The terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001 is not precisely at the heart of “La Ofrenda” (“The Offering”), a play about grief, love, family and Mexican-American cultural heritage at Lexington Children’s Theatre this month.
But 9/11 is there nonetheless, just beneath the play’s heart — in the pit of its stomach, rumbling.
Written by José Casas, a self-described Chicano playwright and actor, “La Ofrenda” is the story of Alex, a 9-year-old biracial boy raised in New York City who goes to live with his Mexican-American grandmother in Los Angeles after losing his parents in the WTC attack.
The boy’s initially tense relationship with his grandmother, Marta Torres, is complicated by Marta’s resentment of her daughter (for leaving Alex ignorant about Chicano culture) and her white son-in-law (for moving the family to New York and unwittingly putting them all in harm’s way).
“While 9/11 is the inciting incident, the story is really about these two human beings, a grandmother and her grandchild, as they weave their way through grief and find love and healing in family and Hispanic culture,” says Lexington Children’s Theatre artistic director Vivian R. Snipes, who directed “La Ofrenda.”
“But it’s also true that there are references in the play to the planes hitting the towers, and to the number of people who died on that day,” Snipes says. “Actually, the creative team looked at the text to make sure there was enough background about 9/11 — what the events of the day were and the impact it had. Some of my actors were kindergarten age when it happened, so they barely remember it.”
And for the play’s target audience of 4th through 6th graders — Snipes says the play, which is currently touring in middle schools and has public performances on Sept. 22 and 28, is appropriate for anyone above the age of 8 or 9, including adults — the horror of Sept. 11 happened long before they were born.
Can they handle it now? Should they know about it at all?
“Absolutely,” says Casas, now an assistant professor of playwriting at the University of Michigan. “I think we do too much try to shield and protect kids from the important issues, things that need to be examined. They deal with loss every day, including the possibility of school shootings. If a kid is old enough to be shot, they’re old enough to have an opinion.”
Casas concedes that he did have concerns about including 9/11 as an element in the play — not for fear of exposing children to adult themes, but for being seen as exploiting the tragedy, to which he had no direct personal connection.
“I thought about it for a long time because I didn’t want to write a 9/11 play per se,” he says. “I wanted it to be part of the background and integral to the story, but I didn’t want it to be the dominant element. But it was important to tackle the subject matter, in part so that schools and children’s theaters around the country could use the play as a space for conversation.”
And so it is that in “La Ofrenda,” Alex, who at first neither knows nor cares about the ways his abuela’s Chicano culture processes grief with the help of altars and the folklore of Día de los Muertos (personified in the play by a mythical figure called Califas), feels even his deepest wound, suffered on that terrible day in New York, begin to heal. So does his grandmother.
“At heart, these are two people who struggle with accepting death and learning how to move forward,” Snipes says. “Not all their questions are answered, because in life not all questions are immediately answered. But it’s a start.”
Where: Lexington Children’s Theatre, 418 W. Short St., Lexington
When: Public performances 2 p.m. Sept. 22 and 7 p.m. Sept. 28
Tickets: $15-$20 at lctonstage.org/