Love, libros and a library lady at Children's Theatre

You might say Charlotte's mainstream cultural institutions target Latinos once in a blue moon - except a blue moon reliably comes along every two or three years.

So the Children's Theatre of Charlotte production of "Tomás and the Library Lady," which opens tonight, makes news on many counts.

Its roots lie firmly in Latino culture: It was written by Mexican-American author Pat Mora, illustrated by Raul Colón and adapted for the stage by José Cruz González.

Salvador Garcia, one of the few Latino actors working steadily in this region, plays the son of migrant farm workers in the Midwestern United States after the Depression.

Bits of it are even in Spanish, though the script makes the meaning clear to anyone. So the target audience includes Latinos who want to see a familiar experience onstage and Caucasians who wonder about the people who cut their lawns and make their sandwiches and, in many cases, still pick the food that ends up on their tables.

The book and play come from the life of Tomás Rivera, who felt out of place when his family moved from Texas to Iowa. Though he loved to hear his grandfather's stories, he didn't speak much English and felt out of place in school.

He stumbled into a library and was welcomed by a librarian who'd wrestled with English herself a generation before, when she came to America from Germany. She developed his love of books and, when he died in 1984, he was chancellor of the University of California at Riverside.

Not all of Rivera's life gets crammed into this one-act play, which runs a bit less than an hour. But the struggle to adapt to an alien culture and language remains intact, as does the inspiration to broaden the world through reading.

The fellow who's shaping this story for Charlotte seems especially well suited to it.

Director Craig Kolkebeck loves to read in the old way, where he has contact with a printed page. He can sympathize with someone who frequently has to search for work and stretch a paycheck. He comes from the same German stock as the library lady, and he immersed himself in Latino culture while getting a master's degree in theater arts at the University of Texas at El Paso.

"I was working there with El Elenco Experimental, a bilingual theater, when it decided to go all-Spanish," he recalls. "My first wife was a gal from the company, and her relatives were from Mexico, so I had to become proficient in Spanish pretty quickly."

The 54-year-old Kolkebeck, who has spent much of his performing/consulting career in New York and Los Angeles, came to Salisbury in 2005 to be near his parents in their twilight years. He became a resident teaching artist at Children's Theatre in 2009 and has directed there (notably "Scrooge," the musical done last Christmas) but doesn't know what kind of audience to expect for "Tomás."

"In El Paso, when we did a Spanish-language comedy with some of the best performers around - and even handed out tickets - it was hard to get Latinos to come," he recalls. "I couldn't find the key to unlock that door."

And though "Tomás" will be done in ImaginOn, which houses the children's arm of the Public Library, it may seem old-fashioned to kids who no longer gather most of their knowledge from books.

"One of the problems I face as a teacher here is getting children to use their imaginations," he says. "I want them to create their own worlds, and that's something books help us to do. If one kid goes into the library after seeing this play, we've succeeded."