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One-Man Play Recounts Actor's Journey from Latino Barrio to Theater

Rene Rivera in the World Premiere of The King of the Desert (El Rey del Desierto) by Stacey Martino

A one-man play in Los Angeles traces the journey of a young man from poverty in Texas to the theater in New York and the film world of Hollywood. The production presented a challenge for actor Rene Rivera, who tells a personal tale of his life and heritage.

The play is called The King of the Desert, words that Rene Rivera heard from his father as a young boy. Despite the poverty of their lives in San Antonio, Texas, his father assured him they were descended from the nobility of the Olmecs, Toltecs, Mayans, Aztecs and other ancient peoples.

"Tonight you, with your dark skin and foolish tears, you have that blood running in your veins, mijo [my son]. Your ancestors were the kings and the queens of the desert," said Rene Rivera in The King of the Desert.

Rivera has had a successful career in the New York theater and has had dozens of guest roles in television series, including Law and Order and The X-Files. He has also appeared in many Hollywood films. His wife, playwright Stacey Martino, wanted to explore his Latino heritage as a family project, for the benefit of their young daughter.

"Rene really identifies as an American," said Stacey Martino. "And I kept saying, but you're a Mexican American. I want to understand the Mexican part. So I sat down and I researched a lot about the stories and the legacy of the Mexican culture, and from that, I decided to really write my version of Rene's personal mythology."

The story, part family legend and part history, begins in the Latino barrio, or ghetto, of San Antonio. Rivera says strong family bonds and a shared Catholic faith helped people cope with economic hardship. Yet he says the community was rich in relationships and culture.

"There's a very poetic beauty in that, in that kind of urban war zone Americana that is not really known, not really talked about, not really seen, and yet it is part of the spine of America," said Rene Rivera.

But he says there was too much alcohol and too little communication, and sometimes violence erupted, as Rivera recalls at one point in the play.

"And with that, we hear fireworks," Rivera says in the play. "We're thrilled, until we realize it's still daylight and the fireworks are in actuality gunfire. The gangs in our barrio are awake. I lie on the ground covering my head."

Rivera would find a way out of the barrio through school and theater. After studying at a Catholic university in San Antonio, he was accepted to the Julliard School, the nation's leading training center for the performing arts.

"That fall, I moved to New York, got there on a Greyhound bus, and started living in New York, and started going to school," he said. "And it was an amazing, amazing shock and eye-opening experience. It was like going to a different planet. It was beautiful, it was an amazing, a frightening yet invigorating experience."

The play is being staged at a small historic venue called the El Centro Theatre in Hollywood. A simple set evokes the changing settings of the play - the gang graffiti and religious symbols of the San Antonio barrio. A simple painted skyline suggests the excitement of New York. Through changing tones and gestures, Rivera evokes more than a dozen characters, including members of his family, as he recounts the tale of a boy in an immigrant neighborhood, living at the juncture of two countries and two cultures.

"I looked at the torn and tattered Mexican flag flapping in our neighbor's yard. And I remembered another story about [how] our coat of arms had been inspired by an Aztec legend claiming our nomadic tribes had wandered around the desert in search of the perfect spot to build our capital," said Rivera in The King of the Desert. "We were to expect a sign."

Director Valentino Ferreira says the play has evolved as the actor recalled more events that helped to shape his life. He says the on-stage performance is a three-way collaboration among playwright, performer and director.

"And I think that even as the play evolves, the play that we see on Wednesday night will not be the play that we see at the end of June," said Valentino Ferreira.

Actor Rene Rivera has performed in many Shakespearean productions, but says this play has more intensity because he, his family and friends are the characters of the story. He says that reenacting his life, and experiencing old emotions, can be disorienting, but that the process has been therapeutic and has helped him understand where he came from.