Professor’s play sheds light on modern-day prison system

Luis Alfaro’s play, Oedipus El Rey, is a modern retelling of the Greek tragedy and developed from Alfaro’s conversations, volunteer and political work. Photo from USC News.

Luis Alfaro’s method of writing is different from that of most playwrights. As an associate professor of dramatic writing, he never works alone. Alfaro develops his plays inside his community — constructing them from his conversations, volunteer work and political involvement in organizations.

“Every time I have an idea for a play, I find out what world it lives in and then I go to that world,” Alfaro said.

A reliance on community led Alfaro to explore the world of ex-prison inmates to help him develop Oedipus El Rey, a modern retelling of the Greek tragedy, which is running at The Public Theater in New York.

Alfaro said he started by interviewing people from Homeboy Industries, a gang prevention organization that supports formerly incarcerated people and is based in Los Angeles.

“It was really helpful … in terms of listening to people’s stories and being able to figure out why people get in gangs, [and] why people go to prison,” Alfaro said.

His interest in the prison system arose from reading about recidivism, or the relapse into criminal behavior. When Alfaro discovered that the recidivism rate for young men in the state of California was over 50 percent, he wondered what caused it.

In an effort to challenge his community and the high recidivism rates, Alfaro wrote Oedipus El Rey as an artistic medium for social change. He hoped that audience members would see the play and want to address the issues related to the prison system and its negative impact on young minority men.

“How do we talk about power? How do we talk about education? How do we talk about the violence of poverty?” Alfaro asked himself when writing the play.

In Alfaro’s belief that those issues affected the recidivism rate, he set his Greek tragedy in a modern-day prison. Alfaro saw he could still use the play to comment on today’s prison system, although the original Greek tragedy is thousands of years old.

“I love it when the audience comes in and they start watching this play and it’s all about them, the prisoners, and at some point,  [the audience] starts to think that ‘them’ is us,” Alfaro said. “If we start talking about these young men of color who are in prison as our children, then we want to go into action, right? In some ways, I am trying to change the language from them to us.”

Alfaro said he has two goals as a playwright. One is to see more people of color in mainstream stories so they can have agency over their narratives and tell the stories that are really important to them. Alfaro said Oedipus El Rey gave him the rare opportunity to use an all-Latinx cast.

“I got to have an all-people of color design team and even my backstage crew is all women of color,” Alfaro said.

Having the ability to have a minority cast and crew provided members of these groups the opportunity to work on mainstream stories relating to issues impacting their communities, Alfaro added.

Alfaro’s second goal is to shepherd the next generation of artists. He wants USC students to take a playwriting class, focus on writing great plays instead of getting an agent, stay loyal to writing, network and submit to theaters and festivals.

“How I work in [the] community is interesting to students,” Alfaro said. “When a student wants to know how to do this work, I say to them you’ve got to just become part of the world that you live in.”