Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles

International Festival Mexican Dancers

Mojada is the Spanish word for the derogatory term wetback. A word used in English to denigrate undocumented immigrants from Mexico. Before this connotation was coined, the word originally meant wetting or soaking. Medea is a Greek tragedy by Euripides. In his play, Medea, wife of Jason of the Argonauts fame, helps him steal the golden fleece, the pair then steal away. She is later betrayed by him, leading her to exact revenge.

Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles is a modern retelling of the Euripides play, set in the City of Angels. Medea is a shy seamstress and Jason is an enterprising go-getter. Jason embraces his new life in America, while Medea hates it, but cannot go home. Acán, their son, follows his father’s lead towards Americanization. Medea misses her home and cannot forget the traumas of their journey north.

Jason is seduced by his boss, Armida, an LA developer, who had not gotten the #MeToo message. She first steals Jason and then Acán. She then confronts Medea, and threatens her with eviction from her house. Pleading, Medea wins a one day reprieve. She uses that day to make Armida a dress that she had once requested. It is a magical dress. A dress once worn, transforms itself into a snake that kills Armida. Then still in a rage, Medea kills her only son with a machete.

This is a grisly end for Mojada, which is often comical and light, but that’s Greek tragedy for you. You get the same result as with a Shakespearian tragedy, but in fewer acts, where everybody dies in the fifth act. Greek tragedy is a source for several of playwright Luis Alfaro’s works. Alfaro has even reworked this play, when restaging it in other cities. At ninety minutes and one act, it is a short play. Some of the dialog was in Spanish, making some plot points difficult to understand, but also adding to the play’s authenticity.

It is in this concept of authenticity that Mojada seems to have differentiated itself from another popular telling of the modern Mexican immigrant story, as told in the novel American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. Much of the criticism of Cummins and her book originates with the fact that she is not Mexican. She is an Anglo. Charges of cultural appropriation have been leveled against her. This smacks of racism or maybe reverse racism, but it is also on a slippery slope. Where do you cross the line when telling someone else’s story? This question is especially pertinent when your retelling comes from a publishing pinnacle. There is very little room at the top. One person’s story can supplant another’s. 

The Thanksgiving Play

The Thanksgiving Play

We attended The Thanksgiving Play, written by Native American playwright Larissa FastHorse and it is a comic joy. It deliciously skewers liberal white political correctness. Four white actors flounder in their attempt to produce an unbiased retelling of Thanksgiving for the local elementary school, when they discover that their lodestone Native American actress is also white. Alicia had been playing, if unintentionally, in red face. From LA, she is good at ethnic and playin’.

Co-producers of this play-within-a-play are Logan and Caden. Director/actor Logan is hoping to overcome her past elementary school production’s failures, The Iceman Cometh and Titus Andronicus and the 300 parental petition signers that those productions spawned. Actor, partner, busker and guy not a vagrant, because he also has a day job, Caden, is well paired with Logan. In celebration for getting this gig, Caden gives Logan the perfect gift, a water-bottle, made of recycled glass, from the broken windows, of the local projects. Rounding out the cast as actor, writer and local teacher is Jaxton. He is kind of the odd man out in this production. All he wants is to hear his written words spoken by actors old enough to read three-syllable words. In this, he speaks to me as if the authoress.

This play was performed in the Rep’s basement black box Studio Theater, which has been newly dedicated to long time Rep director, Steven Wolff. We took our seats and awaited the performance, all the while a medley of Thanksgiving themed children’s songs played over the school’s PA. One of them, Five Little Turkeys, was echoed in the play, in a rap sendup, Four Little Turkeys. It should have been five, but the school’s budget could only afford four. After one, two, three, four little gunshots, four little turkeys were no more.

In the footsteps of older, more famous theatrical spoofs, such as The Producers, the comedy of The Thanksgiving Play holds up best when it has a melody to accomanpany it. The title alone of one of the previous FastHorse productions alludes to this, Teaching Disco Square Dancing to Our Elders. The best musical interlude in the play is a duet, between the two actresses. One dressed as a Native and the other as a Pilgrim. It is a medley of patriotic American standards that are only slightly tweaked for this performance, “This land is my land. This land was my land. This land is for me, not you.”

