Critic, playwright, poet, collector, filmmaker, artist, teacher, mentor – Gregg Barrios checks all the boxes. From his cozy home near San Antonio College, this native Texan has left his mark on the literary world locally and globally.
In mid-July, he held an audience at San Antonio’s Centro de Artes spellbound with a multimedia reading of his poem “(His) Panic in Detroit,” the story of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo’s time when Rivera was painting a Detroit Institute of Arts mural, and Frida miscarried.
The piece, like Barrios himself, is multilayered, multicultural, multilingual, erudite and hip. The evening also featured a short movie about Andy Warhol’s muse, Nico, which included footage Barrios shot in the 1960s visiting Warhol’s famous New York City studio “The Factory.” Warhol’s pals christened him “the kid from Texas,” he recalled. Barrios’ film, “B.O.N.Y. (Boys of New York)” documents those days.
One Centro de Artes show wall was filled with his photos and graphics – including a cover designed for friend and actor James Franco’s recent book of poetry.
“Gregg has an instinct for knowing when something is about to break loose, and he is there,” said author, Gemini Ink founder and Our Lady of the Lake University professor Nan Cuba. “He is amazing – a force! He’s really outspoken, he doesn’t mind making people uncomfortable. And quietly, he makes things happen.”
Barrios isn’t resting on his laurels. He’s finishing up his fifth collection of poetry, and working on several plays in various stages of completion.
“It’s almost unbelievable for me, but I began my playwriting journey in this new century, when my ‘Dark Horse, Pale Rider’ (about Texas-born novelist Katherine Anne Porter) was produced at what was then the San Pedro Playhouse,” he said.
Today, he’s penning two plays set in Florida. “I Shot Versace” is one; the other being “Tennessee Mon Amour,” part of his trilogy about Tennessee Williams. The latter is expected to premiere at the Tennessee Williams Theater Festival in 2021. (The other two, “Rancho Pancho” and “Seven-Card Stud,” have both been staged).
A local playhouse was renamed The Gregg Barrios Theater at The Overtime in appreciation when it faced a major move and he offered assistance.
He’s also creating a New Orleans work about Cuban poet, playwright and patriot José Martí. And in 2017, during a Harvard University writing fellowship, he conceived another script, “Spoils.” Loosely based on the controversy surrounding the renaming of Lee High School, it’s been submitted to the university’s American Repertory Theater for a staged reading, and early performances are planned at the Overtime, 5409 Bandera Road, Suite 205, later this year.
Barrios’ acclaimed play “I-DJ” premiered at the Overtime in 2012, performed in the Big Apple in 2014, and published in 2015.
The prolific scribe has always been driven to write, and drawn to contemporary culture. As a teen in South Texas, he saw great films at the cinema where Barrios’ photographer dad moonlighted as a projectionist. At 16, he started his lifelong journey as a critic, regularly reviewing books for the Victoria Advocate.
“My salary was books and bylines,” he said. Today he’s on the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle.
“Gregg always has an impish twinkle in his eye at our board meetings, and he often has a new honor to share,” said former NBCC president Jane Ciabattari. “He has earned so many in recent years, it’s a joy to watch. He’s quiet about it, but he’s one of the most generous writers I know.”
According to her, Barrios for years has funded the NBCC’s Balakian Award for Excellence in Criticism, founded by Nona Balakian, a longtime editor at the New York Times Review of Books.
“Gregg is a trailblazer,” said Overtime artistic director William Razavi. “In a city where even many supporters of the performing arts often treat writing for the performing arts as something that is created elsewhere for our consumption, Gregg stands out as living proof that art can be made here.”
Teaching is another major theme in Barrios’ life. After an Air Force stint, he attended the University of Texas at Austin, where he helped found the groundbreaking Cinema 40 Film Society (the Austin Film Society is planning to honor him soon). He taught English in the tiny Czech community of Dime Box, later in Crystal City, and then for years in Los Angeles, where he also became a powerful voice writing about Latino literature, film, music and sports for the Los Angeles Times. In the late 1990s, he returned to the Alamo City for a summer Latino Literature seminar for educators at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
“He decided to stay in San Antonio,” said UTSA professor Ellen Riojas Clark, the event organizer. “That was incredible for us. I consider Gregg a cultural sage, from his time in New York all the way back to Texas.”
Barrios’ interests range from the life of stripper Candy Barr, to crime kingpin Fred Carrasco, boxer Mike Ayala, Warhol and Rivera.
In Barrios’ global community, things keep happening apace.
“The work,” he said, “continues.”