Thu 5/28-Sat 6/13 @ 7:30PM
The story of teen domestic violence survivor Johanna Orozco, who in 2007 was shot in the face by her boyfriend, was felt outside of Northeast Ohio. A subsequent Pulitzer Prize-winning series “Facing Forward” by Plain Dealer journalist Rachel Dissell made the nation aware of Orozco’s horrific and all-too familiar tragedy.
One such person intrigued by Orozco’s complex story and her subsequent advocacy and activism was playwright Tlaloc Rivas, who directs new plays focusing on the diversity and history of Latinos in the United States. Late last year, the Mexican-born, California-raised Rivas set in motion a series of meetings that leads to the world premiere of Cleveland Public Theatre’s Johanna Facing Forward at the Gordon Square Theatre.
Cool Cleveland talked to the Iowa City-based Rivas (his wife, Megan, teaches at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University) about the journey undertaken turning Orozco’s ripped-from-the-headlines tale into the empowering “Johanna Facing Forward.”
First of all, how did you conceive Johanna Facing Forward?
I read the story several years ago and I was completely taken by it. For me, it was very unique in that it was about a young Latina girl. For someone who is deeply invested in directing new plays and new works about the Latino-American experience here in the states, I kind of rolodex-ed it in my head and put it away not thinking I would adapt it. Then a couple of years ago, I thought maybe I should call [Dissell and Orozco] and see if they’d be interested in adapting this for the stage. We talked for a couple of hours about possibly doing this. After that, I met with the artistic director of Cleveland Public Theatre. He had heard of Orozco and said they’d be really excited about developing the piece.
After spending time with both Dissell and Orozco, what narrative emerged?
To me, the story was about her overcoming that fear and moving forward with her life; the fact that she was able to face her assailant in court and at the same time also being able to find forgiveness. In the course of her journey, she’s been able to put that incident behind her although she’s still haunted by it from time to time. And also becoming an advocate for other victims of domestic violence, for me that was the key to try to tell the story.
How did you go about writing Johanna Facing Forward?
It’s inspired by journals she shared with me. She kept a journal throughout her experience and relationship with her assailant, her ex-boyfriend Juan Ruiz Jr. What was really interesting about that is it gave me insight into sort of the mindset of a young teenager as they were going through a relationship. What was really important to me in the adaptation was to show how the relationship evolved from a really living, wonderful relationship into something that was completely terrifying and abusive, leading up to her rape and eventually the violent assault against her when she was shot.
Johanna Facing Forward is a bilingual production. Does that add authenticity?
It’s mostly in English but there are supertitles for the audience members who don’t speak Spanish. And it absolutely is important because most of her family speaks only Spanish.
Naturally, Johanna Facing Forward being premiered in Cleveland is fitting.
I’m really excited because one of the biggest reasons why I wanted to do this play was the opportunity to do it here in this community. For me as an artist, I think that doing a world premiere in Cleveland is really exciting. It’s really exciting for Johanna and Rachel. I think the play for me is a celebration of how a community rallied around this young woman and her recovery. It’s an inspiring story of a near tragedy. I hope this conversation about domestic violence continues and the general public is reintroduced to this story in a unique and wonderful way that not only combines journalism but also really follows this trajectory of a young girl who overcame these obstacles. The play has a lot of heart, a lot of soul and a lot of passion.
Cleveland Public Theatre, in conjunction with Teatro Publico de Cleveland, presents Johanna Facing Forward at 7:30 p.m. May 28 through June 13 at the Gordon Square Theatre. Tickets are $12 to $28.[Written by John Benson] [Photo by Steve Wagner]