‘The Last, Best Small Town’ centers the Latinx experience

Four students pose to the camera.
“The Last, Best Small Town” will run from March 3 to March 6 at the Seaver Theatre. (Courtesy: Kendall Packman)

Hinting at themes of division, loyalty and the American Dream, posters for the Pomona theater department’s upcoming production are split into two parts vertically with a couch. On one side, symbols of a cross and family photograph; on the other, the American flag and the Statue of Liberty in a birdcage.

“The Last, Best Small Town” will run from March 3 through March 6. Telling the story of neighboring households in Southern California, the play follows these two families as they navigate aging, love, loss and finding their place in the world. 

The play is directed by Ernie Gonzalez Jr., a visiting guest lecturer at Pomona. Gonzalez has taught introductory acting courses and improvisation at the college, and he is also a teaching artist, producer and actor himself, recently appearing as a vice principal in HBO’s popular series, “Euphoria.” 

Gonzalez compared “The Last, Best Small Town” to a different play that is a staple of American theater — but one which a more diverse audience, himself included, can relate to. 

“This show, and our production of it, is heavily influenced and inspired by Thorton Wilder’s seminal theatre piece ‘Our Town,’” he said via email. “I know ‘Our Town,’ I’ve seen ‘Our Town,’ I’ve studied ‘Our Town”’— but I could not relate to ‘Our Town.’ It didn’t speak to my identity, culture or background. However, now, this is my ‘Our Town.’”

The play, which first premiered in July 2021, cements its modernity and difference from other theater classics through its many salient themes: culture, ethnicity, privilege, microaggressions, the weight of family expectations and the loss of the American Dream. 

Theater major Mark Diaz PO ’22 read “The Last, Best Small Town” and said he quickly appreciated the authenticity of its narrative and messaging. He brought it to the attention of the theater department’s selection committee — a group of theater faculty, theater majors and non-majors passionate about theater — in hopes that Pomona would put on the show. 

“[The playwright] is a Mexican American person from Los Angeles, writing about the Mexican American experience in Los Angeles,” Diaz said. “I had never seen a story that was just so honest, and so rich…because it’s coming from him, as opposed to somebody else putting on, it just feels so much more real.”

Celia Parry PO ’23 also appreciated playwright John Guerra’s talent for authenticity in how he builds his characters.

“Acting often reminds me of the complexity of humans,” Parry said via email. “People don’t tend to be all good or all bad, and the way John Guerra wrote ‘The Last, Best Small Town’ reflects this nuance.” 

The rehearsal process for the show was a quick affair. The department held virtual auditions the first week of the spring semester, and, with the beginning of the semester online, the cast effectively lost those two weeks for preparation of the show. Then finding an actor to fit the character of Benito Gonzalez further pushed back production. 

Diaz, cast as Elliot Gonzalez, was one of two Latinx actors to audition for the show. The other was his younger brother, Ethan Diaz PO ’24, who, ironically, will play Diaz’s grandfather in the play. However, the task of casting Diaz’s father remained. The team reached out to Chicano Latino Student Affairs in hopes of recruiting another Latinx actor, but were instead faced with another roadblock to production.

Rather than cast a non-Latinx student, the theater department opted to hire Pablo Cuen, an actor from Los Angeles to play the role. 

“I wish we could have another student,” Diaz said. “[However], it was more important for us to get a Latinx actor to be in the story than just putting some other [student] in … And it just wouldn’t represent this narrative, which is really close to a certain portion of our population here. So, I feel like we’re telling a very authentic story in that way.”

To make up for the lost time, the cast has been practicing six days a week, sometimes for up to four hours at a time. With this kind of time commitment, they’ve been able to really grapple with their characters — and how they might connect to them.

“The thing about the Mexican American experience is that it really is different for everybody,” Diaz said. “There are the kind of relationships that they have with their parents, the way that the character carries themselves, there’s a certain pressure and burden that I’ve never really seen written so clearly as is in this show … On those levels, I really can connect to this character.”

As often occurs in a residential education community like the 5Cs, some cast members have found connections between “The Last, Best Small Town” and their coursework.

“I took a course last semester called American Political Thought,” Parry said via email, “and one of the themes I was particularly interested in was the failure of the American Dream and how its unattainability leads to a culture of striving in the United States. It’s been interesting to see that play out in this show, which is in many ways a story about the conditions of the American Dream.”

Keeping in mind these kinds of extensions beyond the stage, the theater department aims to continue selecting plays which speak to its diverse student body. 

“It’s really important as an academic institution that they’re really putting these kinds of stories at the forefront,” Diaz said. “We’re not just doing Shakespeare, we’re not just doing Chekov. We’re doing things which are really modern and really connected to our current demographic of students that shows that when we get into the real world, these are the things that we’re going to be engaging with.”

“The Last, Best Small Town” will run Thursday, March 3 at 8 p.m., Friday, March 4 at 8 p.m., Saturday, March 5 at 2 p.m. with an ASL interpreter and at 8 p.m., and Sunday, March 6 at 2 p.m. Student tickets can be purchased online or at the Seaver Theatre Box Office.

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