Likewise for the Chinese immigrants who built the railroad. How could a round-eyes presume? Or the Mexicans born here who, in 1848, were made aliens with the signing of a treaty thousands of miles away. I thought about it for twenty years. I amassed a lot of historical tidbits.
In the mid 1990s I was working at Sierra Repertory Theatre, in Sonora, California, in the foothills couple of hours west of Yosemite. Local history was conducive to thinking about my long-delayed project. After all:
The Central Sierra Miwok were still around. There had been atrocities during the Gold Rush.
There had been a fugitive slave case in the 1850s.
There had been a lot of Chinese before the burning of the 16 chinatowns in the West and the pogroms during the Long Depression of the 1870s and the build up to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882..
In 1857 a couple of local boys signed up with Henry Crabb. They went filibustering to claim the Mexican State of Sonora for Uncle Sam—enter the Union as a slave territory. Their whole party was massacred in the town of Caborca.
So I proposed to the Theatre that I write and direct for them a trio of one-person plays derived from local history—about 45 minutes each—to tour to regional schools. This would be their educational outreach project for 1995-96. The Theatre agreed and I was off and running.
The plays in this series were:
Friendly Fire, about the Gold Rush and the Miwok
Gunpower Man, about the Chinese and the building of the Central Pacific Railroad
Corrido de un Sobreviviente, about a young Mexican who gets caught up in Crabb’s invasion of Mexico in 1857
These plays (which are described on their own pages) all toured and earned positive reviews from teachers and students. I felt that I had stumbled upon an approach that deserved expansion. Nevertheless Sierra Rep decided this was not an avenue they wished to pursue. Friendly Fire was taken on as an interpretive program at Yosemite National Park and Stage 3, another Sonora theater group, asked me to expand Gunpowder Man to a full length play. It received rave reviews from the Stockton and Modesto press.
I couldn’t let go of the project. I started dreaming of a company whose mission would focus on exploring cultural conflict via stories that were carefully researched, exciting, often funny, and dramatizing characters growing in compassion through tragic circumstances. I called an old friend, Tom Maguire, for whom I had written two major roles and asked him would he be interested? He answered, “Yes.”
This was the birth of Duende.