What would you do if you were the coolest low-riding cat in the barrio? If your name is Chato, you invite your new neighbors, a family of ratoncitos, or little mice, to dinner. And you don’t tell them that they’re on the menu!
But Chato will get a surprise of his own.
Adapted for the stage by Mark Valdez, who also directs the production, “Chato’s Kitchen” is based on the colorful children’s book written by Gary Soto and illustrated by Susan Guevara. It comes to the Herberger Theater Center on weekends Nov. 1-24, courtesy of Childsplay. The book has been recognized as one of the best 100 books of the last 100 years by the New York Public Library.
Set to the music of oldies but goodies, the play captures the flavor of life in the barrio and brings Soto’s characters to life with the help of puppets and animation.
“‘Chato’s Kitchen’ is a play for families about a lowrider cat who lives in East Los Angeles,” Valdez explains. “He loves his community, and he loves to cook. But when a family of mice move in next door, he must decide: Will he be a good neighbor, or will he cook a great meal?”
Despite growing up in Texas, Valdez says didn’t see a Latino onstage until he was in his 20s. He’s thrilled that the show provides an opportunity for Latino families and youth to see their culture as something that’s cool rather than something to be ashamed of.
“For young people in the community, this play offers them an opportunity to see Chicano characters and cultures onstage,” says Valdez. “They speak in slang and Spanglish. They drive around in low riders. They eat Mexican food. There are fruteros on the corner.
“There are still very few plays and books about Chicano characters and culture,” Valdez says, adding that “the [young adult] field understands it needs to cultivate more plays that reflect the diversity of our country,” and that “there is a real desire [to] include new and different narratives than what’s been done so far. ‘Chato’ is part of a wave of new work that centers [on] people of color, and that is reenergizing the field.”
Playing Chato is Moises Castro. Born and raised in Los Angeles, he has a master’s degree in educational theatre from New York University. Ricky Araiza is Novio Boy, who has the “loveliest growl in the barrio.” The Arizona State University theater graduate also works as senior coordinator for ASU’s AZ Creative Communities Institute. ASU grad Liz Neitge and longtime Childsplay actor Jon Gentry round out the cast.
Valdez believes “Chato’s Kitchen” has a message that reasonates today.
“My hope is that audiences will walk away thinking about what it means to be a good neighbor and a good friend,” he says. “Throughout the play, characters make assumptions about each other, mostly that someone looks ‘dangerous.’ Inevitably, those assumptions get challenged and debunked once they start talking to each other and getting to know each other. Perhaps at some level, this is just human nature. But at this moment, where fears and anxieties are running high, it feels like a good reminder to get to know our neighbors.”
“Chato’s Kitchen” is recommended for ages 5 and up.