KPBS AIRDATE: November 15, 1995
It’s been a long road for Tiburcio Vasquez. All he did was steal some horses, rob a few stores, kiss a few women. He maintained to the end that he never killed a soul. But in 1875, he was the last man to be legally and publicly hanged in California . While his murder trial was going on in San Jose , a melodrama about his life was being staged several blocks away! (Sound familiar? For more on that more recent spectacle, see “OJ: The Musical” at the Hahn Cosmopolitan Theatre).
But back to Tiburcio. He was hunted down by an anti-Mexican vigilante group called a posse comitatus. And he hasn’t been hailed a hero by Mexicans or Mexican-Americans, since he was a Californio, born into a landed family: dashing, educated, fully bilingual, a poet. He was therefore felt to be a Spanish aristocrat, and therefore aligned with the despised, imperialistic conquistadors. So even though he was a freedom fighter, a California Robin Hood who stole from the Anglos who stole land from the Mexicans, he hasn’t held a prominent place in local history.
Along comes Chicano playwright Luis Valdez, he of “La Bamba” and “Zoot Suit,” founder and artistic director of the politically charged Teatro Campesino. He does a workshop of a new play, “Bandido!”, a revision of the history of the Old West, an American melodrama of a notorious California bandit. In 1994, the piece opens the season at the Mark Taper Forum in L.A. It is roundly trashed by critics and audiences alike. Poor Tiburcio can’t get a break.
Enter William Virchis, professor and artistic director of Southwestern College ’s Theatre Department. He’d seen the workshop production of “Bandido!” and loved the script. But he knew it needed help. He obtained permission from Valdez to mount the World College Premiere of the play. Virchis reworks and reorganizes the script, and solicits the help of Joseph Julian Gonzalez to write music. He gets 32 Latino students onstage and enters the production in the American College Theatre Festival.
For the role of Tiburcio, he brings in the charismatic Gabriel Romero, who was so dynamic in the recent Centro Cultural production of “Roosters.” Romero bears a rather frightening resemblance to Tiburcio Vasquez, and from every pore, he exudes the suave, irresistible charm of the notorious bandit. The musical powerhouse of the evening is the familiar voice of Laura Preble, who plays the worldly-wise madam of Tiburcio’s favorite brothel.
The other ladies of the evening flirt with the audience. An onstage guitar plays mournful Mexican melodies. Virchis crams in everything he can from his bicultural background. There’s hokey vaudeville and Mexican carpa. There’s a melodrama within a melodrama, and revisions of revisionist history. Things get a bit unfocused; sometimes Virchis is true to his comic vision of a ‘tortilla Western,’ but sometimes things get too serious. Yet some of the stage pictures are beautiful. The story is very intriguing, and it needs to be told. The script still needs reworking, but it has potential. Maybe Virchis will bring in a fourth regional college finalist. Maybe Valdez will do more trimming. Maybe the music will fit into the script more comfortably. And maybe, at long last, Tiburcio Vasquez will get his just notoriety.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1995 Patté Productions Inc.