THEATER | “Oedipus el Rey” illuminates a dreary fate


According to a report by the the Annie E. Casey Foundation, youth of color represent 41 percent of the overall U.S. youth population, but more than two-thirds of those who are detained in juvenile detention. The report states that in 2003, youth of color were detained at rates higher than white youth in 48 out of the 50 states and in the District of Columbia. The rate has doubled over the past two decades.

Those numbers aren’t only attributable to a disparity in likelihood to commit crimes. According to the Casey report, while African-American youth constitute approximately 28 percent of those arrested, they comprise 37 percent of those detained.

oedipus el rey, presented at the lab theater through march 27. for tickets ($15) and information, see

In addition to these disparities between youth of color and white youth, research shows that in fact, detention is not the best solution. In a study sponsored by the Cambell Collaboration, it was found that juveniles following official processing are more likely to identify themselves (and be identified by others) as “delinquent.”

The Cradle-to-Prison-Pipeline serves as the political backdrop for Luis Alfaro’s play Oedipus el Rey, now being presented by Teatro del Pueblo and Pangea World Theater at The Lab Theater. Set alternately in a barrio in Los Angeles and a California prison, the play takes the concept of fate from Sophocles’s ancient play Oedipus and suggests that in today’s society, youth of color who are born in poverty are tracked toward prison from the very beginning. 

It is a harrowing message, and one that offers little hope. The current production by Teatro and Pangea offers little joy, little room for the possibility that things could change. Rather, we see just an endless cycle of despair.

The set, beautifully designed by Tom Mays, includes hanging bars surrounding the stage, as if all of the characters are trapped in circumstances they cannot control.

Alfaro’s use of language is wonderful, capturing a poetic musicality sprinkled with Chicano vernacular. Ricardo Vázquez, as Oedipus, is master of this language, and his emotional range is quite impressive. However, not all of the actors reach his level of vocal articulation and musicality, and in the Lab’s cavernous acoustics, many of the actors’ voices are lost.

The chorus, too, lack cohesion. I’m not sure if it was a directorial choice to have the chorus not speak in unison, or if it was the actors’ inability to speak together, but when they spoke it sounded quite jarbled and I lost most of what they were saying.

Luis’s script asks questions about God, and the play is infused with an ancient spirituality signified by owls, indigenous music, and an awareness of powers outside of human power. Really, the spiritual elements add to the hopelessness of the whole piece, because if fate really is determined by God or by the gods, or by any kind of power besides the selfishness of humankind, why has/have He/She/They created such an unjust system?

I felt kind of broken after watching this play. It took me a week to even be able to write about it. It presented the story as dire, so miserable, so without any chance for change, I felt depressed. Is there really no hope? I mean, certainly there are people and organizations trying to change this system. Here in Minnesota we have people like Melvin Carter, and many organizations/initiatives that are working at changing the system, and working with kids who are at risk.

Can we not believe that the system can be fixed? Certainly the statistics for youth of color in detention are grim, as is the achievement gap. Perhaps Alfaro’s play serves as a wake-up call: yes, the situation is that bad. It’s Greek Tragedy bad. Now let’s do something to fix it.