Playwright Ricardo Gamboa was walking on 18th Street one day when they noticed production equipment at the entrance of a century-old building and decided to let themselves in—all the way into the basement—where they discovered an underutilized auditorium. That’s how Leticia Guerrero, the building’s steward, recalls meeting Gamboa. At the time, the Asociación por Derechos Obreros (APO) Cultural Center was being used as a holding area for the production crew of the Chicago Fire TV series.
“He goes, ‘Oh, I’ve always liked the space.’ He had come to some performance we did back in the day,” Guerrero told the Weekly. “He says, ‘I got this play going on.’ So I said, ‘Okay, I’m the person you need to talk to.’” She invited Gamboa to an upcoming board meeting and, upon hearing about The Wizards play and their mutual desire to further activate the multipurpose space, they invited Gamboa to do an artist residency.
APO, at 1438 W. 18th St., was originally built as a Czech Sokol and continued as a community space when the identity of the neighborhood changed to predominantly working-class and Mexican. It was also a labor organizing hub in the 70s, taking on campaigns to fight hiring discrimination against Mexicans and Puerto Ricans in companies like the Greyhound, the U.S. Postal Service, People’s Gas, and Cook County Hospital.
But it hasn’t been easy—or cheap—to upkeep the five-story building. Shortly after the loss of the Casa Aztlán community center, there was local pressure on the leadership to make the APO building more welcoming to the public. However, Guerrero maintains that APO has always been open to the community; the reality is that they’re underresourced and understaffed.
She’s fully invested in keeping APO running, as it’s where her late mother, Raquel Guerrero, once organized, and where her memory is kept alive, she said.
The building has in fact hosted rock concerts, painting classes, workshops, and art shows across the years, and has run an After School Matters program on- and off-site for students for over a decade. There’s also a legacy of established Pilsen artists who had studio space at APO, including Carlos Cortéz, José Gonzalez, Salvador Vega, Francisco Mendoza, Hector Duarte, Robert Valadez, and René Arceo, whose work is in the National Museum of Mexican Art’s permanent collection.
Former 25th ward chief of staff Javier Yañez, who is now APO’s interim executive director on a volunteer basis, confirmed efforts are underway to fundraise and help Guerrero make repairs and revitalize the center.
The production of The Wizards was commissioned by the Goodman Theatre in 2019, where it hosted two staged readings that sold out. The play, starring Gamboa and co-producer and Chicago theater vet Sean James William Parris, is about a queer interracial couple who come across a Ouija board in their old Pilsen apartment. They are subsequently connected to the spirits of four youth who were part of a Mexican-American Motown cover band from the 70s.
“The play is actually both a response to Trump’s inauguration—that’s when it was written—and then also, it’s derived from the stories of my parents about growing up in Little Village and Pilsen in the 60s and 70s,” Gamboa, who wrote the play, said in an interview with the Weekly. “So stuff like the Vietnam War factors in there, or the police and gang violence that people were growing up [around], as well as the racism, the anti-Mexican racism that was around then… and we look at that and connect it to contemporary questions.”
It’s not the first time that Gamboa combined the barrio experience with the supernatural—or sought out spaces in the hood that are culturally relevant and inviting to local families. In late 2017, they fashioned a storefront in Back of the Yards to look like a Latinx living room for the award-winning play “Meet Juanito Doe,” with monologues by Black and Brown performers who’d lived through those same experiences.
The Wizards cast is also predominantly Black, Brown and hyperlocal. Several cast members call Gamboa a mentor.
Luis Mora, who plays Neto in The Wizards, started doing improv as a hobby in 2014. He was accepted into The Theatre School at DePaul University, but said he initially struggled to find his voice in the white-led institution until he got involved in Gamboa’s plays.
Mora recommends people go see The Wizards because “You will see yourself in it, you will see your brother in it, and you will see your father in it, and even if you haven’t talked or had those conversations with your family and friends that you need to, once you kind of learn to accept yourself and accept your friends, you’ll fucking see yourself and you’ll be like, ‘damn, I wish I could. I hope that can be me one day, you know, just opening up and being myself.’”
Alvaro Padilla plays Javi in The Wizards, and he got involved in theater sort of accidentally when Gamboa was teaching an After School Matters class and invited him in.
Padilla said The Wizards is relatable especially for those who grew up in homophobic environments. “I had a group of four friends growing up myself… and a lot of us made jokes, and a lot of us held things in and I think were very secretive. But I think there’s a lot of emotion involved. And I think this story paints a lot of that picture for me, it’s so relatable when it comes to people being homosexual, but also being behind closed doors, you know what I mean? Feeling this, like, ‘I can’t come out because I am scared,’” he said.
“I come from an era where ‘gay’ is like a word you… tell your best friend: ‘Hey man, that shit gay as fuck.’ That was something I grew up with, and how I grew up, and I didn’t mean any harm, until I realized, I got more educated, and was like, ‘Okay, man, I gotta train myself to talk better.’”
For the duration of rehearsals and the run of The Wizards, the production team is providing cultural programming, including storytelling events like ¡Ay Cucuy! and workshops for Chicago teens.
The play runs from October 14 to November 19 and is primarily in English, with some lines in Spanish. Each performance of The Wizards seats sixty people. There are reservations for each night available through Eventbrite ranging from $20 to $60. Additionally, ten walk-up tickets are available each night for a donation or “pay-what-you-can.”
A percentage of the proceeds will go to APO to help offset the cost of maintaining the building, Gamboa said. The Wizards is also produced in conjunction with the National Museum of Mexican Art, and the 5th Annual Destinos Chicago International Latino Theater Festival.
Jacqueline Serrato is the Weekly’s editor-in-chief.