If Paul S. Flores’ “Placas: The Most Dangerous Tattoo” has the trappings of a modern-day Greek tragedy, that’s no surprise to the San Francisco playwright. “I think that tragedy comes natural to me,” he says. “I don’t know if that’s because I’m a poet by training, or because my natural perspective is to identify the pathos in tragedy — not that I don’t enjoy comedy!”
In fact, he solicited Los Angeles actor Ric Salinas of the comedy trio Culture Clash for the 12-character, six-actor world premiere.
Co-presented by the San Francisco International Arts Festival, the Central American Resource Center and Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts, the play, which opens today, is directed by Michael John Garcés, artistic director of Los Angeles’ innovative Cornerstone Theater Company.
In “Placas,” Salvadoran immigrant Fausto (Salinas), newly released from prison, returns to San Francisco to start afresh — symbolized by having his gang-affiliated tattoos (or placas) removed.
He wants to reunite with his now-teenage son — who, it turns out, belongs to a rival gang and rejects his long-lost dad. The tension escalates as Flores depicts street violence and one man’s desperate quest to save his son’s life.
Flores thought Salinas (“a great comic actor, a physical actor, with an expressive, funny face”) would leaven the drama’s intensity and provide special insight into Fausto.
That’s because Salinas was born in El Salvador, grew up in the Mission district and has himself been the victim of street violence. In 1989, he saw a kid being beaten up outside his house, ran to help, was hit with 60 bullets and was comatose for three days.
Remembering that life-changing trauma, he was eager to be in Flores’ play.
“Paul told me some of the scenes [are about that type of street violence], and I said I can handle it,” Salinas says.
“This play reveals a little bit of why gangs were formed here, by people leaving war-torn El Salvador and confronted by Chicano and Mexican gangs here. .... These kids, who came from war, formed their own powerful gangs here.”
When Flores researched his play by interviewing gang members in California and El Salvador, they asked him to portray the love that exists among them.
Accordingly, without glamorizing gangs, Flores worked to humanize his characters. “Characters all have destinies,” he says. “Where you come from determines where you’re going. When you look at where these characters come from, where they’re going is somewhat tragic. In the end we’re left with a 16-year-old boy who has to make a decision: Am I going to go my father’s route, or do something different?”