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Josefina López

The Importance of Being Seen

Teresa Marrero chats with Real Women Have Curves playwright Josefina López and director Christie Vela.



published Monday, May 6, 2019

Photo: Jordan Fraker
Gloria Benavides, Blanca Araceli, Tatiana Gantt, Jamie Rezanour, and Vanessa DeSilvio in Real Women Have Curves at Dallas Theater Center.

 

DallasReal Woman Have Curves, the play by Los Angeles-based playwright and screenwriter Josefina López, is currently being produced by Dallas Theater Center at the Kalita Humphreys Theater under the direction of Christie Vela. It is performed by an all-woman, all-Latin cast actors and runs through May 19.

Other than penning numerous plays and screenplays (including co-writing the screenplay, with George LaVoo, of the 2002 film of Real Women Have Curves, featuring America Ferrera and Lupe Ontiveros), López is the Founder and Artistic Director of CASA 0101 Theater in Boyle Heights. CASA 0101 was founded in 2000 to fulfill her vision of bringing art and live theater programs to the community she grew up in, Boyle Heights (East Los Angeles, a traditionally Latino neighborhood).

Real Women Have Curves is the story of five women, including a mother and two daughters, who struggle to meet a sewing deadline. It is a funny and poignant look at plus-size women who do not fit the size-seven dresses they are making. It is a story of the invisibility of undocumented workers and the ever-present threat of La Migra (now called ICE). It speaks of the economic disparity between the cheap labor of underrepresented populations and the remuneration for their work. They get paid $18 per dress but are sold for $200 at upscale stores (this was written in the late 1980s). But mostly, it is a story about the celebration of triumph in the face of adversity, of the stamina of our Latina mothers and sisters, of the right to celebrate our own bodies no matter its shape or size, of the humanity and power of being women. It’s serious yet tremendously funny and deeply heartfelt. In short, it is a brilliant piece of playwriting.

López asserts that this play has had more than 100 productions, and several of those were right here in Dallas-Fort Worth. The Dallas Theater Center first produced it in 1994 directed by Evan Yionoupoulis. Current RWHC director Christie Vela then auditioned for the role of Ana, who is the younger sister and narrator, modeled autobiographically on Lopez herself, who wrote the play when she was 18 years old while working at a sweatshop similar to that in the play. Vela says that even though she had several call backs for the role, it eventually went to a New York actress (more on this later with Christie Vela). Luckily for Dallas area actors, the roles for the present production are mostly played by local actors.

In 2000, RWHC was also produced by the now-defunct Fort Worth Theatre in their Hispanic Theatre Series, directed by George X. Rodriguez. Subsequently his sister, Lynda Rodriguez, directed it at the Rose Marine Theatre in Fort Worth (currently known as Artes de la Rosa) in 2006. It was also done at Bishop Arts Theatre Center—with the Jefferson Boulevard quinceañera and dress shops just a few blocks away—in 2011. During the talk back on opening night Josefina recognized that North Texas has produced this play several times.

TheaterJones chatted with López a few days before opening night.

 

Photo: Courtesy
Josefina López

TheaterJones: Josefina, how do you identify, culturally?

Josefina López: I self-identify as Chicana, Mexicana, Mexican-American, Latina. I can’t really say I identify as Latinx but I don’t mind if people call me that.

 

How about your work? Would you like your work to identify as Chicana?

JL: I would say Chicana because it is definitely about acknowledging that we are indigenous people in occupied lands. I recognize the ancestors. Also, a lot of my plays deal with eco-feminism, and the sacred feminine, so in that sense, yes, it is in line with being Chicana.

 

Many ascertain that Real Women Have Curves is your signature piece. Do you agree?

JL: Well, it is, because it is the one being produced all over the place. It’s had over 100 productions now, so I would say yes, it is. And I am so happy, but on the other hand I have written so many more plays, and it’s like wow, I don’t think anyone is going to do any of my other plays, because they are always going to do RWHC first. So it’s like, I have other children that are not being seen!

 

Personally, I am really interested in your play, Hungry Woman in Paris, about a woman who goes to Paris’ Cordon Bleu cooking school to regain perspective.

JL: Yes, that, but also The Enemy of the Pueblo, an amazing play that didn’t get a lot of press. I am surprised because it is an adaptation of a classic [Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People], and it is a great story about a soul’s journey…

 

What are some memorable aspects for you of this Dallas production? [At the time of the interview, Josefina had not seen the play yet. I gathered her response from the Stay Late talk-backs after the show on an exhilarating opening night, and through private text message the following day.]

JL: The set [scenic design by Arnulfo Maldonado]. It’s beautiful.

