Dallas — When Josefina López emerged onto the theatre scene as a teenager in the late 1980s with her debut play Simply María, or the American Dream, it quickly catapulted the playwright into the national theatre ecosystem. Soon, the young playwright from Los Angeles’ Boyle Heights neighborhood went from high school theatre classes to masterclasses in which her fellow classmates were the likes of Luis Alfaro, Migdalia Cruz, Octavio Solis, and Caridad Svich. For example, at INTAR’s famed Hispanic-Playwrights-In-Residence Laboratory, an entire generation of Latinx playwrights studied with famed playwright and teacher, Maria Irene Fornés. Under Fornes’ guidance, López began writing what would become her signature play: Real Women Have Curves, now playing at Dallas Theater Center’s Kalita Humphreys Theater from April 26 to May 19 under the direction of Christie Vela.
Since receiving its world premiere production in 1990 at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in San Antonio, Real Women Have Curves has become one of the most produced Latinx plays in history, at one point making López the nation’s most produced Latina playwright (a title now going back-and-forth between Quiara Alegría Hudes and Karen Zacarías). Given the resurgence of immigration has a hot-button national issue—as opposed to say a regional issue decades prior—theatre companies have looked to Latinx plays to provide timely and culturally responsive programming. Real Women Have Curves has more often than not been one of the plays companies are looking to, with major productions in recent years at Pasadena Playhouse, the Gary Marshall Theatre, and now at Dallas Theater Center.
Not to mention that the film version of Real Women became a hot topic when think pieces about the 2002 film began popping up like wildfire after the film Lady Bird debuted with many similarities and mainstream popularity. Even though the Real Women film was a huge hit, winning at the Cannes Film Festival, launching the career of America Ferrera, and enabling Lopez's Los Angeles storefront theatre CASA 0101 to find a following, it still remains an under-the-radar indie film, perhaps speaking to the challenges that Latina writers and Latinx stories face in the larger cultural zeitgeist of U.S. popular culture.
López’s largely autobiographical play follows recent high school graduate Ana and a group of Chicanas working under oppressive conditions in her sister's East Los Angeles sewing factory. While Ana dreams of becoming a writer, her sister worries about keeping her business afloat amid the swirling threat of being deported by La Migra, or Chicanx slang for ICE. Despite the potential for the subject matter to be heavy, López’s script balances the dramatic tension of these women's’ lives with plenty of comedic moments.
Given the play first debuted three decades ago, the conversation around immigration as seen in the play should be radically different today as it was in the late 1980s. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. While Real Women is in many ways a period piece now, looking at immigration in the undocumented Latinx community in 1987, the play holds up. Yes, things have changed. La Migra is now ICE, and cell phones have become standard. But, at its core, Real Women is about the hardships that Latinas, both US citizens and undocumented, endure in a capitalist system such as the United States. As sweatshop workers, they are exploited. As women, they are undervalued. As Chicanas, their immigration status is constantly interrogated. At seemingly every turn, these women’s mere existence is questioned. DTC’s production demonstrates just how little has changed for women such as those seen in the play.
While each character has their own dramatic arcs, the play truly revolves around two sisters: Ana (Tatiana Gantt) and Estela (Jamie Rezanour). A budding feminist, Ana dreams of a better life—college and a writing career. Estela, a bit older but still only 25, is disillusioned with the difficulties she has faced as the sewing factory’s owner, not to mention she is undocumented and lives in constant fear of deportation. Their mother, Carmen (Blanca Araceli) is hard on both of them, but as she believes, someone has to do it and it should be her. Rosali (Vanessa DeSilvio) struggles with her body image despite being close to a size four. Pancha (Gloria Benavides) is tough on Ana and Estela, but ultimately warms up to them. To single any one of these five actors out would be to undersell how tight this ensemble is and how well cast each of these characters are. Each actor shines in their own special way, paying homage to characters that have become an integral part of the Latinx theatre canon while also keeping them fresh.
