The Colony — Imagine going to the theatre and being in the dark during the entire performance. Entirely. In the dark.
This is exactly the challenge that the play The True History of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, the Ugliest Woman in the World at Lakeside Community Theatre in The Colony takes on. It was written by Shaun Prendergast, an English actor and writer with early credits with the BBC Radio Drama Company among numerous others in film, television, and on stage. It was specifically written to be performed without any visual representation of the real-life Julia Pastrana, an unfortunate Indigenous woman born in 1834 from Sinaloa de Leyva, Sinaloa, Mexico.
According to sources, she was born with several genetic conditions. One was hypertrichosis terminalis which made her face and body covered with straight, black hair. In other words, she was a hirsute (a topic also addressed in Migdalia Cruz’s play Fur, recently produced by Teatro Dallas). Pastrana’s ears and nose were unusually large, and her teeth were irregular. The latter condition was caused by a rare disease, undiagnosed in her lifetime, Gingival hyperplasia, which thickened her lips and gums. Her image is easily found on the internet.
She was sold to the circus in the United States by her uncle when her mother died. Passed from owner to owner until, in 1854, she married Theodore Lent, who became her manager and toured her throughout Europe. She was billed as The Ape Woman, the Non-Descript, and the Ugliest Woman in the World. She lived her life away from the public eye, except when exhibited as a freak. Allegedly she had a lovely singing voice and was of mild manners. She and Lent had a child.
Without giving too much away, Pastrana’s fate ran similar to that of the famed Argentine figure of Eva Perón, who was embalmed and exhibited after death. Both in life and beyond Julia’s life was treated as a commodity, something from which to profit those around her, but not her. Particularly tragic were the circumstances after her death.
In the case of Pastrana, and other women who were trafficked and exhibited by the 19th Euro-centric penchant towards reifying the Americas as the exotic and primitive Other, staging her story in the dark thwarts the impulse towards further objectifying her. Telling the story of Julia Pastrana and having her speak in her own sweet voice (as performed by Araceli Radillo) is able to transcend the exotic and humanizes her.
The choice of producing a play in total darkness, which is an explicit demand in Prendergast’s script, is one that fortuitously works in the intimate space at the Lakeside Community Theatre. The U-shaped seating arrangement is three rows deep. There is no proscenium stage, thus no backstage, only a floor-level performance space. There are various entry points from four corners, which are utilized perfectly to offer a rich auditory sense of live surround-sound. With a cast of 10, the audience never knows from where the next voice will emerge.
I had no trouble closing my eyes and imagining the entire show, which runs an economical 45 minutes. Long enough to enjoy the darkness, but short enough to not become over-burdened by it. Actually, the experience felt quite rich and fulfilling, more like a longer piece.
The need for perfectly timed ensemble work is eminent in this piece, a feat beautifully accomplished by the cast members: Radillo as Pastrana; plus Autumn McNamara, Kelton Neals, Ellen Bell, Tyler Pietruszewski, Maddie Hatch, Stephen Hyatt, Melissa Hatch, Spencer Liles, Chris Wooley. With nimble direction by Nicole Denson.
Liles, as husband/entrepreneur, gives off greedy thirst and repugnance as he describes what it was like having sex with the Ugliest Woman in the World. Radillo’s Pastrana is as delicate as handmade lace, performed with a refinement in speech and manners that betray the roughness of her appearance. Wooley’s thunderous voice as the Showman fills the room with exuberance and moved the action right along. It's worth noting that even though you cannot see them, the actors are in costume.
This is not the first staging of Julia Pastrana in DFW stages. Amphibian Stage did its world premiere in 2003 when they were at Texas Christian University; and they revived it 2012 as the first production in their current home, and to commemorate Pastrana’s arrival at her final resting place in her native Sinaloa de Leyva. Laura Anderson Barbata, the sister of Amphibian Artistic Director Kathleen Culebro, was instrumental in having Pastrana’s physical remains extradited from an Oslo museum back to Mexico in August 2012 (Barbata told the story in a one-woman show which she performed at Amphibian). The show has also been done at Texas Woman's University.
To those who may say why go to the theater that is performed in the dark, I say: Why not? In our image-driven society, being offered the opportunity to imagine for ourselves feels like a privilege. You know what people say when they compare a reading a novel to seeing the movie… Personally, I surrendered myself without difficulty and thoroughly enjoyed the experience of my own imagination.
» 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). Her Spanish-language play, La Familia, is published in Teatro Latino: Nuevas Obras de los Estados Unidos (2019, available on Amazon). She is working on her third play, Second-Hand Conversations with Irene, which pays homage to two women with dementia.