The writer and director of “Sergio’s Museum,” a new Theatre 502 production, are not of Mexican descent, but their play is set in 1917 during the Mexican Revolution. Wanting to stay true to the content, the company decided to cast the play with all Latinx actors.
“It was very important to us to have an all-Latinx cast,” said director Diana Grisanti, whose husband Steve Moulds wrote the play. “A couple of our actors have never performed in Louisville in English before.”
“Sergio’s Museum” is about an 11-year-old boy whose wealthy parents die. Sergio is left with a large art collection that he can’t access until he’s 18. His parents’ domestic worker’s daughter, Ana, raises him and tries to help mold him into a young man of principles, and they find there also are family secrets to be discovered.
The play opens Friday, Feb. 15, at Baron’s Theater.
Moulds said he got the idea from a story he heard about a family with a small but amazing art collection, and their will specified that son Sergio would inherit the art, with many stipulations.
“Sergio is a real person, but a child I’ve never met,” Moulds said. “I was just listening to all the details of this story. As a writer, you listen for all these places where there’s conflict or there would be difficulty. I thought that’s lovely, but what would be the situation if something like a private art collection might be a burden to inherit? What would make it a burden or a hardship? It dovetailed with a couple of trips that Diana and I took to Cuernavaca, Mexico.”
Grisanti had lived in Cuernavaca before, and she took Moulds on a couple of trips to the city, which is just south of Mexico City. The city was a very popular art and culture hub in the 1970s, and there was one expat in particular who provided some inspiration. The Robert Brady Museum is the former home of its namesake, who lived in Cuernavaca and had a large collection of art.
“It’s really interesting, because it’s organized in a slapdash way,” said Grisanti. “There’ll be like Frida Kahlo next to a statue of a frog.”
“Or a Diego Rivera print next to a cat pillow,” Moulds added.
The museum and the city of Cuernavaca became the backdrop and inspiration for the play, Moulds said.
“A couple years ago, Steve had written the first act of the play and put it away,” explained Grisanti. “When Theatre 502 approached me to direct, I was like, ‘Well, there’s this play of Steve’s that I love but it’s only half a play right now.’ So I sort of challenged Steve to finish it.”
Originally, Moulds saw the play as one for young audiences because the main character is an 11-year-old boy. But Grisanti said she believes that theater for young audiences is really theater for all audiences.
“I think a 60-year-old would love the play, and that 60-year-old could bring their 10-year-old grandchild, and they would love the play,” she said. “So that’s something I’m excited about — that it’s accessible to everyone in terms of age.”
The historical context of the play adds another layer to the story.
“There’s this backdrop of great historical change going on, but the main characters are young people trying to deal with a family legacy while the world just off stage is in complete tumult,” said Moulds. “I feel like that’s what we’re dealing with today. There’s big things going on in the world, but we all just kind of muddle through our own daily dramas.”
The actor who plays Sergio is 18-year-old Mateo Sollano, a senior at the Youth Performing Arts School. He is joined on stage by his father, Guillermo Sollano, though he doesn’t play his father. That part is played by Gil Reyes, one of the founders of Theatre 502.
Reyes said the all-Latinx cast was a unique challenge for the group.
“One of the great opportunities with ‘Sergio’s Museum’ was to say, ‘You know what, we’re going to seek out an all-Latinx cast. And if we don’t make it, OK, but let’s try to be as true to that kind of casting as possible,'” explained Reyes. “And it was definitely a situation where we needed to pound the pavement — not because those actors aren’t out there, but just because we haven’t formed those relationships yet.”
He added that the writing of the play is a bit out of the company’s comfort zone, too.
“It has to do with whose voices are being heard and whose perspective you want to hear,” Reyes said. “It’s very easy to stay in your comfort zones. Luckily, Steve and Diana are also very committed to looking for those other stories. He certainly could have written a play with our usual suspects in mind, but it’s refreshing to make that leap and to challenge ourselves.”
“Sergio’s Museum” was slightly modified during rehearsals, and the Latinx cast helped bring an authenticity to the script.
“Whenever you create a new play, the cast gets to weigh in on the story,” Reyes said. “You want to draw on actors as a resource, because they see the characters from a different point of view than we do. So all these wonderful things they bring to the table — like, ‘You would never refer to your mother like that’ — offer a certain kind of worldview. You want to be true to the characters. That has been a really great part of the process.”
Though the play is in an artistic setting, the paintings will be portrayed with empty frames, Grisanti said, allowing the audience to imagine what they look like. Even if it were a big-budget production, you still want that fluidity in the set.
Moulds believes the play will certainly spark debate.
“There’s an interesting conversation about what the purpose and value of art is, given that there’s this gigantic art collection in the play,” he said. “The idea of one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. And all these family dynamics and family secrets.”
“Everyone loves a play about family secrets,” Grisanti added.