MODESTO — The true story of a young boy struggling to read in a second language comes to life with an animated twist in the Gallo Center for the Arts production of "Tomás and the Library Lady."
"I was so moved by it when I first read it," said Raul Garcia, community engagement manager for the center. "We were struck by how positive it is."
Positive despite the "nightmare teacher" who appears in animated form on a screen behind the action, screaming at Tomás not to speak Spanish.
Truth be told, Tomás is not a star pupil. He moves into town with his farmworker family, following the crops, not a stellar education.
Although of Latino descent, young Careliseo Blair-Arams had to learn enough Spanish to play the part, said co-star Linda Johnson.
Tomás heads to the library simply to get out of the heat. But Johnson's librarian brings a warm heart to the cool rooms.
"This was '40s in the Midwest, in Iowa," Johnson said. "The library lady really didn't have any contact with the Mexican culture."
Her innocent ignorance is difficult to bring across in California's Central Valley, she said, where Latino heritage and Spanish words are common.
The character appealed to Johnson. "She's so open to this child," she said. "He doesn't even know if he's allowed to be there, but she becomes this welcoming force."
The play ends with Tomás reading with gusto. The real story also had a happy ending. Tomás, really Tomás Rivera, grew up to be a novelist, poet and the first minority chancellor in the University of California system. A library bears his name at UC Riverside, where he was chancellor until his death in 1984.
Garcia said that to his knowledge, the show is the first Latino theater event to be produced locally with community actors. Playwright José Cruz González's creation uses the well-known children's story but updates the presentation with interactive animation.
While the family's heritage and bilingual dialogue will appeal to Latinos, the children's story appeals to everyone, said producer Jim Johnson, who is Linda's husband and the Gallo Center's arts education coordinator.
"It's meant to give them a sense of the power of reading and knowledge and how it can change lives," he said. "The library lady opens up the world through books."
Garcia, who plays Tomás' father in the play, said he relates to its message. "I can remember when I was learning a language how someone had an impact on me," he said. "It's inspiring."
The play's larger message, he said, is that Tomás succeeds because he perseveres, despite his disadvantages, and because of the relationships he builds with people who step in to help.
"I really see the arts as a tool to inspire kids not so much to become actors, but to see life differently," Garcia said.
The Gallo production was backed by grants from ArtWorks and the Mary Stuart Rogers Foundation and done in collaboration with the Modesto Junior College theater department. Mike Sundquist, MJC dean of arts, humanities and communications, directs. Video specialist Wes Page created the animation.
WANT TO ATTEND?
Performances of 'Tomás and the Library Lady' will be at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Gallo Center for the Arts. Tickets are $8 to $15. School performances will be March 18, with special ticket prices and transportation grants available. Call (209) 338-2100 or go to http://galloarts.org.
HISPANIC EDUCATION CONFERENCE
A special presentation of "Tomás and the Library Lady" will highlight the 29th annual Hispanic Education Conference for high school and college students, with a presentation by the playwright, José Cruz González.
WHEN: 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. March 23
WHERE: The auditorium of the Performing and Media Arts Center on the Modesto Junior College East Campus, 435 College Ave.
INFO: The theme this year is "Inspired by Knowledge." Community role models will run workshops on law enforcement, nursing, business, computer science and graphics, social work, engineering and other special topics. The conference aims to inspire local high school and college students to choose a career path and focus on a goal. For more information, call Claudia Ramirez at (209) 575-6698.