Dallas — Millions worldwide identify Lin-Manuel Miranda as the guy who wrote Hamilton. Many are aware that before Hamilton, Miranda wrote another musical, In the Heights. Musicals have a lot of moving parts and someone has to take those creative components and organize them into a cohesive document, a book. For that responsibility, Miranda entrusted American playwright and composer Quiara Alegría Hudes to create the book for In the Heights. In recognition of her work she was nominated for a Tony. The musical went on to win a 2008 Tony for best Broadway musical.
It made sense that Miranda collaborated with Hudes. Her first play, Yemaya’s Belly (2003), had been critically acclaimed and honored through several prestigious awards including the Paula Vogel Award in Playwriting and the Kennedy Center/ACTF Latina Playwriting Award. Her second play, Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2007. She earned the Pulitzer Prize in 2012 for her play Water by the Spoonful. All of this is to say that Hudes is in her own right, a force. It is with pride that Cara Mía Theatre brings Yemaya’s Belly to a studio space in the Latino Cultural Center for its area premiere. Placing it in the hands of director Marisela Barrera was essentially keeping it within the Cara Mía family. Barrera, a current resident of San Antonio, was formerly Artistic Director for Cara Mía.
The story is set in a small farming community in Cuba. Jesus, who later changes his name to Mulo (Omar Padilla), lives with his mother Mami (Frida Espinosa Müller) and father, who we never meet. His world is small. The only other people close to him are his uncle Jelin (Ivan Jasso) and neighbor Tico (Jerrold Trice) and his wife. Jesus has an unusual experience through dance with Yemaya (Tiana Kaye Johnson). In Yoruba lore, Yemaya is queen of the oceans. From her, Jesus receives a feather in a way that suggests the start of his transition into puberty. He is 11.
Jesus’ father is always working, or at least this is how it seems to Jesus, so he spends a lot of time with Jelin and Tico. From Tico he learns how to play dominoes and uncle Jelin introduces him to the world outside his village. Jesus is a boy in in search of adventure. Jelin takes him into town where Jesus has his first refrigerated Coca-Cola and where he befriends a shopkeeper (also played by Müller.) While he and Jelin are in town, word reaches them that a horrible fire is ravaging their home village. They return to ashes and death. Jesus is now a boy in search of a home. He changes his name to Mulo and decides the path to home is across the ocean, traveling with Maya (Johnson) who is probably only 14 or so. The village boy has become an immigrant.
This is an uncluttered production of a fractured story told through magical realism mixed in with a little spirituality. The production is immersed in sounds composed and performed by S-Ankh Rasa. The sounds are not ambient, rather they are as robust as the characters both seen and unseen. Kenneth Verdugo’s set is artistic, a beautiful assemblage of pieces that with Mark Pearson’s lighting and Ryan M. Smith’s costumes clarify place for the audience. Mulo and Maya are delivered to a different land through the belly of Yemaya, the sea.
Padilla and Johnson anchor the story. They are believable as children guided only by the tales and dreams of their people. Padilla whips Jesus abruptly from one emotion to another, from the joy of a cold soda to the whiff of a pretty girl to the anger over a tragic loss. Padilla’s performance reminds the audience of the tenacious curiosity of youth. Johnson wears her characters well, starting with the Yemaya dance at the beginning, choreographed by Michelle Gibson. She finds the right tone as Maya. It is as if Jelin was written for Jasso. Trice and Müller round out context for the story, effectively giving it continuity.
It is possible that one can watch Yemaya’s Belly and not realize it is a story about immigration until the very end. Perhaps that is the playwright’s subtlety—the foreshadowing through dance in her opening cue. Perhaps it is simply that the story of immigration is the story of ordinary people and within that lies its universality. Yemaya’s Belly is about family and friends, traditions and rituals, fantasy and spirituality, and firsts and forevers. It is ultimately about all of the Mulos and Mayas that make up America and their countries of origin—pieces of selves they left behind.