Karen Zacarías on “The Copper Children” and How History Keeps Repeating Itself

Karen Zacarías

Throughout her career, Karen Zacarías has tackled a myriad of genres to create an oeuvre that speaks to the ways in which nothing is more quintessentially American than reinvention. From children’s plays to sumptuous telenovela-inspired melodramas, the Mexican-American playwright has married her cultural and intellectual sensibilities in a way that satisfies audience members, challenges what artistic directors deem works worthy of being produced, and has turned her into one of the most popular writers in the country.

Currently, Oregon Shakespeare Festival is streaming The Copper Children, a play inspired by what was once called “the Trial of the Century,” in which the custody battle for a child unveiled the ways in which class, religion and immigration intersected in people’s journeys to become American. The copper children in the show title were orphans, mostly Irish, who were put on trains as toddlers in 1904, to be adopted by families out West. In the play, one of those families is a Mexican couple, who is at risk of their adopted child being taken away from them.

I spoke to Zacarías about Copper Children, how she found her mission as a writer, writing during a pandemic, and telenovelas.

Is this the first play of yours that’s a premiere that’s happening not on stage but rather that was filmed and that’s going to be streamed? 

I had a Destiny of Desire which had already had a life day and it got canceled. It was going to be at the Guthrie [in Minneapolis], Cincinnati Playhouse [in Ohio] and Milwaukee Rep [in Wisconsin] and that got a stream. It had two weeks of performances [in Ohio], and right when they cancelled, they kept all the actors one more day to film it. And this one [Copper Children], we had two previews an opening night, and then it closed and they had just taped it for the understudy actors, which is what they do.

Destiny was filmed on purpose, knowing that it would be streamed, but this is taking the video that they already had and trying to make something out of it. So, we did have an opening, we had the two previews, opening and then I left and I think there was one more performance and then it closed. You always have a very weird schedule. As you know, you do previews and you go back to the rehearsal hall for two days. Because the other plays that are in rep are having previews and then you go back for another preview and you know. So anyway, it’s early in the process. These are before the play opens basically.

So there were three audiences that got to see the play live?

Yes, there were paying audiences that got to see it. Those audiences you see in it, were real paying audiences. My last normal day was opening night of this play, and I flew home and then we went to hell in a hand basket. 

Armando Durán, Carla Pantoja, Sarita Ocón and Eddie Lopez in “The Copper Children.” Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

You called it your last normal day, what have your non-normal days been since while you’re in quarantine?

Well in quarantine, I have three children and a husband and a dog, so I’m trying to keep a house joyful and safe. My husband got COVID early on in it, we didn’t know till afterwards. We’ve had lingering issues here, and my former agent died of COVID and his husband died of COVID and my best friend died, so there’s been a lot of loss. This was the biggest year of my career with The Copper Children opening and Destiny of Desire being in three theaters. I was doing a bilingual Romeo and Juliet so it’s weird to work for 25 years in the theater and have your best year and then of course it never happened.

In other ways we were lucky—we live in a house with windows that we can look outside and my children are not fighting with each other. We watched My Brilliant Friend and my parents are helping, so it’s that kind of thing—of taking pleasure in the small things, and from an hour to hour basis. I feel lucky. You are living by yourself, meanwhile I have a whole menagerie of people in my house and there’s other challenges, but it’s a different kind of challenge for sure. It’s a weird process, a weird way to both try to grieve and survive and move forward and be positive all at the same time. 

You mentioned finding pleasure in the small things. Maybe because I spend so much time by myself, I have come to realize that those small things are the big things. I wonder if your writing ritual, if you have one, has changed, or have you found a new way to connect with your pen and paper, or hand in keyboard, that you hadn’t or that you weren’t aware you could before quarantine? 

As a writer you always want more time. I travel a lot for my work and all of that, and so suddenly there’s all of this time, but it’s also a little bit like running through water, so it doesn’t really feel real, it’s a little disconnected. I know some people have been really productive. I’ve been productive but mostly in other genres. I’ve been doing genres that aren’t theater per se, like a little bit of TV, a little bit of novel writing, just to try to find the words to connect.

