Cándido Tirado’s new play Fish Men, now playing in the Owen, is a fast-paced firecracker of a play that takes place on a sweltering afternoon in Washington Square Park, where a quick-witted group of chess hustlers play spirited matches hoping to make a profit off of unsuspecting “fish.” It’s a funny, sharp, exciting piece of theater, but it’s also a play that’s unafraid to tackle a dark and complex subject matter, as it’s quickly revealed that its central character, Rey Reyes, is a survivor of the Guatemalan civil war.
The Guatemalan civil war, now accepted as a genocide of the indigenous Mayan people, officially lasted more than 35 years, from 1960 to 1996. During this time insurgents used guerilla tactics to battle the right-leaning military state that usurped the Guatemalan government in the 1950s. It was period of unmitigated violence, and the Mayans, considered allies of the revolutionaries, were the victims of barbaric massacres and deprived of their property and rights.
Fish Men’s Rey Reyes is a survivor of this civil war, but his survival is “not a badge of honor but a burden of circumstance.” Rey’s life is a struggle to fight both rage and guilt; he lusts for revenge—and at times he possesses a ferocity that only a survivor of trauma could relate to.
Actor Raúl Castillo, who plays Rey Reyes, took some time between performances to answer a few questions about his process in preparing for this beast of a role and getting into the mind of a survivor of genocide.
|(Center) Jerome (Ricardo Gutierrez) bestows his chess wisdom upon Rey Reyes (Raúl Castillo) while (L to R) John (Mike Cherry) and Cash (Cedric Mays) size him up in Teatro Vista's Fish Men, written by Cándido Tirado and presented by Goodman Theatre.
Andrew Knight: How has your knowledge of, and your relationship with, this significant part of history changed since working on Fish Men?
Raúl Castillo: Well, I know a lot more details now—names, dates, facts, those kinds of things—but certainly seeing it from a more personal perspective has been eye-opening and disheartening, to say the least. I'm not surprised that in the US we know so little about that particular history seeing as our country's involvement in Guatemala (and other Central American countries, for that matter) in those years directly led to all the violence and genocide, the repercussions of which we are starting to see now.
AK: What did you do to prepare to play a person who has faced such traumas? How did you go about blending the historical with the personal?
RC: I worked on creating a personal history for myself—stuff that the playwright deliberately leaves out. How did Rey get to this point now? How did he and his uncle wind up in the United States? In New York City? How old was he when he got here? What was their odyssey like? How have they worked in tandem to make a life for themselves in this country? What's their home life like? What did chess mean to them through all these years? He was so young when he left, so what does he remember? How much do I remember of when I was six? (Very little.)
Most people have been traumatized in some form or another. While I'm lucky to say that I never experienced anything quite like what Rey went through, I can identify with the terrible feeling of seeing the people you love be abused or taken advantage of. For Rey, this isn't historical; he's living with these memories every day and every night. It's all personal for him. And certainly revenge is something we all have experienced in some form or another—whether we enact the revenge, or it's enacted upon us.
AK: What has been the biggest challenge for you as an actor with this role?
RC: One of the most challenging aspects of participating in Fish Men has been marrying what is already an intense and complicated character arc to a series of highly choreographed chess games. Trying to get through Rey's deeply emotional journey while at the same time staying loyal to the games we are playing, which were hand-picked by Cándido, is tricky and very challenging. But when it works, it is incredibly satisfying.
AK: What do you hope audiences take away from this play after seeing it?
RC: I hope they're entertained. I hope they're moved. I hope they're enlightened. I hope they go home and play a game of chess.
|(L to R) Cash (Cedric Mays) and Rey Reyes (Raúl Castillo) project their moves in Teatro Vista's Fish Men, written by Cándido Tirado and presented by Goodman Theatre.
For more information on the Guatemalan civil war, visit The Center for Justice and Accountability.