Dallas — Cara Mía Theatre Co.’s production of Mexican playwright Berta Hiriart’s play, Tina’s Journey, returns to Dallas after a seven-year absence. Produced in 2011 with the same collaborators but a slightly different cast and political context, this show—an international collaboration between México City’s Laboratorio de las Máscaras (Mask Laboratory), Alicia Martínez Álvarez (director and production designer) and Cara Mía—is still thrilling audiences. I did not see it here the first time, so for me, as for many audience members—particularly the young ones—this was a brand new experience.
The child in me emotionally accompanied the young Tina, while the adult in me marveled at the beauty of this production. It demonstrates that theater for young audiences can reach beyond age limitations and can be of the highest aesthetic quality. The staging is brilliant. Tina’s Journey possesses all of the elements of the archetypical hero’s journey, one in which he or she sets out from the homeland, survives travails, to come full circle to find “there is no place like home.”
But this is not exactly The Wizard of Oz. While Dorothy left Kansas on an oneiric journey through the land of Oz, Tina (Frida Espinosa-Müller) is informed by her parents Cayetano (Martín Pérez) and Eloisa (Lucila Rojas) that the land can no longer sustain them; they have to go “to the other side” (al otro lado). While there is no explicit mention as to where that is, soon it is evident that they are going north from their Mexican municipio of Xochiltepec (in the state of Morelos, about eight miles due south of Cuernavaca, the capital of the state). The toponym Xochitepec comes from Nahuatl (the language of the Aztecs), also known as Nahuas, meaning “on the hill of flowers.”
Flowers play a key role. Tina’s major concern upon being informed that they are abandoning their homeland is to ask about their dead. What will happen to their dead ancestors if the family moves and they can no longer find their way to the home altar on the Day of the Dead, she asks? So that their ancestors can find their way to their new home, she sets out to leave a trail of marigold (the traditional bright gold Day of the Dead flower, the cempasuchitl, another Nahuatl word). The time of the play is Oct. 28 and the family has two days to cross the border, make it to their U.S. relatives’ place and set up the Day of the Dead altar. Among the deceased relatives are Tina’s grandmother (Priscilla Rice) and her uncle Torcuato (Armando Monsivais). And, while Dorothy gets to return to Kansas, Tina’s place in the world is a new home, one where she does not understand the language nor the customs, particularly Halloween. Her home is not a physical place but where her family –both living and dead—are.
Sound familiar? Yes, Tina’s Journey shares similar themes of identity, family and culture seen in the highly successful Disney animated film, Coco (2017). However, whereas in Coco we saw a young boy, here we have a strong-minded young girl who guides the action. Rare are the works in which audiences are exposed to young women in heroic roles, and in this case a brown one at that. Going back to Dorothy, whose journey takes place in the magical land of Oz, Tina’s journey follows an arduous border crossing northward through the desert. The way in which this play represents the U.S./Mexico border patrol and the proposed “wall” is nothing short of genius. Let’s just say that Tina’s placement of the marigolds in the imposing and scary border “wall” reminded me of the emblematic Vietnam protestor’s photograph whereby a young hippy woman places a flower in the barrel of an armed U.S. serviceman’s gun. The play makes a humane comment on an inhumane proposal: the current president’s obsession on shutting us off from our neighbors to the south.
This production has it all: tight script, gorgeous visual design, a perfect live (and recorded) original musical score by Eugenio Toussant (with Griselda Ashari Martinez as Don Zerefino and in musical adaptation/accompaniment on the marimba), beautiful costumes and the magic of the Cara Mía cast members, one and all, who put their bodies on the line to portray human characters through the lens of face masks.
Frida Espinosa-Müller joyously embodies Tina. I marvel every time I see her body morph into a new character in each production; she is a master of physical theater performance. She also functions as associate director, prop master and costume coordinator. David Lozano, is the producer, plays Mike, the agringado cousin of Tina, as he did in the 2011 production. What a delight to see him move to the beat of an English-dominant hip-hop youth and get stuck on the word “cempasuchil.” Armando Monsivais plays Torcuato and is also on musical adaptation and accompaniment. Martín Perez plays Cayetano and is also associate director and costume coordinator. Priscilla Rice is fantastic as the old woman Evodia, Lucila Rojas shines in the roles of Calavera, Witch, and Eloisa. Danielle Bondurant plays the other witch, the wall and Calavera; and Carlos Arranz is first-rate as the Prince of Ice. His evolution as a physical actor has been exciting to watch.
The genius of director Alicia Martínez Álvarez cannot be underestimated. Her international credits have taken her to places like Bali (well-known for their traditional use of masks), and Singapore. She has collaborated with other U.S. entities such as Dell’Arte International School in California and has close ties with Cara Mía. I would venture to suggest that she and her Laboratorio de las Máscaras have shaped the way in which the Cara Mía company imagines physical theater through the art of mask. This international collaboration adds richness, representational and aesthetic diversity to our North Texas cultural landscape.
Go to Tina’s Journey and take the entire family. It’s performed in English and Spanish with translations projected on the side so as not to interfere with the visual field. But there is a minimalist approach to dialogue; one hardly needs the translations—the action is easy to follow.
» 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, a network of theater artists, producers and scholars in the U.S.