Denise Duncan, a new voice from Costa Rica, knows the issues of immigration first-hand. Her play, Latinas, premiering in Teatro de la Luna’s International Festival of Hispanic Theater, is about the frustrations and anguish that immigrants in the Spanish-speaking world face when trying to get citizenship in a foreign country.
On a stripped bare stage, four vibrant, young performers enter from different directions, cross the stage to stand in individual spotlights. Actresses Maria Jose Callejas, Catalina Calvo, Raquel Salazar and Katherine Peytrequin Gomez, who also directs, form a four person ensemble that does a first-rate job in bringing to life the stories of four Latin American women living in a European country (most likely Spain) on guest visas. All four clap to a rhythmic beat and chant dialogue that speaks with the one voice. The one-act play is a series of seven segments, based on the theme “we are different,” shown throughout the narration.
In the opening scene, “Latinas,” pronounced with emphasis on the feminine “a” suffix, instead of “o” for Latino, sounds extremely good to them. First, there’s word play about the how the Spanish language (in Spain) distinguishes between “tu,” singular verbs, meaning “you,” as if addressing a close friend, or loved one; whereas “vosotros,” the plural form of you refers to”all of you.” And Spanish speakers tend to think of themselves, as a whole, in the plural. But four different actresses speak up for understanding of the individual, the “units within the whole.”or as Duncan says in the play, when you put a chirimoyas in the same sack as a potato, the chirimoya loses its identity. (A footnote added in the program for non-Spanish speakers would help.) Chirimoyas are an Ecuadorian Andes fruit that best translates as a “custard apple” for its white, creamy texture and ultra-sweet taste, totally different from potatoes or squashes. So it is with Spanish immigrants, who are in essence, perhaps the same; but not in detail.
To expand this metaphor, the performers skillfully express themselves throughout the play in different Spanish dialects, such as a Colombian dialect from the South American country, or Catalonian or Castillian, two distinct dialects from Spain, as well as others from Costa Rica and Mezo-American countries. A mountain range can make a difference in culture, ethnic mix and language. Yet each actor in the team makes such a strong impact, so that it hardly seems fair to single out any one actress. Together the four female performers take turns belting out rapid fire dialogue that makes familiar, yet frightening sense.
In the second segment, entitled “Immigration,” an enactment of being drowned with endless bureaucratic requirements, that are needed for a student visa. Personal knowledge includes annual income; a medical certificate, passport photo, acceptance letter from a university, on and on. The required entry document, a Foreign Resident Identification Number (NIE), is hilariously absurd as the scene ends with a voluminous pile of white papers scattered on stage. The NIE, now mandatory in Spain and in many Latin American countries, is somewhat similar to our social security number, necessary for government tracking purposes and control. But what the four immigrant women find most debilitating is “what people think about immigrants.”
Duncan, the playwright, untangles and examines attitudes immigrants confront in a new country, as depicted in the segment entitled “Made in Venezuela.” We in the U.S. can relate. Even though argument can be made that immigration is good for the economy, in that it fills jobs natives don’t want, negative feelings are universal. There are paranoid intolerances of diversity, in believing “…everything that is different is also dangerous.” As a result, immigrants suffer loss of identity; feelings of dislocation and isolation, saudade or homesickness. And Duncan uses rich allusions to hint at solutions. Not mentioned in the program, unfortunately, is the dialogue reference made to Brazilian novelist/lyricist Paulo Coelho, author of a handbook “Manual of the Warrior of Light,” on how to live a spiritual life in the material world.
Director Katherine Peytrequin Gomez introduces satiric elements with hyped physicality and pantomime that bring text to life. In the paper ball toss scene, actors Callejas, Calvo, Salazar and Gomez form a circle, dart around stage, and throw wadded up newspaper to each other to reinforce the dialogue: “There is always someone that owns the ball, the field….and forces anyone else who wants to play to follow his rules….” And playwright Duncan’s text makes an evening soar with repeated riffs, “Because we are different,” used like a refrain in the “Epilogue Without Law or Regulations.” Gomez also uses Peruvian cajones (boxes) as percussion accompaniment.
Latinas is exciting because it is experimental but it is not for everyone. It helps to recognize that the reference to Vallenato (literally “born in the valley”) is the popular troubador’s folk music, singing and playing guitar from northeast Colombia that transmitted local village news.
In an astonishing example of life imitating art, Teatro de la Luna’s artistic director Mario Marcel told us before the performance that one of the original cast members in the Teatro Raiz theatre company couldn’t participate because she couldn’t get a visa. So director Gomez had to fill in and enact her role.
We all have experienced feelings of alienation at some time and can identify with some of the strong emotions expressed in Latinas, this hot-from-the-press, new play from Costa Rica for Teatro de la Luna’s International Hispanic Theatre Festival.
Latinas has 3 more performances: Friday, Oct 21 at 8pm, and Saturday, Oct 22, at 3pm and 8pm at Gunston Arts Center – Theatre 2, 2700 South Lang St., Arlington, VA.
Details about the Festival and tickets
Performed in Spanish with English translation (headsets are available.)
Written by Denise Duncan from San Jose, Costa Rica
Directed by Katherine Peytrequin
Produced by Teatro Raiz For the Teatro de la Luna’s 14th International Festival of Hispanic Theater
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
Running Time: 50 minutes.