Also, a moment in the play that moved me is when the women take their clothes off and dance. No matter the size or shape of their bodies, they are vulnerable out there. It’s a gift we give ourselves and each other. It’s a celebration of what real women look like, not the airbrushed magazine version. It makes me think, if I had a choice of whether to be born a man or a woman, why did I choose to be a woman? We are undervalued, abused and all other kinds of things. It takes courage to be a woman. Working in a clothes factory myself as a young woman, I learned about our humanity, of our mothers as our leaders even as they work inside and outside the home. What I see in this play is the affirmation of our humanity regardless of our immigration status, and that by working together we can achieve anything.

 

Has any other production ended with an epilogue of a fashion show like the one Christie Vela and costume designer Danielle Nieves devised?

JL: Not that I know of! But I thought more of it as a ritual.

 

I thought it was an empowering way to make a statement about identity and creativity. [More on this later with Christie Vela.]

While prepping for this interview, I was struck by a quote I read from you: “I am very proud that we are a catalyst in the Artistic Renaissance in Boyle Heights and that we are often taken into consideration by journalists when mentioning Latino theatres that are making a difference.”

So, the part that I am interested in is about arts journalism in Los Angeles. Would you comment on the state of inclusion of Latinx works in journalism outlets? Have you seen an increase or improvement in this area?

JL: There are more theatres that are producing works for Latinos, but unfortunately since newspapers are dying out, there are fewer and fewer critics available to review plays. One of the challenges that we had in Casa 0101 is that because we are in Boyle Heights, and it has the reputation of being a really dangerous place, a lot of critics would not come to see our plays. I hired a publicist…and he confirmed that this was true. A lot of times we have to tell people that Casa 0101 is across the Boyle Heights police station! That is one way we get people to reconsider not coming. We really don’t have a budget for publicity and marketing—we really are a grassroots organization—but also, we were told by mainstream newspapers that Casa 0101 has too many world premieres, and the newspapers can only feature us every two years.

The other reality about newspaper critics is that they only feature the Geffen and the Music Center because they have a budget to advertise. And that is basically the reality, the papers say that “if you buy an ad, then they will review our plays.”  So, that has been the tricky part. There are fewer reviewers, etc. It’s been getting worse.

Luckily, there are bloggers that write, and there are local college papers, and community papers that support our theatre. We realize that it is going to have to be social media that saves the theatre and gets the word out.

There were issues that made it so that we almost closed the theater in December 2018, but then there was an article in the LA Weekly about this possible closure. The journalist did a lot of research and basically positioned us as one of the theatres that gives the most opportunities to Latino actors, and playwrights too. The conclusion was that if our theatre were to close down, it would be a great loss because it is one of the few that provides opportunities for Latino actors.

So, in that sense, it made me realize that we really are making a difference. It is rewarding because it is always a struggle, but it really made me happy to know that we really are important to this community, especially to train Latino actors and playwrights.

We have gone from a little theatre where the productions used to cost $2,500 to a state-of-the-art theatre where our productions now cost $25,000, which is still cheap compared to theatres our size [99 seats] that produce the caliber of works that we do.

 

And how many productions per year do you put on your stage?

JL: It’s hard to say because we used to do 12 and then 10, then eight now we are down to six but maybe do four in the future.

 

And you offer workshops also to upcoming writers?

JL: Yes, we teach a playwriting class, an actors’ class, singing class, and we also teach free classes for children, singing and acting. Most of our classes are by donation. And I also teach a screen-writing. We have been thinking of reducing the number of our own productions and renting out the theater, so that we would become more of a teaching institution.

 

What consejos (advice) can you share with other communities in regard to creating and sustaining such an endeavor? Or maybe pitfalls to avoid?

JL: I think that we grew too quickly because what we were offering was so wonderfully received and because we did such a great job of inspiring people. But, we could not keep up with the production costs. So we’ve had to downsize here and there and be more cautious. The advice that I would give is that every single step of the way, you have to keep building community. The more community you build, the more people you recruit. The more people you build bridges with, the more organically you grow, and then the project can sustain itself. You need the people who are good with the financial part, and you need people like me, who are good at inspiring people. The two have to maintain a balance.

One economic pitfall that I see is that theatres switch their programming and start doing classics in order to pay the bills, but then there is no opportunity for new works. It then becomes very homogenous, the white male playwrights that support the status quo sort of thing. And then small theatres such as ours may end up saying “What the hell, we are just like any other theatre company” if we are just playing it safe. You do need to play it safe here and there financially but also be able to take risks to advance new voices, new communities and works.

 

The rhetoric I hear a lot from white, mainstream theatres is that Latinos don’t come to the theatre so why should they do work for that community? I think that your project has proven otherwise. That is, if companies do produce work that speaks to the community, then the community will turn out.