Upon entering the theatre, the audience is met with a soundscape that immediately places us in East Los Angeles. Amid the mix of English and Spanish songs, we can hear sirens. Throughout the play, the law is ever-present. Sound designer John M. Flores’ sound design further transports us to the late ’80s with songs such as Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” Donna Summer’s “She Works Hard For the Money,” and Madonna’s “Borderline” sprinkled throughout, providing the soundtrack to these women’s seemingly mundane work. Danielle Nieves’ costumes effectively juxtapose class and racial differences that are littered throughout the play. While these women wear normal, everyday clothes, they are busy sewing dresses that cost $200 to purchase at Bloomingdale’s even though they are only paid $13 to make them. Despite their intimate relationship with these dresses, they can’t afford them.
Christie Vela, whose relationship with the show goes back to the mid-’90s when she auditioned for DTC’s first production of the play, demonstrates why she should be at the top of anyone’s list looking for Latinx talent to direct Latinx stories. Leading an entirely Latina cast and a primarily Latinx creative team, Vela’s work here speaks to the nuances that theatre can achieve when produced in conversation with the community in question. Gone are the stereotypes of Latinas that are so often seen in the media. This production doesn’t include offensive accents or over-sexualized Latinas. Rather, we are left with five Latinas who are fully multi-dimensional and in control of their narratives. Moreover, Vela’s direction keeps the play moving swiftly despite entirely taking place in a single room. The production’s scene changes are special moments in and of themselves. While the lights dim, the sounds of sewing machines increase in intensity, creating a factory ballet of sorts.
The play’s signature moment occurs midway through act two. As the temperature rises in the factory, the women begin taking off their clothes to relieve themselves from the heat. What begins as simply removing their shirts ends in all five women downstage center in only their underwear comparing their bodies. Even though I knew this scene backwards and forwards before seeing the show—this scene in the film is iconic, as well—I was still surprised at how funny and how powerful it was to witness. In interviews I’ve previously conducted with Josefina López, she has discussed how she thought this scene was too silly to include in the play, but with the expert guidance of Irene Fornés, she left it in the script. Thirty years later, it still remains a singular moment in the American theatre.
Continuing the narrative of writing marginalized women into the script, López’s script ends in a fashion show. Not only are five Chicanas taking center stage, but five full-bodied Chicanas do so. This, perhaps, is the play’s most political act. Although Real Women ends in a fashion show in which the women model Estela’s designs, Vela’s production takes this to a new level. As it should, the fashion show delivers one of the best—and most unexpected—finales I’ve seen in recent years. As Ana finishes her monologue, telling us what she learned in her time working in the factory and how it prepared her for the future, the set flies away and is replaced with a floral mural covering the entire back wall. La Virgen de Guadalupe flies in, taking center stage in the middle of a giant yucca. In the fashion show’s final moments, Estela bows to La Virgen, thanking her for watching over these women and guiding them on a new path toward success. In this final scene, costume designer Danielle Nieves nearly steals the show with designs that harken back to traditional Mexican and Chicanx culture. For instance, Ana forgoes a dress in favor of a slick mariachi outfit, an art form not traditionally associated with women. These designs alone are worth seeing the show.
Real Women Have Curves continues DTC’s commitment to telling Latinx stories written by Latinx writers and directed by Latinx directors. While recent years have seen important productions of Oedipus El Rey, Deferred Action, and Fade, next season DTC will double down on this work by producing both Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’ groundbreaking musical In the Heights and José Cruz González’s American Mariachi. Although Real Women Have Curves first premiered in the late ’80s, Dallas Theater Center’s production demonstrates how powerful it can be to breathe new life into the classics.
» Trevor Boffone is a Houston-based scholar, educator, writer, dramaturg, and producer. He is a member of the National Steering Committee for the Latinx Theatre Commons and the founder of the 50 Playwrights Project. Trevor has a Ph.D. in Latinx theater and literature from the Department of Hispanic Studies at the University of Houston where he holds a Graduate Certificate in Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies. He holds an MA in Hispanic Studies from Villanova University and a BA in Spanish from Loyola University New Orleans. He is coeditor with Chantal Rodriguez (Yale) and Teresa Marrero (University of North Texas) of the anthology ENCUENTRO: Latinx Performance for the New American Theater (May 2019, Northwestern University Press).