History has been made.

The Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Southwest Early College High School theater department took home the state’s most prestigious awards for one-act play last weekend, and there are two chances to see the performance this week before the final curtain.

The award-winning group will be performing their rendition of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Rabbit Hole,” by David Lindsay-Abaire. The plot revolves around Becca and Howie Corbett as they cope with their own grief in the wake of the death of their 4-year-old son.

The play serves as a timely analysis into the complexity of grief.

That sentiment perhaps resonates more these days due to the losses as a result of COVID-19.

Led by Sergio Sauceda, who has been the school’s theater director since its inception in 2010, the group entered the 2021 school year with high expectations and unfinished business following the abrupt end to the 2020 school year due to the pandemic. The group had previously qualified to the state tournament in 2019 with their rendition of “The Book of Everything.”

“Being shut down, we were just left with a big void, a big hole,” Sauceda said. “We weren’t able to finish our show, our contest. We were working on something with such passion and determination, and then it gets taken away from you — you’re left just unfulfilled. We carried that unfulfillment into this year, and we strived.”

“We really were passionate about what we were doing,” Sauceda continued. “That experience was a very humbling experience because we didn’t know what was going to happen. We didn’t know if there was going to be an uptick in cases and everything be shut down, so we approached this season as if it was going to be shut down, as if it was going to be our last contest.”

The group entered the 2021 season with an all or nothing mindset — the endgame being to show the entire state what Rio Grande Valley theater is all about.

And they did not disappoint.

The group entered the state contest in Round Rock on a mission, and left with a plethora of awards including Top Performer and Samuel French Award Winner by Christopher Nicanor, All-Star Cast Selection by Iza Garza, Honorable Mention All-Star Cast by Zarina Garza, and the coveted UIL One-Act Play State Champions.

Zarina Garza as Izzy, Vero Alonzo as Nat and Iza Garza as Becca on the set of the one-act play “Rabbit Hole” at PSJA Southwest High School. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

“This is the first time in PSJA ISD history that a school has won a state title in one-act-play,” Sauceda said. “This year was a pretty historic year for us considering everything that was happening — students learning from home, coming in and not knowing what the future was going to hold. I think that’s what makes this state title so special as opposed to other years.”

Sauceda credited his group’s success to his assistant directors, Carlos Palacios and Johnny Joe Trillayes, and the intense work ethic of his students, led by seniors Iza Garza and Christopher Nicanor.

“It was their hard work and the work ethic that they have,” Sauceda said. “Within the pandemic, it’s very easy just to get complacent. It’s very easy just to let things go by and say that there was a lack of motivation. We told our kids that we have something to prove.”

It was not until Jan. 26 when the group would be able to begin rehearsing in-person, in an official capacity with their first official contest scheduled for March 22. But the group of students decided that the pandemic was not an excuse to stay home.

As early as August, the students were holding their own rehearsals in preparation with the upcoming season, not knowing there would even be an upcoming season.

“The students came back this year very hungry,” Palacios said. “In the fall, of course the school was closed, and they still found ways to rehearse and to start working on production. Students gathered and were rehearsing outside in the parking lot in hopes to at least do some kind of performance because they’re not the type to sit at home and not work, not produce, and not tell stories.”

“It was definitely a surreal experience just watching it all play out,” Trillayes said. “In the Valley, the theatrical one-act-play standard or the expectation is just get to state and that’s as good as it’s going to get for you — just merely getting there. I think, as a team early on, we decided that it’s much more than just getting to the big stage. For us and our students, it was never going to be enough just getting there.

“We’d already done that.”

“Rabbit Hole” one-act play lead actor Christopher Nicanor as Howie during a dress rehearsal Wednesday at PSJA Southwest High School in Pharr. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

Leading the team toward those high expectations were seniors Iza Garza and Christopher Nicanor. The two students exemplified the hunger felt by their 10 other peers on the team, and the need to prove to themselves that the team’s success in previous years wasn’t just a fluke.

“Because of the pandemic, we felt the need to push ourselves even more, especially wanting to close the year on such a high note,” Garza, who portrays the female lead Becca Corbett in the play, said. “For our seniors, that was really important for us.”

Garza said that the play’s charm lies in the oxymoronic, paradoxical display of emotions contained in grief. She described the play as a sad show, but the focus is directed in a light and humorous way that helps the viewer appreciate the happier moments in life.

The team was able to bring these themes to life onstage on May 1, and the end result was that of the first ever one-act-play state championship in school history.

“It was like a state of disbelief,” Garza recalled. “Like, there’s no way that just happened. There’s no way that a Valley school took first place at a one-act competition. It was just a sense of pride. We proved to all the people who doubted us that a Valley school can do it — that South Pharr can represent.”

For Nicanor, who plays the male lead Howie Corbett, the results of the state competition were the culmination of years of dreams for the aspiring actor — specifically winning the Samuel French Award, the highest acting award in the state.

“Everything I had worked for for the past four years had paid off,” Nicanor said. “All the sacrifices that I’d made, all the events I’d missed for rehearsal, it all paid off then and there.”

While Nicanor took pride in his personal accomplishment, it was his shared accomplishment with his team, overcoming numerous obstacles along the way to being crowned state champs, that really served as the pinnacle of his acting career at PSJA Southwest.

“Nothing else mattered at the time,” Nicanor said. “We were all together as a family. We had known that our hard work had paid off. That’s one thing that I’m proud to say. The emotions were surreal to me, but I felt it was inevitable seeing how hard our department works.”

The department will put on two final shows of “Rabbit Hole” on Wednesday and Thursday at 7 p.m. at the PSJA Southwest Auditorium. Tickets are $20 each, cash only, and will admit two people. Seating will be limited. Tickets will go on sale Monday from noon to 6 p.m. at the school box office.


View the full photo gallery below:

Photo Gallery: PSJA Southwest takes center stage as one-act play state champs