JL: Oh yes, we will come to the theatre. Now I can only speak of English-speaking Latinos. For Spanish-speaking Latinos, they really have to be invited. There needs to be an effort to market to them specifically, you have to build that bridge. 

Plays that deal with Chicano history are always full because we are so hungry to see our history on stage. Plays about Latina women, telling their truth like with the comadres (women/family friends) always sell. They want to see themselves and their truth on stage.

If mainstream theatres never produce Latino plays except maybe one, once in a while, they have to do the marketing to get the community there. Otherwise people are not going to come.

You know my play [RWHC] is the one that gets done at white theatres who are trying to integrate Latinos. I have seen this so many times. And then they go, oh wow this work is really good because my work is about dignity and humanity and universal truths. Real Women Have Curves is that play that mainstream institutions pick because it can open doors and communities.

 

I think that the movie has something to do with this phenomenon…

JL: Oh yes, the commercial value of the movie created a brand.

 

To conclude, is there anything that you would like our readers to know about you or your work, Josefina?

JL: One thing I would like people to know is that I was undocumented for 13 years, and I was a dreamer long before that term came into existence. I dreamt the life that I have now. What I would want people to know is that my life is on stage. When you are undocumented, you are dehumanized because you are not a person any more. Mexico nor the U.S. claims you, so you are just a shadow. For me, this play is about getting my humanity back. And that my characters—like me—dreamt what their future would be like, to be a writer, to live the life that I have now.

I wrote this play to debunk lies that abound about our community. The play is still relevant now, in this era of Trump because the same lies continue to be perpetuated.

And to me the way I fight back is to celebrate my humanity, to celebrate all of the things about myself that I am told are wrong. They are not wrong. They are the things that give me a lot of power to challenge injustice.

When people use the word “alien” or “illegal,” they dehumanize people with their words. Rarely do people see someone who was or is undocumented be so creative, funny, smart and capable. I want people to know that immigrants and refugees are our greatest asset because they bring a desire and ability to make the world a better place to live in. This is what we are getting with undocumented people. Nobody undocumented comes to this country to be a tourist and not work!

I want people to know that even though I was undocumented once, I have created so many jobs and opportunities for people with my talents and abilities.

 

Photo: Cameron Cobb Photography
Christie Vela

TJ: Now, a brief chat with director Christie Vela via Messenger, the day after opening night. All caps are hers.

I understand that there is a back story with you and the previous DTC production of Real Women Have Curves. Care to comment?

Christie Vela: Sure. I did audition for it back in the day. I was called back several times, the director apparently really wanted me in the show, but they went with someone else, as often is the case in this business for myriad reasons of which we are unaware as young actors, and we take it personally. We get older and sit on the other side of the table and understand that there’s way more that goes into casting that we think, and it’s actually never about us as people. It’s about the story and the project. But at that time, I sooo felt like I WAS ANA! What I learned is that we are ALL Ana at some point.

 

Our readers may also want your comments on your choice to add the element of a fashion show at the end of the play, which is not part of the script.

CV: Yes. The play ends with the ladies modeling versions of the dresses they’ve been working on in bigger sizes.

 

Josefina says that has never been done before, as far as she knows.

CV: That was not enough for me. As a BORDER TOWN Latina, the struggle to walk the fine line between “fitting in” and owning who you are IS SUPER REAL. I didn’t feel like these women, fitting into what American culture calls beautiful, was enough. I wanted to end it in a big way.

 

Well, the audience seemed to like it!

CV: I wanted to say, “Your boring Bloomingdale’s upper-class white lady dresses are not enough to explain who WE ARE. I wanted to take all of the beauty of us and turn it into HIGH CONCEPT fashion. And OWN it. Alexander McQueen is one of my creative inspirations as a theater maker, and that’s what I was going for.

 

But I saw a lot of upper class, thin and highly fashionable Anglo women at the opening, and they actually laughed a lot during the play!

CV: That makes me really happy. The play is about owning who you are. All women. The women in the play just happen to be Latinas.

I’ve had Latina friends come see the play who tell me they wept with pride when that moment happens. THAT’S what I wanted. TO BE SEEN.

 

» Teresa Marrero is professor of Latin American and Latinx Theater in the Spanish Department at the University of North Texas. She is a member of the American Theater Critics Association and is on the Advisory board of the Latinx Theater Commons. She is coeditor with Chantal Rodriguez (Yale) and Trevor Boffone (U of Houston) of the anthology ENCUENTRO: Latinx Performance for the New American Theater (May 2019, Northwestern University Press). Thanks For Reading





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The Importance of Being Seen
Teresa Marrero chats with Real Women Have Curves playwright Josefina López and director Christie Vela.
by Teresa Marrero

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