“As a writer you always want more time.”

Karen Zacarías

I started writing The Copper Children five years ago and it ended up becoming such a story of our time that I don’t know what the story of this time is exactly just yet, because we’re all living it. So I find that going back to the past is really, really interesting. I’ve been writing a lot about my family, which I always meant to do years ago. And now finally, I’m writing all of these short stories based on years and years of coming from a very large, very crazy, very complicated family. So kind of capturing that has been a delight. There’s just really no deadline. I work well with deadlines, there’s no pressure, which is good and bad.

Your grandfather, film director Miguel Zacarías, who inspired The Copper Children spiritually, lived over a century. I was heartbroken to read his wife passed away decades before he did. I’ve wondered what it was like for you to have someone in your life whose life had spanned a whole century because in a way when I was reading The Copper Children, it felt like a century’s worth of history in a single play.

My grandfather is a complicated character. He was a movie director in Mexico and part of the reason why I’m writing this book is because he was bigger than life, but not always the kindest person in the world. He was very charismatic, but also kind of self involved in ways, and he was an artist in a very different way than I wanted to be an artist. I think in many ways he’s inspired in my work, but the reason why I write and the reason why he did are very, very different.

The idea of play is that when you see it’s set in 1905 you think, “Oh, that is so long ago, that’s so crazy.” And then when you find out at the end that people were dying in the ’80s that were alive through this century, you realize that’s part of our current situation. Those children [in the play] lived in my grandfather’s age, so that made them more real. These are not just characters in history, but we actually found the grave of one of the kids about 90 miles from Crescent City, and these were ordinary people, some good and bad, with good and bad ideas, but all their stories have been lost.

Kate Hurster, Rex Young, Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey, Caro Zeller and Christopher Salazar in “The Copper Children.” Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

You have this complex relationship with the legacy of your grandpa. In a way, I find it very poetic that this play that is in a way about him, ended up being almost a movie without you wanting it to be a movie. 

Yeah.

Growing up, I remember the elderly women in my house saying “ahí viene Martín Corona,” which is a reference to one of the most famous films your grandfather directed. I never knew what that was and then I ended up watching the movie. So I guess we were connected, Karen, even before we lived in the same country.

Wow, yes, this is a very challenging story to tell. And so finding a theatrical way that is authentic is what led to the Brechtian style.

Once I read that every movie, in a way, is about making movies. I was very touched with the fact that in The Copper Children, you establish that Katie’s a puppet and that everyone helped Katie move and work and come to life, which in a way makes this theater about making theater.  

Yeah, and she has no voice, she never speaks. But she’s present during the whole play. She doesn’t even have red hair. She’s completely bald. But by the end, I think hopefully what happens, is that the audience sees her with red hair and she’s transformed from a prop into a person—from a Catholic, Irish immigrant to an American Protestant in the scope of the play. That transformation happens and she goes back to being a prop, because children are used as props a lot in politics. It was fascinating because we didn’t have a puppeteer, everyone learned to puppeteer and everyone manipulated Katie at some point in the play. 

None of your plays are like the other, and usually if critics and audiences can’t put you and your work in a box, they don’t know what to do with you. Which for me makes you quintessentially American, because you defy genres and you defy what people expect from you. I think that’s more American than being able to say, Karen Zacarías does this one thing. With that in mind, how do you define being an American?

It’s so interesting, I became a US citizen two years ago, and it took me a long time to get a green card. But I held on to my Mexican citizenship, because it’s something that made me proud, I wasn’t ready to let go of it. But when Trump became president, and I live in DC, where, you know, voting is…anyway, I learned a lot in the last election. I finally said this is the time to actually go for citizenship.

When I moved to this country, we were going to be here for nine months. My dad had gotten a scholarship to work on socialized medicine at Harvard, and we came here. And there’s political reasons why his work was controversial, because he was helping prostitutes and men in prison and he dealt with sexually transmitted diseases. And that was the year AIDS started popping up, and it completely changed the course of our immigration story. We stayed and my dad became part of the CDC and worked in public health and changed people’s ideas and attitudes—putting the health of young gay men as essential to the health of this country and that the marginalized are part of it.