Angels in America, Part Deux

Angel of the Bethesda Fountain

We attended the second part of Angels in America, Perestroika. The action picks up where the first half ended. It is the 1985. Gorbachev is attempting to reform the USSR through an economic restructuring or perestroika. The aids epidemic is raging, with only one ray of hope on the horizon, a new miracle drug, AZT. While the first half of the play, basically setup the plot and introduced the characters, the focus of this second half is the death of Roy Cohn.

The play’s one historical character is vilified by all and does everything he can to justify that vilification. Using his political connections, he appeals to Nancy Reagan and acquires his own private stash of AZT, hoarding for himself enough medicine to treat eighty aids patients of this very rare and much sought after drug. It is all to no avail though, because while AZT was effective with some patients, it does not staunch the advancement of Cohn’s “liver cancer”.

Near the end, in combination with the morphine drip that he takes to ease his pain, visitations from the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg become more frequent. Cohn was the Federal prosecutor who secured the convictions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and insured their execution, even going so far as judge tampering. One time he asks her to sing him asleep. While reluctant, she eventually complies and sings a Jewish lullaby. Finishing, she becomes concerned that she sang him more than just to sleep, only to be startled when he gleefully gloats, “I finally made Ethel Rosenberg sing!”

During intermission, I spoke to a man whose father was investigated by Roy Cohn. After the Rosenbergs, Cohn joined Senator Joe McCarthy and his un-American activities subcommittee and became his chief deputy. McCarthy’s witch hunt, to turn a phrase, was ruthless in its search for communists, first in government, but then McCarthy turned his fire on the US Army. This led to a confrontation with Joe Walsh, an attorney hired by the Army. After McCarthy launched a particularly brutal attack on a young soldier, Walsh famously asked, “Have you no sense of decency?” The man who I spoke with, his father had been in the Army. He had been serving at Los Alamos, when called before the un-American activities committee. I asked the man what had happened to his father. “Not much, he was transferred to Fort Leonard Wood,” here in Missouri.

That confrontation with Walsh marked the end of both McCarthy and Cohn’s political careers. Cohn returned to NYC and private practice, where for thirty years he hobnobbed with the rich, while doing their dirty work too. One up and coming lad who Cohn helped out and who was later described as what Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn’s love child would look like, was Donald Trump. It has been an interesting week, what with scandal erupting into impeachment proceedings. In conjunction with this play, I am reminded of the quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

The play ends in 1989. The Berlin Wall has fallen and the Soviet Union is no more. With the help of Cohn’s cache of AZT, Prior is still living with AIDS after five years. The play ends at the Bethesda fountain in Central Park, where Prior promises that the great work begun will continue. 

Angels in America

My Photo Shy Angel

We launched the new theater season, with a show at the Rep, Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches. This seminal play was revived last year on Broadway and has made it to our little regional theater’s neck of the woods, in almost record time. Tony Kushner’s magnum opus is not for the faint of heart though. Its mature themes dealing with homosexuality, AIDS and death could easily be off putting to some theater goers. Then there is its length. Combined, both parts clock in at just under eight hours. Last night’s performance was punctuated with two intermissions, without which there would have been some serious numb-butt going on.

The cast of eight actors all handle multiple roles. Principle among them are Joe and Harper Pitt, a young married Mormon couple that are going through a rough patch, Louis and Prior, a gay couple, for whom things are about to get a whole lot worse and the non-fictional Roy Cohn, former aide to Senator Joe McCarthy, mentor to Donald Trump and all around nasty person. The time is the last quarter of the Reagan administration. The place is NYC. The AIDS epidemic is raging out of control. A diagnosis is a death sentence.

Prior announces his disease to his partner Louis, which soon sets in motion the eventual unraveling of their relationship. Roy Cohn is also diagnosed, but refuses to admit it. He is a Jew hating Jew and a queer hating homosexual and he cannot come to terms with who he really is. He diagnosis himself with liver cancer. Joe and Harper Pitt have recently moved from Salt Lake to NYC. Joe is a lawyer and is clerking for a judge. After work he takes long walks, leaving Harper feeling more alone. She fills her day with Valium fueled hallucinations.

