The Alliance of Latinx Theater Artists of Chicago
ALTA - The Alliance of Latinx Theater Artists of Chicago


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Vistazos :: Graham Cracker by Tony Mendoza

On 4/15 I got a chance to sit down and chat with Tony Mendoza and Alberto Mendoza on the set of their show Graham Cracker at the Den Theater in Wicker Park.


Tony is the Managing Artistic Director of Broad Shoulders production, a “whatever the story needs to be” company started in 2009. “Whatever story you have, we will figure out the best way to tell it,” Mendoza said. He calls the work he does “mixed form storytelling and together, he and Alberto make multimedia performance projects that blend film, theater. A Chicagoland native, Tony has been working on Graham Cracker for the better part of 6 years, and he and Alberto and I got to know each other a bit better.

Tell us a bit about yourself!

Tony: “I grew up in the south suburbs of Chicago and went to Millikin University and after my first year there I convinced the Dean to make me the first and only playwriting major at the college. I have two degrees, a bachelor’s in theater and a bachelor’s in writing. Part of my degree was to produce one show that I had written a semester. The second show that I produced was Graham Cracker.”

Alberto Mendoza, Tony’s producing partner and lead actor came to Chicago in 2007, a recent graduate from Duke University, searching for a place where he could “do it my way.” In comparing the major cities, Chicago, NYC, LA, “Chicago seemed like the place that you could build your sandcastle and it wouldn’t get trampled on.”

Tony went on to say that John Leguizamo’s HBO special, “Freak,” was a major influence in writing Graham Cracker:  “It was the first time I had seen anyone take their story, their true life story, and weld that into a piece of art.”

Tony: “I was amazed by “Freak”…and had the idea that if John Leguizamo can do a story about his life, then I can do a story about mine. That was the impetus behind Graham Cracker.”

Angela Vela, playing opposite Alberto Mendoza, and Tony have been working on the show since 2011, when they discovered that show was resonating with Latinx audiences, even it was a “non-traditional Latinx show.” Alberto and Tony met completely by chance while they were working for an energy drink company, and found out that they had a shared interest in theater, and had both been affected by John Leguizamo’s “Freak.”

Alberto: “‘Freak’ opened me up to the idea that your voice, without apology, with all you have, out in the open, merits listening to. So it’s worth putting in the effort to fine tune it.”

Over the coming years they would work without major institutional support, working on the show after the day job, and the side job, and pushed each other to tell the story of Graham Cracker, a story about identity, moving on, growing up, and forgiving.

Tony: “This isn’t a story about the things that were done to this kid. It’s about the guilt he feels for the things he did to others…You understand why he’s saying it, where the hurt is, but that’s not justification.”

Alberto: “I identified with a lot of the themes in the story.”

Tony: “I forget that I wrote it because his performance is so amazing.”

Graham Cracker is a unique coming of age story that navigates the cultural gap between first generation children of immigrant parents, reconciling the past, and re-building relationships. For the characters in Graham Cracker, Spanish is a second language, something that was seen to be a disadvantage by their Spanish-speaking parents and grandparents, and the sacrifice of a rich family and cultural history for the chance at success. Tony and the Graham Cracker team confront what it means to be American, and how the images of American-ness are transmitted and represented.

Tony: “I was a lot of different people before I decided who I actually am.”

This show represents the culmination of years of work and in many ways is exemplary of the nimbleness and flexibility of self-made art, and self-produced work. What I gathered from Alberto and Tony is that there’s a sense of community in Chicago, where“it’s about the work.” There are chances and opportunities to tell your story in this city that might not be found elsewhere. All that said, Tony and Alberto acknowledged that there’s a possibility of isolation in self-production, and the existence of a community that provides communication between artists of color creates a network of support is invaluable.

Tony and Alberto talked about the need for innovation in the theater, and how Graham Cracker’s incorporation of film works in their favor, draws people in and diversifies the talent of the actors.  

Tony:  “I love theater and I never want it to go away, but it does need to evolve.”

As we drew the interview to a close, I asked Tony and Alberto what they would like audiences to walk away with.

Tony: “Let the past be the past, take that second chance….It’s easy to wallow in the shame and anger and the hurt of it all, but to take that extra moment of action and rise up above it and start again, and rebuild relationships is possible, it’s totally possible.”

Alberto: “To be yourself doesn’t mean you have to isolate yourself.”

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