Dallas — Bless Me, Ultima, the 1972 novel by the celebrated New Mexican author Rudolfo Anaya and its adaptation to the stage by Anaya himself—now onstage by Cara Mía Theatre Company—celebrates the ongoing fusion of indigenous belief systems with Catholic ones.
It is traditionally hailed as the coming-of-age story of Antonio (Tony), a young boy and his family from rural New Mexico during World War II. The novel has been incorporated—not without controversy—into the curricula of elementary, high school and college courses for decades. Controversy over themes considered by religious conservatives to be “devil worship,” and that it has strong language and sexual content, have emerged in California, Texas, New York, Colorado and Missouri. According to the Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association the novel is listed among the “most challenged book list in the United States” between 2008 and 2013. It is in good company. The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling also made its way to this list during the same time period.
Bless Me, Ultima has nevertheless received numerous prestigious awards, including University of California, Berkeley’s Premio Quinto Sol, a standard of excellence in Chicano/a literature. It is considered a classic of non-derivative American literature. Cara Mía’s executive artistic director, David Lozano, sees it a powerful folktale that calls to our inner strength and the healing power of our cultural beliefs.
In the dramatic version Anaya skillfully adapts his sweeping novel to focus on the tension between Ultima (played lovingly by Frida Espinosa Müller, who can create magic even with the tip of her fingers) and Tenorio (Ivan Jasso who seamlessly plays dual roles) and his three witch daughters. A clear distinction between the benevolent curandera (healer), Ultima, and the demonic and bewitched sisters is drawn from the beginning. Anaya employs the trope of Young Tony (Edwin Aguilar) in the dramatic action, and adult Tony (Ivan Jasso) as the retrospective narrator who moves the action and fleshes out details that may otherwise slip by the audience.
Curanderismo (the practice of earth-centered healing with prayer and herbs) is a folk practice that syncretizes indigenous beliefs with Catholic ones. This phenomenon—which it must be stated is NOT witchcraft—prevails throughout world cultures, whereby one subjugated by conquest remains intact in subtle ways by inserting itself within the dominant cultural and religious practices. This anthropological phenomenon has been well-studied, thus anyone with a degree of understanding of syncretic practices clearly sees the importance of respecting what remains of aboriginal cultural practices.
The hub of the action is Ultima, an elderly woman who moves to the town. She perceives talent in young Tony, who is able to dream and connect with the spirit world. Tenorio, on the other hand, projects his own misfortune of having evil daughters upon Ultima, making her and her nahual (her spirit animal, the owl) the scapegoat of his anger. Jasso so effectively morphs from the good adult Tony to the angry Tenorio that it took me a while to realize it was the same actor. His speech and body language as Tenorio set him so far apart from adult Tony as to be effectively distinguishable.
Of the play’s 11 actors, all except Espinosa-Müller (Ultima) and Edwin Aguilar (Young Tony) play double and sometimes triple roles. The entire cast works as an ensemble unit, a characteristic now par for the course in Cara Mía. Lozano directs expertly and in ways that we, the audience, only see a polished end-product of quality entertainment. It is great to see Omar Padilla (Kiko/Andrew), Armando Monsivais (Deputy/Prudencio/Lucas), and Carlos Arranz (Lupito/Horse), a staple in North Texas Latinx productions. Other actors have participated in previous Cara Mía productions, including Ana Armenta (Maria, Agnes, Witch), and R. Andrew Aguilar (Gabriel, Priest), and Edwin Aguilar (Young Tony). New to the company are Adriana Cortez (Witch, June), UNT grad Davis-Jones (Witch/Florence), and Rudy Lopez (Narciso/Bones). There is not a weak link among them.
Keeping in line with the sweeping, epic scope of the play, special mention goes to set designer Scott Osborne. Earth-toned, multiple high structures on casters (small wheels) offer a larger-than-life scale and immerses the actors and the audience in the arid and mountainous terrain of Nuevo Mexico. Nimble actors climb the sides of various walls and dive into an imaginary river from high altitude with the expert guidance of movement and fight choreographer Jeffrey Colangelo. The puppets (designed by Frida Espinosa Müller, responsible for the owl and the giant red carp) are exquisite. Lighting (Linda Blasé), set, costume (Niki Hernandez-Adams) and sound/music design, live music (Paul Quigg) team up to shine in their respective areas, making the whole better than the parts.
While this piece is not marketed as theater for young audiences, there are no age restrictions listed. All content is adequate for children that are able to sit quietly for 120 minutes (with one 10-minute intermission).
» 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).