GALA Hispanic Theatre Co-Founder Hugo Medrano, 80

Hugo Medrano, who with his wife Rebecca opened a Buenos Aires-style “café teatro” that became one of the nation’s most ambitious Spanish-language theaters and a beloved Washington institution, died on May 22 at the age of 80. 

The cause was an upper respiratory infection, according to GALA Hispanic Theatre, where Medrano had been producing artistic director for 47 years, the longest such tenure in the region.

The very evening of his death, GALA won 11 awards, the most of any company this year, at TheatreWashington’s Helen Hayes Awards ceremony at the Anthem. Held in person for the first time since 2019, the event was both a reunion of the D.C. theater community and, as it turned out, a first occasion to pay tribute to Medrano upon his passing.

GALA’s all-Spanish production of “On Your Feet! La historia de Emilio y Gloria Estefan” received nine awards. The other two were for “Revoltosa (The Troublemaker),” an adaptation of a zarzuela (operetta) that premiered in Madrid in 1897; and for Caridad Svich’s “La casa de la laguna (The House on the Lagoon),” based on the 1995 novel by Puerto Rican author Rosario Ferré. 

That a “culturally specific” theater company could produce at the highest level three shows reflecting such disparate cultures — 19th-century Spanish and 20th-century Cuban American and Puerto Rican — gives a sense of GALA’s, and its founders’, enterprising spirit.

Born in General Pico, Argentina, on April 17, 1943, Hugo (pronounced “oo-go”) Medrano began at age 11 writing short plays that he and his friends would perform. After studying at the Escuela Teatro de La Plata, he left Argentina in 1965. Interviewed by Maryland Theatre Guide in 2011, he recounted: “I had to leave my country during the time that many of my artist friends were being ‘disappeared.’ I traveled to Spain and spent my formative years studying and working with leading directors in Madrid.” In 1970, he moved to the U.S., speaking no English.

Medrano met Rebecca Read when both were involved with Teatro Doble, a bilingual children’s theater in D.C. At the 1976 Hispanic Heritage Festival, the pair had a hit presenting “La fiaca,” Ricardo Talesnik’s play about a man who decides not to go to work (the term, native to Argentina, means a severe case of apathy). 

That was the start of GALA, an acronym for Grupo de Artistas LatinoAmericanos, initially based in a converted row house in Adams Morgan, then the center of Washington’s Latino community.

“I was much more egotistical at the time. I wanted just to create a career for myself,” Medrano commented in a DCTV interview several years ago. Since there was no professional Spanish-language company in Washington where he could act and direct, he and Rebecca started one up. 

GALA had other homes — the Lansburgh in Penn Quarter, now the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Klein Theatre; a warehouse opposite the Washington Convention Center; and, for 18 years, the auditorium at Sacred Heart School in Columbia Heights — before moving, after a six-year, $4-million-plus renovation, into the Tivoli Theatre, not far from Sacred Heart and from where the Medranos lived (always with an eye on the abandoned building).

Like D.C.’s Latino community, GALA’s audience evolved over the decades, explained Executive Director Rebecca Medrano, speaking at a Georgetowner cultural breakfast in 2016. South American political exiles were gradually outnumbered by Central American economic exiles. 

The key constituencies in recent years have included school groups and, since productions have English surtitles and increasingly broad appeal, non-Spanish-speakers. On top of the shows presented by GALA, by now totaling some 300, there are annual flamenco and film festivals and numerous visiting productions.

In 2017, GALA premiered an all-Spanish version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2008 musical “In the Heights” — New York’s Washington Heights, that is, home to a large Dominican American community, not D.C.’s heavily Salvadoran Columbia Heights. The theater’s connection to the neighborhood is especially visible at its free Fiesta de los Reyes Magos (Three Kings Day) celebration.

Among other honors, the Medranos received the Order of Queen Isabella in 2006 from King Juan Carlos I for promoting Spanish culture. International exchanges and collaborations were a priority for Hugo Medrano, as was defying Latino stereotypes. He told Maryland Theatre Guide: “[D]espite the enormous Latino community in this area, we still have to work hard to provide audiences with the historical, social and cultural context and background of the work we produce.”

In addition to his wife, Medrano is survived by three sons: Octavio, Juan Gabriel and Alexis. Details of GALA’s planned “celebration of Hugo’s life and legacy” were not available at press time.

GALA Hispanic Theatre Co-Founder Hugo Medrano, 1943-2023. Courtesy photo.


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