Tickets to Angels Part One came as part on our regular season subscription. We had to buy Part Two separately, so there was a little upselling by the Rep’s new artistic director. After the show, six of the eight actors led a panel Q&A about the show. The discussion was part personal reflections and part promo for the other half of the play. We’ll see Part Two next week.

With the play’s dark subject matter, it is hard to believe that it is a comedy, but there are moments of levity. Almost any scene where the black gay male nurse Belieze appears is a hoot. Come to think of it, all of actor David Ryan Smith’s roles are great fun. The hallucinations or dream sequences are also funny. In a nod to Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, Prior Walter is visited at night by the ghosts of two his ancestors, both also named Prior Walter. There is some discussion as to whether the current Prior Walter is the 37th or 41st Prior Walter that boils down to whether you count the bastards or not. My favorite scene is when Ethel Rosenberg appears as a ghost to haunt Roy Cohn for what he did to her and her husband. It is more taunting than haunting. In the end, this show is less a ha-ha type of comedy and is in a more generous sense the Human Comedy.

The Play That Goes Wrong

Upstaged

Another day, another night at the Rep. This time we were upstairs in the main stage theater, to see the season finale, The Play That Goes Wrong. This farce of a play skewers the classic British murder mystery, with pratfalls galore. The action begins before you know it, as actors pretending to be stage hands attempt to make last minute corrections, alas in vain. The action also continues through intermission, with actors mingling with the crowd out in the atrium. Its humor with the ineptness of a hapless acting troupe is part of a genre of theater that pokes fun at itself. A close cousin of this show is the play, Noises Off, which this one owes some debt of gratitude. Another example is the comedy Play On! Dave played Lord Dudley in it in high school, “Yes, dear.” The results are the same though, a thespian Waterloo. In this play the actors are all bumbling fools, but it is the set that is the real culprit. Literally falling down in front of you. Is there a set dresser in the house? Hopefully one who knows how to do the job. Since Dan is now doing set dressing for a living, I wonder what he would think of this show. I hope that he would not feel insulted. In the end there is not much that one can do about any of this, except to sit back and laugh.

Frida

Mexican Dancers

We caught the Rep’s final Ignite reading of the festival, Frida. This play is a biographical retelling of the life and career of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. She painted portraits, self-portraits and many other works inspired by Mexico.

Ignite has been occurring for eight years now. Billed as “new scripts out loud,” plays are read by equity actors, without costume, lighting or staging. At least that’s the plan.

In recent years, this model has undergone some scope creep. With Frida some of the actors were in costume, probably of their own making. There was some staging, usually with reading lectern in hand. Most importantly, since Frida is a musical, there was piano accompaniment. A long way from a full production, but also more than just a script reading. This recitation occurred in the Rep’s Studio Theater, a basement black box that was packed to standing room only. 

Frida is portrayed as a fighter. As another audience member described this play, in the following Q&A, it is about “strong women and weak men.” It is also about the pain that she endured. Physically, she suffered from polio and a tragic collision between a street car and the bus that she was riding. “Six people died, four on the trolley and two on the bus.” Most of her pain was spiritual though. There was the death of her mother, her miscarriage, but most of all it was the philandering of her husband, the artist Diego Rivera.

He was older and the more famous artist. There was love, but she initially responded to his condescension and overbearance with her nickname for him, “the Toad.” After his unfaithfulness this morphed to simply “Fatso.” For a long time her art was dismissed. She was viewed as only the wife, but a tour of the United States or as it is called in song, “Gringolandia,” jumpstarted her career. Her return to Mexico City propelled her to full recognition.

As a reading, at three-and-a-half hours with intermission, Frida is a long play. Performing it would be even longer. As with any Ignite product, it is still a work in progress. Edits were being made right up to its reading. It will be interesting to see if Frida goes forward. It has a large cast, which at thirteen is large for a Studio production and might be envisioned going upstairs to the main stage.

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera Share a Laugh