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Originally published September 8, 2013 at 5:04 AM | Page modified September 11, 2013 at 12:15 PM

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Rose Cano: Uniting communities through theater

Actor, director and writer Rose Cano is all about serving the communities within Seattle. When she isn’t at work with the Latino theater troupe she co-founded, eSe Teatro, she’s an interpreter at Harborview Medical Center, and presents staged readings to the homeless.

Seattle Times theater critic

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When scientists hunt for alternative energy sources, they should look into Rose Cano. If harnessed, this Seattle theater artist and cultural activist’s fervent vitality could rival wind and solar power.

But first you have to catch Cano on the fly.

The gifted actor-writer-producer stays busy working with eSe Teatro, the Latino theater troupe she co-founded in 2010 and appears with in local theaters, community centers and homeless facilities.

She also devises and manages cultural-exchange programs with foreign and local artists. And weekdays you’ll find her at Harborview Medical Center, assisting patients as a full-time Spanish-language medical interpreter.

How does she juggle it all? “Rose is smart, funny, talented, she has great energy and works very hard,” says Olga Sanchez, an actor-director who was a cohort of Cano’s in Seattle and now leads Portland’s Milagro Theatre.

ACT Theatre managing director Gian-Carlo Scandiuzzi praises Cano as “a very dedicated theater artist with a mission.”

The mission? When you do pin Cano down for a chat, the word “community’” comes up often. For her, that begins with Seattle’s growing Hispanic community, and extends to Latin America and beyond.

“I’m all about community,” declares this dynamo, who wears her dark hair long and loose, and accents her bright attire with ethnic jewelry.

Watching Cano in action, at an eSe performance and “dialogue with dignity” at the Salvation Army’s William Booth Center for homeless men in Sodo, you see what she means.

In a multipurpose room at this transitional shelter, Cano warmly welcomes residents who’ve come to a program of scenes she and other eSe members will be performing from her play “Don Quixote & Sancho Panza: Homeless in Seattle.” A modern adaptation of the classic Cervantes novel “Don Quixote,” the piece focuses on the lives of local street people. Cano won a 2013 Individual Artist Grant from the Seattle Office of Arts and Culture to develop the script for shelter readings.

“I’ve been moved and honored to share many stories of homeless people I’ve met at Harborview and in emergency shelters,” she tells the small, attentive audience. “I’m especially interested in how hard it is to maintain one’s dignity while living on the street. I wanted to know, how do people do that? And I’ve found there are many ways. I hope afterward, you’ll share some of your stories with us.”

What follows are scenes in which Don Quixote, a delusional alcoholic who speaks only Spanish, is befriended by Sancho Panza, a gentle, bilingual Mexican man, also homeless, who takes pity on him. There’s humor in the script, as well as gritty talk about bedbugs in shelters and other hard conditions, about the “scourge” of alcoholism, the search for work, the loss of dignity.

In the lively post-show discussion, a lanky man in a baseball cap tells Cano he didn’t comprehend the Spanish dialogue scattered throughout her play, but adds, “You don’t have to understand the language to get into this. You just have to live the life. Until April 17, I lived that life.”

William Booth Center administrator Michael Schoenborn is pleased by the residents’ reactions to Cano’s play. “I think our people were energized by it,” he says. “ In 30 minutes it gave them permission to talk about things they’re dealing with. It had a kind of therapeutic effect.”

Making a difference in the community through theater and language is a longtime calling for Cano.

Born in Peru, she was raised in a Capitol Hill clan led by her late house-painter father and her mother, now 87, in a neighborhood enclave of Peruvian Americans: “We’re a big extended family, with maybe a couple hundred cousins.”

Cano first performed in a high-school show, “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” and “realized I can use theater to express myself through my body, my interpretation. It was another way to communicate.”

After earning a theater degree in 1983 from Cornish College of the Arts, she “had no plans, so I created my own one-woman show, all about my family. It got my little foot in the door.”

Cano was soon acting at local theaters — the Group Theatre, Seattle Children’s Theatre, Intiman — but grew frustrated over the paucity of roles written for or available to Latinos. “Back then, there was no real place for Latino theater here, except at the Group.”

So Cano charted her own course. She toured her solo piece, “Self Portrait,” in the area and in Minneapolis. And in 1986, during a cultural “identity crisis,” Cano decided to visit Peru — a sojourn that lasted nine years.

“It was a really vibrant theater moment in Lima, and a lot was going on there politically,” she recalls. “For actors in the U.S., it was all about your own career. In Peru, it was about the artists’ commitment to a better society and to social change. For me it was years of many projects, of people talking, thinking, creating together.”

By the time she returned to Seattle in 1995, pregnant with her son, Cano was creating “north-south cultural connections,” taking artists from Washington state into Andean villages, and Peruvian artists to Native American reservations in Washington.

She overcame geopolitical hurdles to bring Afro-Cuban artists from Havana to work with young people at Rainier Valley Youth Theatre. And this year, Cano coordinated an artistic residency for African-American gospel composer-musician Paul Thomas, in Peru.

“My whole mission is to educate people about the diversity of Latino cultures — plural. In Seattle we get heavy influence from Mexico because it is the closest Latin country. But because of the African and Latin Diasporas, and the slave trade, there are more connections than you’d think. We tend to think of ourselves as separate peoples, but we are really interrelated.”

Cano joined other dedicated Hispanic artists to create eSe Teatro, a theater with a Latino slant. The group has partnered with ACT, which hosted eSe’s successful staging of “Oedipus El Rey” by Chicano writer Luis Alfaro, an updating of a Greek tragedy. Cano co-starred, impressively, as doomed barrio queen Jocasta.

“There is an extremely vibrant community of Latino theatrical artists throughout the country, and eSe helps give voice to that on the local level,” says ACT artistic head Kurt Beattie. Notes Sanchez, “Rose wants to create visibility for that community, and work for those artists who haven’t had much opportunity to work.”

And as if she’s not busy enough, the relentlessly creative Cano is also writing a musical: “I’ve already written seven or eight songs — because if I don’t get them out of my brain, my head might explode!”

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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