By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Journalist, poet, playwright, and composer Dolores Prida is as radical in her politics and identity as the more famous stage artist Maria Irene Fornes (the two have collaborated in New York), yet, in my opinion, she goes about striking the establishment with a more conscious and formidable force--a sense of humor and a smidgen of sympathy for the truth behind even the cruelest ethnic and sexual clichés. It comes, perhaps, from Prida's evaluation of her childhood in Caibarien, a settlement on the northern coast of Cuba. Her impoverished household seemed practically a sitcom: "My mother, who is now dead, was the typical Latina mother, the martyr type," she once said in an interview. "And my father, who is very handsome, was the Don Juan of the small town. My mother knew, so there was a soap opera every night." While professing a tangled love for both of them, Prida, an avid young reader, soon figured out that all that dysfunction could serve as a template for how she didn't have to live as an adult. "Sometimes," she says, "from weakness comes strength."
In other words, instead of becoming the butt of some joke, Dolores Prida decided to rewrite the punch line. In every culture, the history of live theater has seen fools used for liberation, for exorcism, for empowerment--but never more effectively than when they are equally focused on tickling our ribs till they rattle. That was always foremost on the agenda when the author, as a journalist and a new American, began to work with the Lower East Side collective Teatro Popular in New York City in 1976. Mexican, Cuban, and South American theater, she said, was at the time either a brainlessly entertaining excuse for the wealthy to wear their silk outfits, or an absolutist, somewhat gloomy tirade by the politically and economically dispossessed against the status quo. Prida wanted to fuse the best elements of the two, while still maintaining a leftist bias toward sympathizing with those who have been made to feel lesser--often, if only by implication--because they are different from the dominant cultural image.
One of the first products of her work with Teatro Popular was 1977's Beautiful Señoritas, in which she beat George C. Wolfe to the conceptual punch. Both her musical and his oft-produced comedy The Colored Museum apply the same framework: A poker-faced host guides the audience through a revue of racial stereotypes to reveal how pebbles of truth can sediment into great big boulders that crush individuality. While usually fairly broad in execution, if brought off with a keen awareness of how folks too often cooperate with their own oppression, the shows ask the interrelated questions that make political art more than just an exercise in finger-pointing; when What have they turned us into? is coupled with What have we allowed ourselves to become?, then the theater keeps everyone on their feet.
The young Latino company Cara Mia has given Beautiful Señoritas its area premiere. What's most telling is how, 23 years later, the show has not aged a bit. Flip through The Colored Museum today, and you'll encounter African-American archetypes that are no longer as familiar (and thus less trenchant) as they were when the show was first staged. Disconcertingly recognizable and immediate are the caricatures in Prida's satire. It offers a series of musical vignettes played out during a beauty pageant in which a master of ceremonies (Frank Mendez) parades four "lovely Latinas" (Dolores Godinez, Christina Vela, Marinca Calo-Oy, Marco Rodriguez) complete with sashed titles such as "Miss Banana Republic" and, in one case, a Styrofoam headdress that says "We love you, Elián!" Mendez plays multiple roles, including a vicious father who rejects his newborn daughter and a clueless, sombrero-wearing Mexicano, while the women interact with him in variations of maid, Madonna, and whore. Whether sweeping up after him or begging on their knees to be taken back, these actors run through the hit list from servile to slutty. (Rodriguez makes an especially fetching señorita in a performance reminiscent of Scott Thompson's Spanish film siren Francesca Fiore, alternating between romantic desperation, foolish pride, and hair-flipping.)
The playwright has fashioned plenty of opportunities for them all to sparkle with the same cheerful tackiness as Duncan Burns' metallic-wrapped runway set. Unfortunately, director Marisela Barrera has not quite tightened and tuned everybody into the same band of jesters. Part of it has to do with Frank Mendez as the master of ceremonies. The guy can mug without annoying the hell out of you, a rare trait essential to the tone that has been established here, but he has not been guided to conduct the beauty pageant the way, well, a beauty pageant host should. Mendez, brandishing a foil-wrapped mike as glittery as the covered Undermain pillars that surround him, doesn't step up to fill in the pauses between the skits and caricatures with vaudevillian flourish. He is, frankly, just another one of the ensemble members here, and that sets a problem for pacing. As written, the character, although a patriarchal clown, still needs to control the show, to keep it "moving right along," as Ed McMahon would say. Sometimes you forget that you're supposed to be watching a beauty pageant, even if it's a satirical one. Because Barrera, through Mendez, sometimes takes her hands off the wheel, the other performers are left to offer disjointed songs and monologues.