'American Victory' tells immigrant's tale of Olympic win

The premiere of "American Victory," a new play by Jose Zarate, opens March 1 on the ASU MainStage, depicting the heroic life of Olympic wrestler Henry Cejudo.

Guillermo Reyes, director of the MFA Dramatic Writing program at the School of Theatre and Film in the Herberger Institute, commissioned the play last year in his search for meaningful works to commemorate the Arizona centennial.

“I had been intrigued by Henry in the 2008 Olympics,” Reyes said, “and then in 2010 I read his book, and knew that this was a story I wanted to tell.”

The play, adapted from the book "American Victory" by Henry Cejudo with Bill Plaschke, is a story of poverty, guts and triumph against all odds. Cejudo was born in 1987 in Los Angeles to Nelly Rico, an immigrant from Mexico.

Abandoned by her husband, Nelly moved her family of six children to various states in her search for employment. Poor but loving and closely-knit, the family eventually settled in Phoenix. Cejudo attended Maryvale High School in Phoenix and was introduced to wrestling by his brother Angel. He vaulted from relative obscurity to celebrity, appearing on the "Jay Leno Show," "Oprah" and other national talk shows after he won the gold medal in freestyle wrestling at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Cejudo is now in training to compete in the 2012 Olympics in London.

Reyes inspired MFA student Zarate to write the script last year, and the team has been working to create the dramatic rendition of Cejudo’s rise to glory ever since. The play stars students Alberto Ley as Henry; Sarah Clevinger as Cejudo’s friend Patricia; and Kerin Martinez as Nelly Rico. To prepare, the actors have worked with athletes from ASU’s wrestling team. Cejudo himself has attended rehearsals twice in past weeks.

"This is a true story about a local man’s struggle for American identity," says Reyes. "His story is very much part of the immigrant story of Phoenix, and we wanted to include modern portraits as well as historic works in our celebration of Arizona's birthday."

"American Victory" is part of the Arizona Centennial Project New Works Series.

The performance runs three weekends: March 2-3, March 8-10 and March 15-16. There are 2 p.m. matinee shows on March 4 and March 11. All performances are in Nelson Fine Arts Center, Studio 133, on the ASU Tempe campus.