Punk rock playwright Diana Burbano is always true to herself

Playwright Diana Burbano immigrated with her family from Colombia to Cleveland when she was 3 years old, then to San Jose when she was 9 years old. It wasn’t easy and Burbano struggled at school. “I went to seven or eight schools because I couldn’t hack it in any of them,” she says. “One of the things they said was that I didn’t write.”

That’s because she couldn’t, says Burbano. Not by hand. She credits her later life in letters to the laptop’s autocorrect feature. “It changed my life because I didn’t feel ashamed of what I wrote anymore,” she says, sitting on the patio of her Long Beach apartment with seagulls cawing in the distance.

After years of acting (Burbano is classically trained, including in London), she began writing plays in her thirties. Writing her own material served as a corrective to her lived experience of what she describes as “hot tamale” parts: Anita on “West Side Story” or Bianca on “Kiss Me, Kate.”

“It’s really not me,” Burbano recalls of those tokenized roles — roles that suggest Latinx culture is a monolith that needs to be reduced to a single essence: what it means to be brown in the world . As if there was only one answer. After that, Burbano began writing for himself.

One of her earliest pieces was about Cuban-born artist Ana Mendieta, who created cathartic works using natural materials such as mud, grass and blood and died at the age of 36 after falling from her 34th-floor apartment in Greenwich Village . The sculptor Carl Andre, her husband, was accused of pushing Mendieta out the window; he was later acquitted. “I don’t think she ever got her debt, and he still lives in the same apartment,” says Burbano. The experience also made Burbano realize that she enjoyed writing plays rather than acting in them.

The Bay Area’s Alter Theater, a champion of underrepresented voices, commissioned Burbano’s first published play, Ghosts of Bogotá. It won the nuVoices Festival at the Actor’s Theater of Charlotte in 2019 and made its debut in 2020 aged.

Ghosts of Bogotá follows a trio of Americanized siblings on their journey back to Colombia to clean up their grandfather’s apartment after his death. It’s an unsettling mission; Her grandfather sexually abused her. The siblings come to terms with their family history when the ghosts of their grandfather and grandmother appear to them – who failed to protect the children and pretended the bad things hadn’t happened. “How can we forgive her? And do we forgive him? I mean, do we have that capacity?” asks Burbano. “We have this tradition of a big matriarchy. And yet we keep all these secrets, manly secrets, really painful secrets.”

Her own family kept those kinds of secrets, which Burbano explains is partly why she felt so isolated growing up. Her family did their best to blend in with the States while suppressing the uncomfortable truths she would eventually expose through her art. “As a Latinx woman, I want to show people that you can be really angry and you can be messy and you can’t be a nice person. And that’s perfectly fine,” says Burbano.

Burbano credits playwright Luis Alfaro, who mentored her at East LA Rep, for helping her stay true to her authentic writing self. She wanted to write about what could have happened if Joan Jett and Linda Ronstadt had been in a band together when they were younger.

“I thought, ‘Well, maybe I should write a little more Latino because this is a Latino writing group and I’m always told that my stuff isn’t Latino enough,'” she says. “And Luis was like, ‘What do you want to write? Just write it.’”

Since then, she says, she’s felt the freedom of being a Latinx writer exploring what it means to be a human being in the world—based on her personal identity and independent choices.

Burbano is also fascinated with history – particularly what one can learn about our inner workings through lineage. She is currently part of the Geffen Playhouse Writers’ Workshop, delving into a project called Beheading Columbus, which was inspired in part by protests toppling public statues steeped in white supremacy.

“What’s it like to be so divided in your body, to have indigenous people, to have very traumatized people in your body, and then to have the conqueror’s blood in your body?” she says of the play. “To have you both. And they fight.”

Burbano often wonders what life was like for her ancestors. Who they loved, what secret pain they bore, what triumphs they shared, what legacy they left behind. It’s difficult to find out more because records in Latin America aren’t so good, she says. Her husband, on the other hand, she jokes, can trace his family line back to Magna Carta.

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2022-11-03/diana-burbano-la-vanguardia Punk rock playwright Diana Burbano is always true to herself

Sarah Ridley

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