The Champion: Ricardo Gamboa, The Wizards, and Hegemonic Gravity

By Emma Durbin

This is the first, or “pilot,” interview of The Grappler’s new feature, “The Champion.” This column aims to promote and affirm the work of artists who may be less known by the general public (or hegemony) and deserving of recognition.

I first met Ricardo Gamboa (they/them/theirs) this past June when they were a part of the Playwrights Unit at the Goodman Theatre. Their play, The Wizards, was being developed in workshops and was produced as a staged reading later in the summer. The Wizards received an additional staged reading at the Goodman’s New Stages Festival of new work at the beginning of October.

The Wizards follows Amado and Sam, a black and brown genderqueer couple. Amado was attacked in a hate crime after the recent Trump election, and so the couple has returned to their hometown. “In their apartment (in the rapidly gentrifying Pilsen), they find a ouija board that puts them in contact with four high school best friends that make up a Mexican-American Motown cover band called The Wizards.” In the first half of the play, Amado and Sam discover the last 24 hours of The Wizards’ lives. Gamboa’s play reads the same as any other social justice-oriented theatre until this point. It doesn’t add much of anything unique until the second act, when Amado and Sam track down the three white men that killed The Wizards—to avenge their deaths.  I couldn’t figure out why Gamboa’s revenge plot was important until the play ended. I found myself dumbfounded as Gamboa’s character said their last words, “Alright, now let’s have a conversation.”

The Wizards is a play that actively works to de-privilege whiteness, both in the world of the play and in the world of theatre. The vigilantes, Amado and Sam sought vengeance as an act of leveling the playing field. Both brown people and white people had to die as a result of their racial identities. Watching The Wizards was the first time I had ever seen a playwright depict violence against white men specifically because of their race (because they killed four brown boys). Gamboa dismantles white guilt and white power. This gives audience members the rare opportunity to relax and grieve by imagining a future free from white supremacy. In the interest of championing and celebrating Ricardo’s work, The Wizards in particular, I asked them to sit down for an interview with me.

In our conversation, Gamboa explained that The Wizards forces its audience to “imagine themselves outside of white supremacy.” White people can be allies and stand in solidarity, but Gamboa asks, “What does that really require?” Gamboa believes that there’s not only “generational trauma, then there’s also such a thing as generational privilege.” The Wizards is not only de-privileging, but it is also “a play that invites an abolition of power.” The Wizards “provides a conduit for [white people] to witness the death of a white supremacy and a white privilege.” This revives the audience’s humanity, as Gamboa explains that “white supremacy doesn’t just hold captive people of color, it also holds captive white people.”

When discussing their writing process, Gamboa frequently used the term “hegemonic gravity.” They linked the term with the philosopher Antonio Gramsci, and explained that hegemony is used, “in post-colonial and decolonial studies. The colonizer is the center of the hegemony, and the colonized are the outside.” Gamboa elaborated that they “think about this as the concentric circles emanating from a center of power. Hegemonic gravity is how things are sucked into that center. To consolidate power, to reinforce it, to strengthen it. So, all these artists of color that come up at this moment (after the advent of Black Lives Matter and Trump) that are talking about social issues and the systems that are killing us–the minute they get a contract from HBO or whatever just join the hegemony. They go on the inside. That is a gravitational pull.” To explain their use of the term, Gamboa’s explains that, “it’s both the thing that is the system of the inside and the outside and the power to draw things in to affirm itself, reproduce itself, and reinforce itself.”

In our conversation, Gamboa was describing their career as “rejection” of hegemonic gravity, “often at the expense of [their] own comfort,” and I began to worry that they might be hypocritical, considering their association with the Goodman. I was reminded of August Wilson’s infamous essay “The Ground On Which I Stand,” in which he criticized the black artists that worked in white theatres, when Wilson himself had spent much of his career at the Goodman.  When I asked for their thoughts on their work with the Goodman, Gamboa explained that in writing The Wizards, they were rejecting the cliché play that represents a culture. Gamboa went beyond that. They could have easily written a play “that ends with the four Mexican-American boys dying and everyone realizing that racism exists.” In writing The Wizards, Gamboa realized, “You can be somewhere that’s really problematic, and then you find out that there are people with good hearts there too.” Gamboa strives to make theatre that doesn’t “just represent or reflect a people or social struggle, but that invites a people. That invites a radical reimaging. That invites alternatives. We’ve all gotten so good at critique in this country, especially with social media, but very few people are good at building the other thing.” Because Gamboa knew that this play was for the Goodman they wanted to avoid writing a cliché and instead, “invited their audience to see themselves differently.”

Gamboa is unique in that their work addresses not only generational trauma, but generational privilege. In order to make change, we need to grieve both: “We take that idea that there’s blood memory and people that absorb the trauma of their ancestors… people also absorb those other entitlements and privileges too.” Gamboa advocates that playwrights need to commit themselves to “the actual radical project of building a new world.”

You can check out Gamboa’s work at Free Street and their bi-weekly talks at the Hoodoisie. Their play Brujos has been adapted into a web series which you can find at www.brujostv.com.

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