Dallas — For its third and last show of the Latinidades: A Festival of Solo Shows, Cara Mía Theatre Co. presents Ursula, or let yourself go with the wind, a one-woman piece written, directed and performed by company member Frida Espinosa-Müller, who also designs puppets, props, and set. Original music and sound design are by collaborator Armando Monsivais. It runs through Sept. 8.
This play, performed in Spanish with English supertitles (thanks to Karla Gonzalez and Espinosa-Müller), features the story of Nadia (or nadie, the Spanish word for “no one in particular”), a seven-year old girl who flees her native Honduras with her mother seeking asylum at the U.S-Mexico border. Mother and daughter leave a violent situation behind, one that took the life of Nadia’s innocent father to local cartels. Nadia leaves behind her beloved abue (short for abuela, grandmother) with the hopes of someday seeing her again. For insights as to what the title refers to, read our interview here.
From the start, the audience knows that this is going to be a heart-wrenching story. There is no way out. Nadia and her mother walk hours, days — an eternity, it seems — through roads and desert only to be rounded up by helicopter border patrol. They are subsequently separated. The story follows the young girl, caged with other children who long for their parents, their mami, and yet learn to give and take comfort and survival skills from each other.
Espinosa-Müller, whose acting technique is firmly grounded in physical theater, brings to life all of the characters, including herself as Frida, a variance from an earlier iteration of this play in which the characters did not include the playwright. This novel addition adds a personal touch to a story otherwise distant — by age and social circumstances — between the performer and her main character. As a Spanish speaker, it was easy for me to discern the vocal nuances between Frida as Frida, and Frida as Nadia. This distinction is clearly noted in the overhead English translation. However, for those in the audience needing to switch between reading the subtitles and listening to/watching the performance, this nuance may go unnoticed. Personally, I found the supertitles useful. (One comment from an English-speaking monolingual audience member on Friday night is that, since the performance is staged in such a close and intimate setting on the Latino Cultural Center stage, it is a challenge to tilt the head back far enough to read the supertitles and watch the performer. I recommend that you sit as far back as possible if you require supertitles.)
The issue of language aside, it is a pleasure to see Espinosa-Müller transform seamlessly between characters, thanks to her physical plasticity and modulation of voice and mannerisms. This includes assuming the voice of other detained children as handmade cloth puppets, all of which she manipulates. There is even one with the same outfit and braids as Frida — little Frida.
Monsivais not only provides background music, but his composition is a trustworthy partner, adding color and depth to the emotional nuance of each scene. Steven Piechocki designs the lighting, again, as in other Latinidades productions, his contribution is never intrusive.
A running theme throughout the play is the notion that birds do not understand the human notion of borders, or walls that separate. Two large and colorful guacamaya, macaws that also happen to be the national birds of Honduras, fly overhead and have revealing conversations about the silliness of humankind to build walls, need passports, and to not allow themselves to fly free, as they do. Visibly handled by Espinosa-Müller and Monsivais, the birds provide a second thread of narrative that counters the enclosure of the three chain-link fences that deprive the children of their freedom.
Projections on the backstage wall include the transcripts of pro-detention politicians whose recorded voices and harsh party lines serve as a jarring background to the inhumanity of the children’s conditions. The transcripts do not provide the names of those speaking (unlike Cry Havoc Theater Company’s recent production of Crossing the Line, whereby every speaker was properly identified). In the talk-back on Friday night, I asked the reason for the lack of attribution. Both Cara Mía artistic director David Lozano and Espinosa-Müller responded that, rather than diffusing the conversation towards potentially disruptive party politics, they wanted to maintain the focus on the children and their conditions. What is it like to be 7 years old and separated from your mami? Or 2? 12? How does a child defend her or himself in front of a tribunal whose frightening formality they do not comprehend in a language foreign to them? The inhumanity of this administration’s practice of separating children from their parents takes a toll emotionally, not only now but into the future.
In the talk-back Espinosa-Müller said that she came to this country legally, with all of the proper papers, etc. and yet she cannot help but put herself in the place of these children at the U.S. southern border. As such, she brings empathy accompanied by the urgency of the situation, through the refinement of her craft as a well-rounded performer. Several of the talk-back commentators mentioned the need to bring this piece to larger audiences — to the eyes and ears of those who are becoming immune to the repeated violence that saturates headlines and social media. Indeed, the play is being further developed in future workshops.
» 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 co-editor with Chantal Rodriguez (Yale) and Trevor Boffone (U. of Houston) of the anthology ENCUENTRO: Latinx Performance for the New American Theater (2019, Northwestern University Press). She is often seen dancing tango.