Young Latina Protagonists
New TYA Plays put Mexican American Girls Center Stage
Young Latina (more specifically female Mexican American) protagonists have recently conquered the stage in two new theatre for young audience (TYA) plays. ZACH Theatre, Teatro Vivo, and Glass Half Full Theatre in Austin, Texas produced Cenicienta by Rupert Reyes and Caroline Reck. LUCHADORA! by Alvaro Saar Rios was commissioned and produced by First Stage in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Though very different in form and content, these two bilingual plays support what appears to be a growing interest in young Latina protagonists in U.S. American theatre.
While the artists hope that the stories they tell are universal, these specific stories are critical for Latinas who are rarely afforded opportunities to see characters who look and sound like them on stage.
Cenicienta is a contemporary bilingual retelling of Cinderella, written for and performed by one actor, who plays ten-year-old Belinda. Belinda, in turn, creates and portrays the other characters made from random objects in front of the audience. Gricelda Silva aptly played Belinda, whose story loosely parallels that of Cinderella, or Cenicienta. Belinda spends the entire play in the basement, gathering materials for an upcoming party hosted by her stepmother and stepfather. As she folds napkins and finds dresses and shoes for her stepsisters to wear to the party, she laments the loss of her real parents, shares her poetry, and makes her puppet friends out of nearby objects. A lamp with two lights, for example, loosely signify the mice in Cinderella and upside down funnels on Silva’s feet and hands represent her stepsisters, seemingly all on stage at the same time.
Though Cenicienta has two named authors, Reck and Reyes collaborated with several partners to devise the show. The story deviates from Cinderella, offering important commentary on the original fairy tale and female agency. At one point the Fairy Godmother (a teapot puppet operated by Silva) tells Belinda, “Escucha, niñita. I’ll make you a dress. But promise me you won’t marry him unless he’s kind, interesting, and fun.” Rather than her physical beauty, Belinda recognizes her greatest asset as her ability to write poetry. Belinda’s objective is to get upstairs to share her words with famous author Gary Soto, who is a party guest. Reyes shares that one of his main reasons for writing the play was that he “wanted to see if we could transform a (story) that is about succeeding because you are the most beautiful woman at the ball into something that will give young women and men another way to succeed in life… a fairy tale that can come true.”
LUCHADORA! is also set in a contemporary context though its protagonist, Vanessa, sees her abuela (Nana Lupita)’s career in wrestling (lucha libre) come to life as she listens to her grandmother tell her life story. Vanessa, an aspiring boxer, faces a similar challenge to that of Nana Lupita as she struggles to tell her parents about her love of boxing for fear they will not allow her to box because it is not traditionally a girl’s sport. A large, skilled cast under the direction of Jeff Frank told this exciting original story in its premiere in Milwaukee. Playwright Alvaro Saar Rios says that while this play will obviously not only be seen by young Latinas, he hopes all audience members walk away thinking about being proactive in their lives. “I want girls who see LUCHADORA! to think, ‘If there is something I want to do, I can take charge and go do it.’” The play is robust with several sub plots with numerous points of critical engagement for young Latinas. The Mask Maker, also young Lupita’s wrestling coach, shares with Lupita’s father:
Señor Rodriguez, this world is filled with tales of girls doing things that men think they shouldn’t do. Yesterday, in El Paso, a girl trained to be a matador. Tomorrow, in cities big and small, girls will train to serve their country…Fifteen years from now, a girl will fly into outer space and see more stars than we can ever imagine. And in a future that’s not too far from us, your great granddaughter will quit going to her dance class and put on boxing gloves.
The Mask Maker—and Saar Rios—are speaking to all the fathers in the audience. Vanessa goes on to do just what the Mask Maker predicts. Eventually, inspired by Nana Lupita’s achievements as a world champion wrestler, Vanessa shares her love of boxing and her plan to tell her parents with her Nana Lupita.
Appropriate, authentic representations in language and casting are critical to plays that share Latina/o themes and characters. These two plays and productions for the most part offer such. However, each inspires questions around the nuances of sharing stories through young Mexican American protagonists.
Appropriate, authentic representations in language and casting are critical to plays that share Latina/o themes and characters.
Cenicienta’s language weaves Spanish and English and directly addresses the politics of language. Reyes feels the language is critical to the play and offers,
I want all audiences to realize that they enjoyed, understood, and experienced a play in a language that will be heard more and more in Austin. My hope is that… all members of our community will associate positive feelings and experiences with the Spanish language and the people who speak it.
The language is complex, and at moments poetic and stunning. However, I was occasionally confused by characters’ specific language choices. Belinda’s stepmother and stepsisters, for example, make fun of Belinda’s Mexican American heritage (in jolting, demanding recorded offstage voices) though at several moments they also speak Spanish. Perhaps this, too, was meant as commentary on their own hypocrisy.
LUCHADORA! also offers a bilingual world to the audience, in fact a trilingual one—in addition to English and Spanish, the play features some German. In the premiere production, the languages were handled with care and grace—most of the actors reflected the cultural heritages of the Mexican American and German American characters they portrayed. Though I was pulled out of the play a couple of times by mispronunciations, I was quickly drawn back in by the clear storytelling, well-crafted staging, and vibrant live wrestling on the dynamic set, a wrestling ring on wheels.
