Playwright Rose Cano’s version of Don Quixote is a long way from the Spanish countryside of Miguel de Cervantes’ classic novel. Characters wander Harborview Medical Center’s emergency room, Pike Place Market and the Seattle waterfront. Don Quixote is a homeless immigrant dealing with mental illness and alcoholism. Sancho Panza is a homeless young man who grew up in Yakima after his parents immigrated to the area.
Quixote speaks mostly Spanish. Panza speaks English and understands some Spanish.
Together they navigate shelters, hospitals and soup kitchens while arguing over the balance of survival and dignity.
In “Don Quixote and Sancho Panza: Homeless In Seattle,” Cano imbues the classic comedic story with themes of immigration, homelessness and police violence. She suspects the audience will see hints of the shooting death of John T. Williams.
To get feedback, Cano has taken portions of the incomplete play to places such as Casa Latina in South Seattle, Compass Housing Alliance downtown and Union Gospel Mission. On Dec. 14, it was performed before a crowd of 40 homeless, mostly Spanish-speaking men at the Union Gospel Mission’s Spanish-language chapel on South Washington Street.
Instead of a stage, actors assembled under a cross and an American flag, with a wall of 36 Army-green cots lining the room. There were no props, just six folding chairs and six bottles of water.
Afterward, Union Gospel residents surrounded the actors to share their own stories.
Over the next year, Cano will use the feedback to create a bilingual piece that can be understood without translators, and to stage it through Ese Teatro, a Latino theater group she founded to support Latino actors and playwrights.
Eventually Cano will show the completed play at a traditional theater, but now she and the other actors enjoy reading for the homeless and for day laborers. These people have much more in common with Cano’s Don Quixote than the traditional theater audience.
“Some of the most incredible moments have been afterwards when we talk and we get these comments,” said Meg Savlov, one of the actors. “This doesn’t really feel like a performance. In a way it’s a workshop. It’s a unique situation.”
Cano was inspired to write the play two years ago when she met a homeless man at the emergency room at Harborview, where she translated between English-speaking medical staff and Spanish-speaking patients.
The man struggled to explain that he just needed to detox, but a confused nurse took him into a locked psychiatric ward. He was drinking and at one time suicidal.
Somehow, Cano said, he maintained his dignity and was fighting to get off the street.
Cano thought of just one word when she met him — “caballero,” which means “gentleman” or “knight.”
That man and the word echoed in her mind for weeks, until she asked herself who was the quintessential Spanish-speaking caballero.
“I thought, oh, it’s Don Quixote,” she said. “When I thought of what Don Quixote would be doing if he was alive today with Sancho Panza, I thought, of course, they would be homeless. Of course they would have trouble with alcohol.”
Cano’s Don Quixote sees the cranes at the port of Seattle as monsters.
He mixes a drink of wine and hard liquor to give him strength, much like the “magic tonic” in Cervantes’ story. He finds himself in constant trouble fighting crack dealers on the street in order to protect the innocent.
In Cano’s play, the imaginary Dulcinea becomes Dulce, a woman in Mexico trying to find her way into the United States. She is so far from Seattle that the audience will wonder if she is imaginary.
Cano draws much of the story directly from her time at Harborview.
One character complains about not being able to smoke at the hospital.
“Not even Fidel would prohibit us from smoking,” actor Fernando Cavallo said during the reading at Union Gospel Mission.
Cano heard those exact words from an emergency room patient.
Theater with a mission
When Cano first approached Carillo about playing Don Quixote, he saw the potential for action.
“If it was going to be about the homeless, it’s got to have some sort of call to action at the end of it,” Carrillo said. “Do something, donate money, write to somebody, take some kind of positive action.”
The notion fits with Ese Teatro’s history of socially conscious productions. Cano said they produce professional work with a community focus, always staging performances for the people closest to the story.
When the theater group produced a show called “Passport” about immigration, one performance was held at Latinos for Community Transformation.
“We do theater for the community, but it’s not community theater,” Cano said.
Salvos said it works for Don Quixote because Cano has written things she directly witnessed.
“We’re getting a piece of theater that addresses real situations,” Salvos said.
For the homeless, it hit home.
As the actors gathered their things to leave, Union Gospel Mission volunteers laid out 36 cots in a tight grid, each with a pillow and brown wool blanket. It’s where the audience would sleep that night.