Virginia Grise, an award-winning playwright, will speak at the UA during a public event to be held April 21. (Photo: Netza Moreno)
Virginia Grise, an award-winning playwright, will speak at the UA during a public event to be held April 21. (Photo: Netza Moreno)

Playwright Brings Literature and Latinx Experiences to Theater

Virginia Grise is developing an adaptation of "Their Dogs Came With Them," by Helena María Viramontes, addressing displacement and confinement in Latinx communities.
April 13, 2017

This month, audience members might find their own experiences echoed in a script for the stage adaptation of "Their Dogs Came With Them," a novel by Helena María Viramontes that addresses the social and environmental justice issues of a growing city.

Virginia Grise, an award-winning playwright, will be in Tucson through April 22 to engage homeless and incarcerated women in writing workshops as she continues adapting the novel for the stage. The collaborative project attracted the support of a University of Arizona Haury Visiting Fellows Grant and a National New Play Network commission.

To discuss the unique adaptation process, Grise will speak with actor Manny Rivera and writer Manuel Muñoz, an associate professor in the UA Department of English, during a public panel to be held April 21 from noon to 1:30 p.m. The event will be held in the UA's Environment and Natural Resources 2 building, 1064 E. Lowell St. 

The play tells the story of a Los Angeles neighborhood bisected by freeway construction. In response to an outbreak of rabid dogs, an entity called the Quarantine Authority polices the neighborhood with helicopters, asking for identification whenever residents move in and out of the neighborhood. The novel follows four residents and their experiences.

"(Grise) is really writing about things that are of national importance across so many different communities," Muñoz said. "She just seems to be the right person to distill that into something that's unusual and present it to an audience in a new way."

Although the story takes place in 1960s Los Angeles, issues created by urban planning, development and community displacement are relevant in cities across the country. In Tucson during the late '60s, 900 adobe homes in a diverse and densely-populated area were leveled and their inhabitants displaced by the Tucson Convention Center.

"It's a novel that deals with displacement. It's a novel that deals with confinement. It's a coming-of-age novel for four young women, and so I wanted to have conversations with women who were dealing with questions of confinement and displacement firsthand," said Grise, who visited Tucson as a writer for Borderlands Theater's Barrio Stories Project, produced in 2016.

The novel is a rich, intricate novel with many characters — a challenge for adapting to the stage. However, Grise and her collaborators regard complexity as a strength of the story rather than a weakness.

Central characters include a group of teen girls, a person who struggles with mental illness and a gender-queer character named Turtle, who identifies as female or male in different situations over time.

"There's such a diversity of narratives, because there's a diversity of Latinos," said Marc David Pinate, producing artistic director for Borderlands Theater, which commissioned the work. "We're a panoptic people. I think the stories that make it out into the mainstream are a very small sliver of the true diversity of experience and perspective in this very large umbrella of Latinos. This is just a very different kind of story."