So we grew up in this environment where my dad told us, don’t worry about being happy, worry about being useful. And that’s really hard when you’re an artist, right? Because it’s self indulgent for me to sit down and write. And so part of the idea was that writing for me became a weird, different public health thing where you hold up ideas to examine, about what that means in different ways. And hopefully, ways for me to heal or other people to heal.

“My dad told us don’t worry about being happy, worry about being useful.”

Karen Zacarías

So on purpose, I never wanted to be boxed in. I wrote for children. I wrote comedy, I wrote drama. I didn’t want anyone to ever just say, “Oh, I know who this person is. What they do, this is their thing.” In some places, I think it might have hurt me, and in some places, it helped me because of how I navigate the world. I see things and can relate to them because I’m Mexican or because my great grandfather was born in Lebanon. I grew up in a very multicultural home and actually found ways to connect with people on a lot of different levels. If you don’t learn, if you don’t grow every time you write, then there’s no point, no matter what happens on the other end.

Adriana Gaviria, Fidel Gomez, Ruth Livier, Cynthia Bastidas, Mary Bacon and Yunuen Pardo in the Denver Center Theatre Company’s world premiere production of “Just Like Us.” Photo by Jennifer M. Koskinen.

How do you know when you have learned something after you finish writing, are you your harshest critic? 

Yes, of course I am my harshest critic. I think over and over again of the audience and when you start writing a lot of theater for young people, young people are very, very honest in their response. They will let you know if they’re bored, they will laugh at something you did and adult audiences tend to be much more cagey for that. But a lot of what I’ve written, why I enjoy comedy, or breaking the fourth wall, is that I am not interested in writing the perfect play. I’m interested in having a connection with the audience. So it’s very exciting to me, that the audience starts talking about the play or where people gasp or something like that. Going to a play where everyone is quiet, unless it’s because they’re on the edge of their seat, is very weird to me.

Is there a sound that once you recognize it from the audience, you take a breath of relief? Like, OK, someone got it.

Yeah, it’s different for every play every and every time. There’s a moment where an audience is sitting there with crossed arms, saying, “Entertain me, show me what you’ve got.” And then there’s a moment you almost don’t even hear, it’s a shift in the seat. They’re starting to understand the language or you can even feel confusion. What’s happening? And I see it in myself. I feel like that. I feel that way with Shakespeare, where in the first five minutes I don’t understand anything. Then something clicks and you need to trust the storytellers here and there’s a moment where that happens.

And I’ve learned that talkbacks aren’t that helpful to me anymore. What’s helpful is sitting at the back of a theater and seeing how the audience kind of moves like an ocean. There’s a moment of surrender that happens. And you have to be patient because people give up the ghost at different times, and you can’t just write for the one person who doesn’t want to get it. 

When I was reading about your childhood and growing up with your dad and his work on HIV and AIDS, I wondered what it was like to talk about COVID with him. It’s the same all over again, the failure of a government to act has led to disaster. Are we doomed to be repeating the same mistakes over and over again?

When I started writing The Copper Children, the policy of child separation had just started. It just was originally a story about the trial of the century that dominated newspapers, and it isn’t even a memory in any of us because none of us were taught about this. And then all of a sudden history caught up with the play. That moment where the kid is ripped out [from her adopted parents], that’s exactly what’s happening at our borders now 115 years later. We see the importance of history repeating itself and the idea that just because we want something not to be that way that it will go away.

“It’s really, really weird how many people are committed to an attitude that denies other people their truth.”

Karen Zacarías

I see with the pandemic that not talking about something is the worst thing you can do for this type of thing.  That relentless examination and reckoning is something that’s important. I don’t even know if Ronald Reagan brought up AIDS during his lifetime. I think it wasn’t until Bush, that the word AIDS came out of the mouth of a president. The politics of pandemics, racism and viruses and all those are actually solvable by the idea of public health—all that needs to change in attitudes, and we can find solutions. But it’s really, really weird how many people are committed to an attitude that denies other people their truth.

