Octavio Solis had taken on an impossible task.
Could he, the mighty Mexican American playwright from El Paso who had conquered stages across the country, adapt the behemoth tome that is Miguel de Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” for the stage?
The Spanish literary classic has befuddled would-be adaptors across all mediums. Artists at Disney tried for more than 80 years to crack the story; Orson Welles famously worked on his unfinished movie adaptation until he died. Solis, however, was undeterred. He diligently studied the material, reading through the entire novel twice before writing a single word. In 2009, his take, simply titled “Quixote,” debuted at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. In 2017, an updated version set in modern-day Texas premiered in Dallas. Solis thought both runs were fine, maybe even good, but not quite right. Something was missing.
It wasn’t until Eric Ting, the artistic director of the California Shakespeare Theater at the time, approached him for another production. This time, however, the story didn’t just need an update— it needed an overhaul.
”You need to pry that book from [Cervantes’] cold dead fingers and make it yours,” Ting told him. Solis needed to do what he did best: He needed to write about himself. He needed to write about the border.
It was an overzealous, deeply religious drama teacher who introduced Solis to theater his sophomore year at El Paso’s Riverside High School in the 1970s. Sensing his knack for language, she invited him to audition for the school play. Solis blew off the auditions as long as he could, but the pious teacher threatened to fail him if he didn’t show up.
Solis did not want this. He thought the theater kids were weird — they held hands and prayed before rehearsals. He wanted to be a football player like his younger brothers, but he couldn’t read the plays and never knew which way to run. Art class, his second choice, already had too many students. As a result, he found himself onstage, auditioning for a part in “The Diary of Anne Frank,” a play he had never read about a girl he had never heard of. He tried to tank the audition but had no such luck. He was cast as Peter Van Damme, one of the eight people who hid with Anne in her attic, and her eventual boyfriend.
Solis was reticent, but reading the words in that first rehearsal turned him from a reluctant student of drama to a full-fledged radical for theater. The El Paso world around him crumbled and warped. He was transported just by reading aloud the words on the page . It was transcendent, he says.
“After that I just kept thanking my teacher,“ Solis said. “I was like whatever, I’ll praise Jesus as long as you want me to, as long as I get to be on that stage.”
As Solis fell further down the acting rabbit hole, the support and encouragement from his acting teacher turned into concern. Doing drama in high school is fun and silly, something that you do to honor God. As an adult, in unholy universities, it was a different story.
“They warned me that there’d be a lot of drugs, premarital sex, homosexuality, wantonness and ungodliness,” he says. “And they were right!”
Solis headed to Trinity University in San Antonio to study acting and playwriting. During his junior year, he traveled to England to study the man he hoped to become: William Shakespeare.
High on the Bard and back stateside, Solis moved to Dallas to continue studying and writing plays. All of his early work, however, was distinctly not about Mexicans or his life experience. Our stories, he thought, could not be high art.
“I didn’t see plays that revealed that part of my culture, so I didn’t write about it,” he says. “I was young and stupid.”
A popular series of plays he wrote and produced caught the attention of Teatro Dallas, which asked him if he’d write a play about Mexicans and Día de Muertos for the company.
“I was astonished,” he says, unable to comprehend that someone wanted a play about people like him and that there was an entire community of Latinx theater makers out in the universe, waiting to collaborate. That year —1988 — he wrote what would become his breakthrough hit, “Man of the Flesh,” a comedic, Mexified adaptation of another Spanish classic, “The Trickster of Seville.” The show was widely produced for years and Solis’ Latinx theatrical world continued to expand.
“I haven’t looked back since,” he said.
Now 65 and living on a farm in southern Oregon with his wife, some goats and chickens, Solis has created a career out of works that reflect the Mexican American experience. He’s racked up a mountain of awards, including recognition from the Kennedy Center and the National Endowment for the Arts. He even nabbed a gig with Pixar, consulting on its 2017 animated hit “Coco.“ His oeuvre has been produced from Hartford to Houston, and is known for seamlessly blending political and cultural discourse along with the magical and crude.
“His plays have incredibly erudite moments,” says KJ Sanchez, a theater professor at the University of Texas in Austin and a director who worked with Solis on his adaptation of “Don Quixote.” “He also can write a great fart joke.”
It’s that mix as well as his specificity to the Tejano experience, says Sanchez, that makes Solis one of the most important writers of the new American theater canon. “He is next in that lineage from Eugene O’Neill to August Wilson.”
Solis reckons he’s written at least eight plays about El Paso. The rest, he says, riff on the themes he associates with the city: alienation, disenfranchisement, reckoning with ghosts of the past and desperate love. Though he doesn’t live in El Paso anymore, Solis visits often. It’s different nowadays, he says. The isolation he remembers as a child has mostly evaporated into the desert, replaced by thriving communities of artists and writers, both online and in the city. Tim Hernandez, Dagoberto Gilb, Rosa Alcalá, Benjamin Alire Sáenz— the names of the El Pasoan writers rattle off Solis’ tongue with ease.
“El Paso has become a mecca for Latino writers.”
Solis threw out “Quixote“ and started over, racing to finish in time for the premiere less than a year away. He thought about his mother, who had recently begun battling dementia, and realized his Quixote, now a professor named Quijano, was also in the throes of a mental crisis, conflating his own life with the adventures written in Cervantes’ book. The leading men of the show traded their donkey and horse for a paletero cart and a big wheel bike with a horse skull attached. Instead of fighting windmills, Quijano fights the giant white surveillance balloons that patrol the West Texas skies. Solis wrote songs, incorporated Tejano folk music, added border-specific Spanglish and a generous amount of what he calls “scatalogical humor” and made significant changes until it was nearly time for the show to premiere. The curtain raised on the newly titled “Quixote Nuevo“ at Cal Shakes in 2018. Finally, Solis thought, his adaptation was complete.
Big, bawdy, political, serious and very fun, the show opened to rapturous reviews. “An instant classic,” raved the San Francisco Chronicle. Then, the calls for more productions came. In Houston it was called “a groundbreaking update.” In Denver, “a celebration of classic literature and Tejano culture.” “Quixote Nuevo“ has yet to be published and will have been produced by at least eight major theater companies by the end of the spring, far and away the most for any Solis work. Last fall, the play was performed on the South Coast Repertory’s Segerstrom Stage in Costa Mesa.
“I have been so proud of how this play has taken over the country,” said Ting.
Last week, “Quixote Nuevo“ opened in Seattle. Dámaso Rodriguez, the new artistic director at Seattle Rep, says the production, which was programmed before he arrived, was part of the reason he was so excited to take the job.
“I know that Octavio is often framed as a Chicano playwright, but he’s one of the most significant playwrights in the U.S. independent of identity,“ Rodriguez said.
After Seattle, the show heads to Portland.
Solis says it’s been wonderful to see all the Latinx communities in these disparate cities come out to see themselves and support the show. The audience, even if they’re not Mexican, and even if they’ve never been to El Paso, he says, can find universal truths in the work.
“El Paso isn’t a place anymore,” he says. “It’s a state of mind.”
Luis Rendon is a Tejano journalist who lives in New York City and writes about South Texas food and culture. He’s been published in Texas Monthly, Texas Highways and the Daily Beast. You can find him on Twitter/X @louiegrendon and Instagram @lrendon.