For me, 2019 brought pleasant surprises. Non-Latinx companies and producing organizations put their money on Latinx stories and are seeing that they sell seats. The season also allowed me to see more than just Latinx works. Strong stories, some complex, others remarkably simply told by solo performers, stand out as this year’s feature.
Real Women Have Curves written by Josefina López and produced by Dallas Theater Center stands out for several reasons. This now emblematic play by Lopez, which was also made into a film in the 2002 film featuring America Ferrera and Lupe Ontiveros, brings to light the story of five Latina seamstresses who dream and work in a Los Angeles sweat shop. Directed by Christie Vela with a luscious set design, this production rocked a particularly strong performance by Gloria Benavides. The play, like the film, tells a universal yet culturally specific story of perseverance and eventual success.
Dot by Colman Domingo, directed by Anyika McMillan-Herod for Soul Rep Theatre Company at the South Dallas Cultural Center, was one of the most memorably heart-warming stories of 2019. With a strong performance by cast members, this play felt like a slice of life with all of its heart-breaking and often hilarious ups and downs. A seasonal play: it’s Christmastime and mama has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. This family has it all: a predominantly black cast with a gay couple, a white Jewish neighbor, and a Russian speaking caretaker! Hey, it’s East Philly. Funny and culturally-specific, this play reminds us what theater is fundamentally about: a timely story with a fresh approach and fabulous acting and directing.
The True History of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, the Ugliest Woman in the World by Shawn Prendergast, directed by Nicole Denson and produced by Lakeside Community Theatre is an oddball. Going to see a play in total darkness is risky, but this production did such an excellent job with providing an immersive, aural experience there was no way one could not imagine the action. Kudos for taking an unusual story and turning into something beautiful. Plus, they crossed the cultural lines. LCT is not a Latinx producing organization yet they did a piece based on a Mexican woman.
While on the subject of Crossing the Line, this devised and collectively created word for work play by Cry Havoc Theater Company at Kitchen Dog Theater, and directed by Mara Richards-Bim and Tim Johnson goes off the chart in terms of complexity. Based on real-life testimonies gathered by Dallas area high school students at a South Texas immigration detention camp, this play is both hard hitting and tender. Hard-hitting are the facts presented on both sides of the political divide; tender is the second act where the human contact between the kids detainees and their US counterparts. Putting together a two hour performance out of hundreds of hours of interviews surely rates high on the challenge scale.
Cara Mía Theatre Company’s Latinidades: A Festival of Solo Shows at the Latino Cultural Center gave us three outstanding performances: Evolution of a Sonero by Flaco Navaja, Your Healing is Killing Me by Virginia Grise, and Ursula, or let yourself go with the wind by Frida Espinosa-Müller. The three were varied enough culturally and thematically to make it interesting. Evolution was a Latin music lover’s dream, as Flaco narrated, sang and grooved to a somewhat autobiographical story. Grise’s autobiographical monologue stands out as one of the smartest takes on the failings of our current health-care system. Performed by Florinda Bryant with an immersive stage design by Tara Houston, this play is nothing if not memorable. Espinosa-Müller created and performed the story of Nadia, a border story told through the frightened eyes of a little girl. With one of the worse fiascos in U.S. immigration history, this tender and quiet story offers personal hope that many children in detention camps have not enjoyed.
John Leguizamo’s solo piece, Latin History for Morons at the AT&T Performing Arts Center rocked a full house with this Tony Award Winner. Leguizamo delivered a funny, irreverent, smart performance while also working the house. His years as a stand-up comic served him well and a gleeful audience lined up afterward for an autograph and a photo with this powerhouse Latinx artist.
Keeping in line with the powerhouse solo plays, Libby Villari’s portrayal of the dynamo, Democrat Texas governor Ann (Ann Richards) at Dallas Theater Center and directed by Kristen van Ginhoven, brought down the house. Villari has performed Holland Taylor’s 2013 play across the country, but it was great to have her do it in her North Texas home. Villari’s performance ran the gamut of emotions: funny, foul-mouthed, a loving mother and a fair legislator, this play makes us remember what is possible with a strong woman in the House.
Chicago-based playwright/director Rohina Malik’s Unveiled: A One-Woman Play at WaterTower Theatre clearly connects the dots that both unite and disparage cultural differences: stereotypes associated with Middle Eastern woman or any Muslim woman who chooses to take the veil. This performance stands out as a small but brilliant jewel in the arsenal of solo performances in 2019.
Teatro Dallas’ production of Fur by Nuyorican playwright Migdalia Cruz and directed by Sorany Gutiérrez at the Latino Cultural Center stands out as challenge well met. Gutiérrez’s direction and Lindsay Howard’s take on the hirsute freak Citrona brought this play to life, in spite of the fact that she is caged during the entire performance!
Red Chariot by Gordon Dahlquist, directed by Blake Hackler and produced by Undermain Theatre gave us a heady, complex, futuristic puzzle of a play that made heavy punches on everything from the current political power plays to the future of humanity and the earth. On direct opposite of the theatrical spectrum to plays like the warm-hearted Dot, Red Chariot engaged our intellect and for this reason I loved this well-crafted play.
And, of course there was Lin-Manuel Miranda Twice. Dallas Summer Musicals brought the renowned Hamilton and Dallas Theater Center produced a first-rate block party with In the Heights, directed by James Vasquez.
The year ended with the fantastic news that Cara Mía Theatre Company and Teatro Dallas have officially become resident companies of the Latino Cultural Center, the only city-run Latinx arts complex in the country. This is huge. Congrats!
» Looking for more on the year (2019) and decade (2010s) in the performing arts? Here's a guide to our special section.