Dallas — Everything old is new again. This holds true for Kathleen Culebro’s play La Llorona and the legend on which it is based.
Culebro’s play was originally produced at Texas Christian University in 2001, shortly after she co-founded Amphibian Stage Productions with other TCU alumna and faculty. A revised version of play made it to New York’s Beckett Theatre in 2007, and was later staged at Amphibian in 2010. The work now returns as part of Bishop Arts Theatre Center’s 25th anniversary season.
The play’s title alludes to the traditional Mexican folktale by the same name, a legend that emerges out of the pain imposed by the Spanish conquest (1519-1521) and later colonization (1535-1812) of the indigenous population of the ancient Meso American empire of Tenochtitlan (today Mexico City), which later became Colonial Mexico. But this pain holds a specific referent: the body of indigenous women, who either by force or consent, begat a new mestizo race. Official versions of the legend go like this: a beautiful indigenous woman fell in love with a rough-mannered Spanish sailor and had three children by him. He later abandoned her to marry a “proper” (white) Spanish woman. The slighted indigenous woman’s pain was so great that she lost her sanity and drowned all three children in a river. Her loss has doomed her to wonder the nights crying for her lost children.
Culebro’s version offers a story that's inspired by the original story—but do not expect an adaptation. Set in the early 1990s right after the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the play tells the story of a young, formerly affluent Mexico City couple, Carlos (Coy Rubalcaba) and Irma (Nicole Romero), who are now facing hard economic times. Carlos is an aspiring architect, son of a famous one. His wife, Irma, is pregnant and demonstrates a mix of modernity and pre-modernity through her syncretic belief system. She believes in curanderas and la llorona and has a large safety pin on her maternity gown to “protect” her unborn baby.
In order to abate debts and unemployment, Irma suggests they rent out their house to the gringo couple, with themselves as caretakers. Carlos initially refuses but subsequently acquiesces. As the plot unfolds, we meet Jeffrey (Nolan Spinks) and Liz (Janae Hatchett), a U.S. couple living in Houston who are facing yet another move due to his executive position with Taco Tower, a fast food U.S. franchise, which is about to open in Mexico City. Liz is an academic, a sociologist, who is tired of sacrificing her own goals and career for Jeffrey’s constant moves. They have been going to fertility clinics in order for her to get pregnant, which eventually succeeds while in Mexico. They move into Carlos’ and Irma’s home, thus becoming the patrones (landlords) in the home of the Mexican couple, who are now subservient to them. Liz gets pregnant in Mexico, right after Irma births her own baby girl, Luz.
The scenic and lighting design (by Jorge Guerra) put us inside the main living areas of their Mexico City home, a spacious house inherited from Carlos’ formerly affluent parents, with a delicate yet visible projection upstage of an eye (el mal de ojo, the evil eye). The song of La Llorona occasionally accompanies the action.
The action takes place both on set and off, using spaces in front of the set and in the aisles to indicate entrances and exits. Directed by Adam Adolfo, a pro at using tight spaces from formerly directing at the Rose Marine Theatre in Fort Worth, does so in a seamless fashion. This detail is important both at the beginning and the end of the play to indicate which couple “wins” and which “loses” valuable possessions.
The play functions as an allegory on the themes of the colonized and the colonizer, be it the physical, cultural and economic occupation in the late Middle Ages by the Spaniards, or in the late 20th century by U.S. economic and cultural globalization. In one speech, Jeffrey goes on about how the millions of Mexicans and Latin Americans in general are lusting for the American life, how “they all want to be like us, buy our products, live like us.” There’s nothing new about this theme, prevalent in U.S. economic policy towards Latin America since its misguided 19th century notion of Manifest Destiny, in which the U.S. gave itself the “divine” expansionist right to colonize all of the American continent (north, south and in between). Needless to say, Jeffrey runs into difficulty selling the bastardized U.S. version of Mexican food to the Mexicans!
In more specific ways, this play addresses the body of women and their reproductive rights as part of the booty to be gained by such imbalance in economic power.
This tale is reminiscent of the plight of Euripides’ Medea, first produced somewhere around 431 B.C. It too is the story of a woman, Medea, a “barbarian” from the non-Greek kingdom of the Colchis. The Greeks called all non-Greeks “barbarians” since they did not hold the same customs and civil laws as them. This is an early sign of ethnocentrism (the belief that one’s own culture and race is superior to that of others) in Western civilization. Medea marries Greek hero Jason (of the Argonauts and the Golden Fleece) and moves to Athens with her husband and has a son. The Athenians do not accept her alterity as a non-Greek. Jason goes on another conquest and brings back another wife, which enrages Medea. Seeking revenge and to spite Jason, she kills their children.
In both the classical Greek myth/play and in the Mexican legend/play women are at the center of a symbolic yet real battle in the midst of forces greater than themselves, being steered by men.
Adolfo has assembled a fantastic ensemble. Spinks creates an Anglo male whose privilege blinds him to his own ethnocentric superiority—not unlike what we are currently seeing in U.S. politics under this president. Both Romero and Hatchett embody women who understand each other yet cannot escape their own priorities and socio-economic standing. While physically strong, Rubalcaba’s portrayal of Carlos leaves us with a sense of castration, one which accompanies men when unable to fulfill their roles within the heterosexual, patriarchal paradigm of “providers.”
Bishop Arts Theatre Center offers audiences a cozy but by no means small space with comfortable seating in the historic Bishop Arts District of Oak Cliff, an area which has been undergoing massive change, considered renewal to some and gentrification to others. It nevertheless offers a much-needed performance space for Dallas area communities.
It was great to see an audience of white, brown and black faces attending the Saturday matinee. See this show and stay for the free talkback after each performance.
» 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 (University of Houston) of the anthology ENCUENTRO: Latinx Performance for the New American Theater (May 2019, Northwestern University Press).