How the way she spoke Resuscitated the Power of Storytelling Through Minimalism

Since the invention of the hot stage light, innovation in the performing arts has increased audience expectations. The theatre, which was once a gathering place to simply hear new stories and perspectives, has increasingly become a space for the privileged critique of how these stories are told and how much innovative spectacle is used to thrill its high-paying listeners. Insurmountable cast sizes, rotating seats, giant puppets, flying characters, and more have all added to the exciting visual glamour of theatre, but have ironically diluted the core meaning of storytelling and instead built consumer-first audiences desperate for glittering effects.

Playwright Isaac Gomez’s work necessitates otherwise. When his new play the way she spoke opened at New York’s Minetta Lane Theatre, produced by Audible Theater, I could not help but sit in awe at how aware the playwright, cast, crew, and producers were of the value of raw storytelling—no bells and whistles, just words, facts, feeling, and meaning.

an actor onstage

Kate del Castillo in the way she spoke. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Gomez’s play is a self-acclaimed docu-mythologia—incorporating both interviews and magic—that details his own desire to understand the mass femicide that has plagued Ciudad Juárez, Mexico for years. the way she spoke was performed as a solo show by expert oracle of an actress Kate del Castillo. The show opens with a flustered entrance by del Castillo, playing an actress who has just experienced yet another discriminatory casting session. She is visiting her playwright friend, Gomez, who has asked her to read through a new script he wrote about his experience on a journey to Mexico, where he had spoken to locals about the femicide epidemic.

I could not help but sit in awe at how aware the playwright, cast, crew, and producers were of the value of raw storytelling—no bells and whistles, just words, facts, feeling, and meaning.

del Castillo’s knowing looks into the distance remind the audience that the playwright is an active character even without a physical actor there to play the role. This is the first of many choices made in the play to minimalize spectacle and accentuate the value of a storyteller and the power of our imagination. Very quickly I wondered: What does Gomez look like? What is he saying on the other end?

As del Castillo reads through the script, she transforms in and out of various characters Gomez met on his dark exploration through Ciudad Juárez. One moment we are in the home of the mother of a lost daughter and the next we are inches away from an accused murderer. del Castillo’s powerfully popping performance, unlike any I’ve seen before on the Minetta stage, pushed its audience from being passive consumers of theatre to activated and engaged listeners. Gomez enlightens del Castillo as an intermediary between past and present, there and here, and, from that, seamlessly builds audience trust and engagement in the story. The performance’s artful direction by Jo Bonney and the play’s clever, minimalistic design by Riccardo Hernandez work together to transform a bare stage with few chairs and a table to a playing ground for del Castillo. All together, these elements build a temple of a stage with no distractions, forcing the audience to listen deeply and to develop a level of investment and engagement in the story.

Throughout his text, Gomez smartly builds the experience to reflect the local statistics of Ciudad Juárez, but, even then, it quickly becomes relevant to its New York audience. By localizing a universal issue, Gomez articulates the larger assault epidemic in America. Toward the end of the piece, del Castillo begins to read from a list of over sixty names of women who have been murdered, some so brutally they were unidentifiable, some young, some old. In this list, the content and weight of the prevalence of assault cannot be unlearned, cannot be unheard.

These elements build a temple of a stage with no distractions, forcing the audience to listen deeply.

Watching del Castillo read through the list and halt partway through with tears running down her cheeks jolted viewers with a sense of this is happening all around us and to women everywhere. The implication was that the gravity of the issue—murder in Mexico—is where the United States is heading if we do not immediately act upon protecting each other. And, with a one-woman show, Gomez develops a space in which the power of the individual is highlighted.

an actor onstage

Kate del Castillo in the way she spoke. Photo by Joan Marcus.

the way she spoke is one hour and twenty minutes of material that has the potential to change each audience member’s own passivity, both as spectator and as a citizen existing in a world plagued by the evils of femicide. Audible Theater also recorded the show so it can be downloaded as an audiobook, giving people a simple yet powerful option to just listen and learn—just as stories have always been passed down.

When I was leaving the theatre I met someone who looked at me and said, “I just did not know this was happening. How could I not know?” It was through the power of storytelling that the way she spoke educated and emblazoned many audience members to hear and understand the weight of issue. What began as Gomez’s quest to learn about the roots of the Juárez epidemic was translated via story to New York audiences as a reflection of the enormity of discrimination and violence against women. Audible’s the way she spoke powerfully revokes the spectacle of twenty-first century theatrical flamboyance and replaces it with a well-composed ode of empathy and action rooted in authentic, potent storytelling.

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