Correction: A previous version of this article and headline misstated that "Johanna: Facing Forward" was the first bilingual play to be shown at the University. It is not the first bilingual play; it is the first play to be performed in both Spanish and English.
“Johanna: Facing Forward,” the first bilingual play to show at the University, is the story of a young woman surviving domestic violence, a journalist’s ethical boundaries and recovery story. It debuts Friday night.
The playwright and director, Tlaloc Rivas, said he was moved by the survival story of Johanna Orozco, a nationally recognized survivor of domestic violence. In 2007, Orozco’s life changed. Orozco is from Cleveland, Ohio and suffered gunshot wounds after she tried to break up with her then boyfriend.
The young Latina became known for showing her wounds to the public, becoming the face for the movement against domestic violence. Rivas was haunted by Orozco’s story and thought theatre would be the best platform to present it.
“What I like to say about the theatre is that it gives voice to the voiceless,” Rivas said. “There is an unspoken conversation that takes place between audiences and actors on stage and there is also a community sort of witnessing that happens when a live audience sees a show like that.”
Rivas, who is originally from California but now teaches at the University of Iowa, was asked by University theatre instructor Jane Barrett, to bring the show to the Kansas.
Rivas received his undergraduate degree at University of California-Santa Cruz, then went on to receive his graduate degree at the University of Washington in Seattle where he got his Master’s in directing. He has been directing plays for 20 years.
Rivas plays with a lot of different themes but said that performance explores what a healthy relationship looks like, the role of family and access to guns for violence offenders.
“Somewhat related is what constitutes a healthy relationship, especially when you go to college and how to navigate those waters when you are going to an environment where sexual assault is happening on campuses,” Rivas said. “I want to create a show that can not only be performed at colleges but at high schools because of the subject matter.”
Becca Huerter, one of the cast members playing Juanita Orozco and Pat London, said with Rivas as the director, the actors were able to connect with the issue threaded throughout the script.
“Having the playwright as our director was a great way for all of us to accurately and honestly connect with our characters and Johanna's story in general,” Huerter said. “Sexual assault is so prevalent in today's society and this piece informs and gives understanding to a topic that people forget about or don't want to address because when it isn't happening to you, you don't care as much.”
Alejandra Villasante, who is playing Johanna, is making her debut with this show and said she thinks it’s a powerful story.
“Based on what I was told about Johanna, I felt like I could really identify with her, not from the experience itself because I haven’t gone through anything as traumatic, but just based on what I was told about her life and the incident,” Villasante said.
Villasante is a junior from Peru and came to the University of Kansas in August of 2013. After she auditioned, she spent a lot of time doing research on Orozco and her story by reading articles and watching a lot of videos regarding the case.
“I feel like it’s something I can honor and I feel like it’s a really powerful story to tell and it’s worth it,” Villasante said.
Villasante said does her best to get into character by using her compassion and empathy to connect with characters on a deeper level.
Villasante said she is able to put herself in the place of the character and work her way from the inside out, which gives herself the opportunity to find more natural ways to portray the character, their objectives, actions, and obstacles.
“With Johanna, even though this isn’t something that I have directly experienced, I kind of connected with her through the fact that we as human beings, especially women, all suffer from some kind of assault or form of harassment,” Villasante said.
She also is able to identify with the amount of support Orozco’s family offered her during the time of the shooting.
“I won’t be able to exactly be her but I want to be able to portray her faithfully as a character and most of all, the ideas that she has, what she wants out of her life, and what she wants to do for other people,” Villasante said.
Though the play is very serious and hits on traumatic and heavy ideas, the cast will lighten the mood with musical numbers intermittently. Rivas hopes the audiences sees how a perfect relationship can change in a heartbeat and that it doesn’t matter who a person is or where they come from.
“I think most of us know someone or have been a part of an experience that has touched upon domestic violence, violence at home, or dating violence and this play touches on those issues,” Rivas said. “I hope that the play gives the audience the opportunity to think about and examine those issues.
Villasante said she hopes audiences gain a sense of empowerment, awareness, and hope.
“Be whatever it is, we all have something that we are struggling with and we all lose control over our own lives at some point or another,” Villasante said. “This is a story about how Johanna managed to survive and take control of her own life after this series of devastating events that could have ended her life in many ways but they didn’t.”
Villasante said the play needs to inspire people and empower them.
“It needs to create awareness that relationships can go to a toxic place really quick if the signs are not detected in the right moment and they aren’t discussed like they should be,” Villasante said.
Rivas said he does not plan on taking the show anywhere else on his own, but hopes that other people will ask for a copy and take it other places.
The show starts on Friday, Oct. 16 and runs through the 25. On Oct. 24, Rachel Dissell will host a talk-back after the show with a representative from the Willow Domestic Violence Center.
The cast members are also going to the Topeka Women’s correctional facility to perform a reading. Rivas hopes this gives them the opportunity to gauge their response on the play.
— Edited by Maddie Farber