And speaking of that, now we can talk about New York theater.

[Laughs]  

One of the things that gives me the most hope about being in quarantine right now is that I hope that the country and the world are going to realize that NYC is not the theater capital in any way. This idea that Broadway is the ultimate goal and that New York is very hip and avant garde is a lie. New York is, in fact, very provincial, it’s very commercial. Meanwhile in quarantine, I’m able to see one of your plays for the very first time! I’ve been seeing theater from all over the world, from all over the country, and that makes me very excited. Is the idea of decentralizing NYC something you hope we’ll be able to maintain as an industry?

It’s so interesting, because you look at me or Lauren Gunderson, some of the most produced playwrights in the country, we actually don’t have a presence in New York. And part of it is because we don’t live in New York City. I don’t know a lot of the people who are involved in making decisions. I loved going to New York when I was younger but my work was working in the community here in DC and I built a theater company that works for young people and in community, and that’s how I did work.

During the Obama years, we saw young people running for office, realizing that we have to work on our garden at home—from the bottom up, change things at the top which I think is really exciting. And I think you’re right, it’s happening in the theater. People ask me why I was allowing the video of the play to be seen, when the play is on the dock and might be done next year, and I said, well because this way my family in Mexico can see it, people who never had access can see it. Considering that it was not meant to be presented around the world, I think it’s a really good quality video and because it’s so theatrical and so presentational, it works well as a video. I am hoping it makes people want to be in the theater.

New York is not the center of my theatrical world. Would I love to get New York’s stamp of approval? I would be a liar to say no. Because in some ways it feels like a weird rejection. But I had such a healthy, lovely, robust career doing what I believe in, working with people that I do like and having relationships with different theaters around the country. In some ways it took the pressure off to just do what you want.

So, yes, I’m so excited that people now have a choice. Whether they want to see one of my plays or not. Luckily we’re all going to have to figure out how we create theater, hopefully in open spaces. We’re going have open things up, both in a metaphorical way and in a literal way to make sure to let a lot of infectious and problematic behaviors out of the room. 

The word telenovela is something that we have discussed before on Twitter, because of the way in which white critics attach it to anything in Spanish without any of the knowledge of having actually watched a telenovela. But we actually have never talked about telenovelas, so my last question for now is: What’s the ultimate telenovela for you?

Oh, my goodness, I saw so many. I will tell you my favorite one was the first one I ever saw as a little girl, in Mexico, because it made such an impression on me. I don’t know if it was the best, it was called Viviana and it had Lucía Méndez and Héctor Bonilla who were both theater actors. It involved a woman running down the beach in this torn up dress and she suddenly sees one lover on a horse. It was awesome! He was on a horse and then the other lover is in the ocean and she can’t decide. My cousins and I, whenever we go on the beach, we do the Viviana run.

I have this delightful memory of being eight or nine years old, and my sister and I would do telenovelas, we pretended to slap each other and it was just so much emotion. It was so delightful to do. And then as we grew older we had to look down upon them—we have this whole complicated relationship with melodrama. Playing with and testing and also honoring the genre was really an interesting exercise of coming to terms with so many issues and both the poetry and the problems of the political life of being a Latinx person who was born in Latin American who came here. Telenovelas are such an interesting avenue for that.

The title sequence for “Viviana.”

I agree and you blew my mind right now. Lucía Méndez started in theater?

Si and Héctor Bonilla too, I saw him in a musical about a Noah’s Ark that was out of control. Telenovelas are such a disparaging form in so many ways. And yet it’s one of the things that kind of hold and defined us, it’s an interesting paradigm. And it’s been really interesting to see people’s response to it, both to delight in it, but also to use it as a subversive way to talk about important things. Not everything needs to be a straightforward drama or a tragedy like The Copper Children. It’s been fun to be a Latina that writes things that are important to our culture, but also are not necessarily just about being on the outside, being the other in a society.

The Copper Children is now available to stream at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival through July 22.

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