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Release: Immediate

University Theatres' 'Salt' depicts the redeeming power of love for society's outcasts

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- University Theatres Mainstage will present the new Migdalia Cruz play "Salt," the 1998 Partnership in the Arts project in the University of Iowa department of theatre arts, Feb. 26 through March 8 in the David Thayer Theatre of the UI Theatre Building. Performances will be at 8 p.m. Feb. 26-28 and March 4-7 and at 3 p.m. Sundays, March 1 and 8.

The production is directed by Juan Ramirez of the Latino Chicago Theater Company, where Cruz is the resident playwright. Through Partnership in the Arts, the UI invites prominent theater professionals to develop significant new works for the theater in collaboration with UI faculty and students.

"Salt" was originally commissioned by the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, and the play recently was given a workshop production at the Actors' Studio in New York City. An epic tale of human fortitude and redemption, "Salt" portrays a family on the fringe of life, eking out an existence on a mountain of road salt on Chicago's south side.

"It's about God; it's about spirituality; it's about the state of the church; it's about the state of despair that so many of our children are in -- how I feel about society today," Cruz says. "So for me, it's an enormous project, and it's taken an enormous shape as well."

"Salt" combines two sources of inspiration, a decade-old newspaper article about a group of child prostitutes living on a mountain of salt, which the street department stored by the East River in New York, and a recent tour of the world in which Cruz observed the suffering of children as a result of poverty and war.

"I met many children in various states of suffering -- survivors of war and survivors of hardship -- and a lot of child prostitutes." Cruz explains "In one place I saw little girls -- they looked like little girls, but they could have been little boys in dresses and make-up -- actually tied to beds in shacks. They could walk outside the shack, I guess to attract customers. When I saw them they were playing together with sticks, just playing the way children play. But obviously they were working children, tied to these beds.

"This was also the trip where I met the Dalai Lama, so this sense of spirituality also came out of that trip for me, because it made me realize the resilience of children, how they can maintain love and hope in the most hopeless of situations."

The Steppenwolf commission brought those inspirations together, and Cruz asked Ramirez if similar salt mounds existed in Chicago. "He said there were, so we took a drive to the south side of Chicago," Cruz says. "If a place can speak to you, this place did to me. It felt like the perfect setting for my play. It was the middle of the winter; it was freezing cold. It was so beautiful and yet so harsh and horrifying. I thought, yeah, this is the place. This is where this play's going to be. And it's going to be about these children, and they're going to be a family. I didn't know anything else at that point."

The mountain of salt, in the set design of faculty member Alison Ford, is a dominating and poetic presence in the production. Other artistic contributors are costume designer Nava Fahimy and lighting designer Dorothy Png.

Although the scene seems otherworldly, Cruz's concerns are rooted in real problems. She has called her own work "poetic realism," in contrast to the "magic realism" label that has been attached to much of contemporary Latin American fiction: "I think it's about giving voice -- giving a poetic voice to the forgotten, the disregarded, the people that most of society wishes didn't exist and doesn't want to see.

"I think everyone has a sense of poetry. I've had people say to me about my work, 'Well, that person's poor. How can they put a metaphor together?' What does poverty have to do with a beautiful soul? Having grown up poor, I certainly feel I'm entitled to my sense of poetry. What I try to do with my work is to give everyone a sense of that entitlement."

Cruz and Ramirez have worked together on numerous productions, most recently a play about Che Guevara that was premiered last fall. Cruz was a guest of the Iowa Playwrights Festival last spring.

Partnership in the Arts has taken on primarily projects whose scope or complexity made them difficult for traditional theaters to develop. Ramirez says the university setting has contributed to this collaboration on a play of monumental scale: "It's very much about discovery, and that can be very scary. You can't just come up with this great production concept, plan it all out and then execute it. What you do is you discover along the way, and you change along the way, and everything that you change in one place affects everything else.

"It's something that requires a great deal of patience, not just by the two of us but also by the actors, by the designers. We've done some really wonderful work, and I think it's going to be a very wonderful production. I'm not sure that we could have done it in another situation."

This play contains material of an adult nature, including strong sexual content. Potential audience members who are concerned about whether the play is appropriate for them should call the UI department of theatre arts, 319-335-2700, for additional information.

Tickets for "Salt" are $14 ($7 for UI students, senior citizens and youth people 17 and younger). Tickets may be purchased in advance from the Hancher Auditorium box office. Any remaining tickets for each performance will be available one hour before curtain time at the Theatre Building box office.

Hancher box office hours are 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. weekdays, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday and 1-3 p.m. Sunday. From the local calling area or outside Iowa, dial (319) 335-1160. Long distance within Iowa and western Illinois is toll-free, 1-800-HANCHER. Fax to (319) 353-2284. Orders may be charged to VISA, MasterCard or American Express. UI students may charge their purchases to their university bills, and UI faculty and staff may select the option of payroll deduction.

People with special needs for access, seating and auxiliary services should dial (319) 335-1158. The line is equipped with TDD for people with hearing impairment who use that technology.