In both of these plays and productions I was left wondering about representation and context. I often explore the question, Who can tell what story? with my theatre education students, as they consider what stories they have a right and/or responsibility to tell on future school stages. I can’t help but look at this same question in relation to these two premiere productions, as none of the lead artists (the playwrights and directors) are young Latinas themselves. Saar Rios, who has written Latina protagonists a few times before, says of his own identity in relation to his play,
I have been surrounded by strong women. But I had to be creative in thinking about the leap from strong women to strong girls. That is a little farther from my experience. When I am writing, I don’t think about who I am. I just think about telling the story. If I am not the right person to tell the story, the audiences will let me know.
Before seeing these productions, I knew who the key creators were and I wondered about the representations of young Latinas these artists would offer. The question became irrelevant as I watched the plays because both protagonists felt authentic. What I mean to say is that the plays seemed to resonate with those in the audience (whom I observed) who most closely appeared to mirror the protagonists. In the case of Cenicienta, my nine-year-old Spanish speaking Latina daughter attended the production with me and seemed to support my sentiments. I wish I had the opportunity to hear more perspectives of the many young Latinas who saw these productions. Perhaps the reason these plays offer true and honest representations of young Latinas is due to a genuine interest in deeply exploring such characters, an investment expressed by the artists in these two new works.
Cenicienta, LUCHADORA!, and my own play, Mariachi Girl, confirm a trend toward plays representing young female protagonists who are seeking and finding agency in their lives. Today, there are more young Latina characters on stage than in the twenty previous seasons I have spent examining Latina/o TYA and teaching theatre education. While TYA has told many stories of young Latina protagonists in the past, such as Alicia in Wonder Tierra by Sylvia Gonzalez S., Simply Maria, or the American Dream by Josefina López, and Cinderella Eats Rice and Beans by Karen Zacarías, this many premieres with young Mexican American central characters in the same year is unprecedented. Also, critical to note is that both plays were produced in spaces where Latina/o stories have not often historically been shared. Both Cenicienta and LUCHADORA! were seen by over 6,000 children during the school day.
Developing and producing new plays that reach historically underrepresented audiences in the United States is to be applauded. In both of these new works, the stories are inspiring and relevant to young people, specifically young Latinas. While the artists hope that the stories they tell are universal, these specific stories are critical for Latinas who are rarely afforded opportunities to see characters who look and sound like them on stage. Cenicienta and LUCHADORA! encourage young Latinas to reach beyond the simple, stereotypical, limited narratives that have historically bombarded them, and still do today. These stories, in contrast, have the potential to inspire young Latinas to recognize themselves as complex, individual, agents of power in their own lives.
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Working in the Austin public elementary schools as a theatre specialist I heard wonderful things about Cenicienta from my 2nd graders. Many shared excitement at hearing an actor speaking in Spanish and one student was particularly excited that Gricelda, the actress playing Belinda, spoke in Spanish to the class when she visited them during a post-show residency. As a white woman who is not a fluent Spanish-speaker I struggle to identify how to best serve as a role model for students of different backgrounds. In the case of theatre I can speak about plays that have Latino themes and incorporate Latino/a characters into our work, but the world of theatre became much more real for many of my students when they were able to access theatre in their first language and identify closely with the lead actress in a play. For my students who are not bilingual it was interesting to see there curiosity peaked about Spanish as they experienced such a positive association with the language through the play(when that is unforunately not how they associate with Spanish). Important work is being done to open the worldview for children of all languages, backgrounds and cultures through Latino TYA. Thanks to all engaging in creating high quality bilingual productions with strong child characters for our young audiences!
Thank you Roxanne for this wonderful article. It is so important to ZACH's mission that we represent the people who live in our city. Especially for youth, it is important they know their stories matter. Thank you for all your advocacy for bilingual theatre. You are a true pioneer in our field!
Thank you Roxanne for highlighting these productions in detail. Congratulations to Alvaro Saar Rios for Luchadora. We wish him continued success with his wonderful play, Luchadora.
We are extremely proud of Cencienta and the message it brings to young latin@ audiences. Approximately 7000 students in the Austin area made up the audiences for Cenicienta. The majority of them were [email protected].
Thank you Roxanne. And congrats to Alvaro Saar Rios. Luchadora was selected as part of our Latino New Play Festival and Teatro Vivo is excited to see it go into full production. The writing team of Caroline Reck, Nat Miller, Griselda Silva and JoAnn Carreon-Reyes made Cenicienta what it became. We did want a Latino heroine and at the same time, a Latino hero. If you brought your son to see the show, I'd like to hear your impressions.
Thanks for illustrating this important work in a critical and detailed way, Roxanne! For those interested in this question of "Who Can Tell What Story," check out Roxanne's article by the same name in TYA Today.
Great work, Roxanne! I've heard wonderful things about both plays and hope that theatre companies will be producing them or that they might tour soon!