When playwright Diana Burbano sat down to write “Ghosts of Bogotá,” something scared the hell out of her.
It wasn’t having to create a character based on herself, which she did with self-deprecating sharpness, full transparency and lots of good humor. It was looking her siblings in their eyes and telling them they were coming along for the ride as well.
Burbano remembers the moment when she informed her brother and sister about their roles in her play.
“That was horrifying. I still want to throw up thinking about it,” said Burbano.
Later on, Burbano’s sister had a concern.
“She texted me and wanted to know if I put her tattoo in the show as well.”
Despite the uneasy feelings that those memories bring to Burbano, her siblings supported the story she wanted to tell.
“They’ve both been really great about it, and during the preview they brought friends, so it seemed to be ok,” said Burbano. “The three of us try to make an effort to be honest with each other, which wasn’t always the way we were brought up.”
Alter Theater in San Rafael is presenting the world premiere of “Ghosts of Bogotá,” which won the 2019 Theatre Bay Area Rella Lossy Award which goes to an emerging playwright who will see a full production of their play in a given time period. The play, running through Feb. 23, has been driven greatly by Alter’s founder and artistic director Jeanette Harrison, who provided the play with its initial reading at the company’s 2018-2019 Alter Lab for new plays.
The play is a heavily biographical dark comedy where a set of siblings in their 20s and 30s – drama queen Lola, do-gooder Sandy and their hedonistic baby brother Bruno return to their parent’s home country of Colombia to bury their grandfather, a man who refuses to stay dead.
Their grandfather is not the only person who is stubborn when it comes to his ability to stay down in the ground. Family trauma and secrets will also not stay buried, and another huge theme in the play, the potential of what home can be, is broached as well. The characters, much like Burbano, have struggled with figuring out how to define home.
Burbano, 40, was born in Colombia, migrated to Cleveland when she was three, and grew up in San José from the age of ten. She ultimately graduated from Archbishop Mitty High School and moved to Southern California shortly after, where she entered a professional actor training program.
She still lives down south, a resident of Long Beach. And while she’s done plenty of acting, her playwright work is driven by what she can contribute to the American theatre, a place where every type of story has the potential to be shared.
“I love giving a part to a Latinx actress who can play a character trying to figure things out,” said Burbano. “It’s not tragedy porn or a melodrama, but it’s a person living a life and figuring things out, which is my favorite thing about it. She gets to live what I think is an interesting life on stage.
“Letting a woman be unlikable yet you like her – it’s nice to see a Latina woman on stage doing that.”
One of the thrills of this premiere is giving audiences a chance to see characters that live within a very specific ecosystem. Many Latinx people often feel trapped between two worlds – the world of the United States and the world of their home country. So much nuance exists within that sphere, and while plenty of women playwrights are sharing incredible stories, Burbano hopes to fill a void she feels is extremely large.
“Sarah Ruhl and Paula Vogel, for example, are playwrights who write beautiful women roles, but they are not Latinx,” said Burbano. “I strive to write great parts, especially for Latinx women. It feels like one hell of a privilege, giving people things that are interesting things to do, and something different.
“I don’t want to write the part of ‘the guy’ or ‘the friend’ – someone that can be described in one word.”
For so many brown actors searching for identities on stages big and small, one aspect of this cast of nine thrills Burbano to no end, a strong piece of poetic justice she can give to the world.
“It makes me so happy that I’m giving nine Latinx actors a job today.”
Diana Burbano Online:
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
Alter Theater presents “Ghosts of Bogota”
Written by Diana Burbano
1200 Fourth Street (at B Street)
San Rafael, CA
Through Feb. 23rd
Tickets range from $15 – $49
For tickets, call (408) 454-2787 or visit https://www.altertheater.org/