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Play Reimagines Don Quixote As A Homeless Latino Man In Seattle

Courtesy of Stephanie Mallard Couch.
Actors Jose Amador, left, and Will Rose are seen in a promotional photo for "Don Quixote and Sancho Panza: Homeless in Seattle," a new play opening at Seattle's ACT Theatre.

What if Don Quixote, the famous character from 17th century Spanish literature, was reimagined as a homeless man living in Seattle? That’s the premise behind a new bilingual play being premiered by eSeTeatro, a local Latino theater company at ACT Theatre.

“I just wanted to portray humanity at different levels,” said Rose Cano, eSeTeatro’s artistic director and the playwright of "Don Quixote and Sancho Panza: Homeless in Seattle."

Credit Courtesy of eSe Teatro.
Courtesy of eSe Teatro.
Playwright Rose Cano is the artistic director and co-founder of eSe Teatro.

To capture the reality she sees every day, Cano brought together two things she loves: public health and theater. Cano has been working as a Spanish-language interpreter at hospitals and clinics for the past 19 years. About three years ago, she took a job at Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center.

“I worked on the weekends, mostly in the ER. And we see a lot of homeless Latinos,” she said.

Cano saw their problems — chronic alcoholism, seizures and mental illness — and was inspired.

“There was one patient in particular. I thought, ‘For a homeless person, he’s good-looking. Nicely dressed. He looks like a caballero (a gentleman),'" she said. "Through the course of his visit, he was trying to get off the street and he was having trouble with drugs and he wanted to change his life and not spend another night out on the street. I just started to ponder the question: What is it that makes people a gentleman? And why some people succumb to the street and others don’t?”

Cano then turned to the story of arguably the most famous caballero in literature, Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote, then envisioned him on the streets of Seattle. She created her protagonist as an older, newly-arrived immigrant who had initially come to work the orchards of Yakima and doesn’t speak any English.

And as in the novel, Quixote has a sidekick: Sancho Panza, a character Cano wrote as a younger Latino man, who was raised in the United States and speaks Spanglish.

As she was developing her play, Cano held readings at several homeless shelters to double-check the accuracy and realism she hoped to portray. That included a reading for workers who line up at 7:30 a.m. at Seattle’s Casa Latina in the hopes of scoring a lottery ticket for a job.

The play reflects how those who are homeless often cycle in and out of the legal and medical systems — Panza is fighting diabetes; Quixote faces a mental competency hearing. The pair also suffer bedbugs and a series of jobs that are odd, at least to Quixote, who doesn’t grasp the concept of Wi-Fi. In one scene, Sancho tries to explain how they’ve been hired to walk around a conference as wireless transmitters (which was actually a real thing).

Cano was born in Peru but raised in Seattle. After college, though, she returned to Peru for 10 years, and that’s where she witnessed how theater could help raise the public’s social consciousness.

“There just seemed to be a natural bond between artists and society,” she said.

She wanted the setting of her play to be unmistakably Seattle: Home Depot in Sodo, Pike Place Market’s Victor Steinbrueck Park, the King County courthouse and, of course, Harborview. Her reasoning for imagining her story here was that she wanted to honor the roots of the city.

“Chief Seattle — his daughter was homeless. And she was a princess. That’s a devastating fact to me," she said. 

Cano sees parallels between the Latino and Native-American homeless communities and how they often share the same struggles. She wrote a cameo in the play for herself; she plays a Native American woman who gifts Don Quixote with a knife. That knife later plays a harrowing prop in a different scene, one that echoes the real story of John T. Williams, a homeless Native woodcarver who was shot dead by Seattle police in 2010.

"Don Quixote and Sancho Panza: Homeless in Seattle" runs at ACT Theatre from Sept. 12 to Sept. 28. A selection of scenes will be performed at Seattle’s Central Library downtown on Sept. 13. The event is free.