Dallas — Sandra Cisneros’ emblematic book of short narratives, The House on Mango Street, based on the experiences of pre-teen Esperanza, was first published in 1983. It was later brought to life as a theatrical experience by Amy Ludwig’s adaptation.
This current production from Cara Mía Theatre Company at the Latino Cultural Center is infused with life by director David Lozano’s smart choices. Other than the stellar casting, this version of The House on Mango Street has a heartbeat of rhythm and movement. Thanks to the collaborations by composer and music director S-Ankh Rasa and intimacy director and dance choreographer Danielle Georgiou, it feels like the Chicano version of In the Heights. This important element was missing in their 2011 production, and it makes a huge difference.
The set design (Kenneth Verdugo) still feels contemporary, allowing the actors to move in and out of private and public spaces. For a first-person narrative that is primarily a bildungsroman (a coming-of-age story) of a girl within her low-income Chicago neighborhood, the set embraces each and every scene. Director Lozano has created the (non-dance) movement and staging, and Georgiou makes full use of the multiple spaces and levels to add vibrancy to the otherwise rather straight-forward narration of multiple short vignettes. Because this is a string of stories, audiences might miss the lack of an obvious dramatic arc. Nevertheless, each story holds some recurring characters and engaging situations to make the story move.
Likewise, Rasa links each of the stories with various rhythms, providing variance in emotional tone of each scene. This aspect is crucial for filling in the emotional landscape of each segment and also as a bridge that moves the action along. The two-hour (with intermission) production feels shorter and more dynamic because of it.
Costume design by Niki Hernandez-Adams is also on point, catering beautifully to the personalities of each of the numerous characters. This element also proves essential in keeping track of the multiple story lines. Lighting design by Linda Blase blends in harmoniously with the other elements of the production. This is a tightly conceived production that delivers high-quality entertainment value.
The eight-person ensemble includes Ana Armenta (Young Esperanza) and Lulu Ward (Older Esperanza). The trope of presenting the storylines from both perspectives provokes the audience to simultaneously imagine the notion of living in the moment of the action (the present), and also in the subsequent aftermath: getting out of the barrio (the desired future). Armenta’s Young Esperanza captivates with innocence and a refined sense of subtle body movements. She accentuates certain parts with a simple heels-off-the-ground movement that signals the dream-like wishful thinking of Judy Garland in the The Wizard of Oz, without being derivative. Ward’s Older Esperanza offers counterweight to the youthful exuberance without feeling judgmental or heavy.
Cheyenne Raquel Farley also distinguishes herself in various roles, each one bringing me back to the program to check who plays each role. All of the ensemble actors, Christina Austin Lopez, Celeste Perez, Matthew Roy Rodriguez, Victor Santos, and Kevin Solís demonstrate a similar versatility; there’s not a weak link among them.
As noted in our recent interview with director Lozano, in 2012 this book was banned in Arizona and purged from both the curriculum and the public libraries in a clearly racist attempt to erase Latinx stories from existence. The book was translated into Spanish by the renowned Mexican journalist and writer Elena Poniatowska. The Spanish version has made its way into Hispanos en los Estados Unidos courses, such as the one I am currently teaching at the University of North Texas. You can’t keep a good story down.
This performance is family-friendly for children who can sit still long enough. It is great entertainment across ages, and may be particularly relevant to teenage audiences.
» Teresa Marrero is professor of Latin American and Latinx Theater in the Spanish Department at the University of North Texas. She is thrilled that her third play, Second-Hand Conversations with Irene, which pays homage to two women with dementia, has been selected to participate in the UNDERMAIN THEATER’S annual Whither Goest Thou America Festival, April 16 – May 10, 2020. Her Spanish-language play, La Familia, is published in Teatro Latino: Nuevas Obras de los Estados Unidos (2019, available on Amazon). 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).