Teatro Vivo’s EL
Raul Garza's new play explores the power of the storyteller
Reviewed by Roxanne Schroeder-Arce, Fri., Sept. 23, 2016
Sometimes I sit in awe of my sister's recollection of a family event. It can be so vivid and full of color that my memory of the same moment seems to be in black and white. So she embellishes a little bit ... We all know those people. In Raul Garza's EL, the members of a Mexican-American family in Chicago living near the elevated train (L) all see the story of their absent father (El) from their own distinct perspectives.
The play centers on Emilia (Gricelda Silva), a young aspiring writer who struggles with her own identity as a Latina in a world that consistently defaults to the white perspective. Through her interactions with her mother and brother, her white editor, and her white boyfriend, Emilia faces issues of assimilation, acculturation, assumption, and bias as she also tries to reconcile her father's abandonment of her and her family.
As the play shifts locations, scenery designed by Ia Ensterä and Lowell Bartholomee's video projections transport the audience from the family's apartment to the office of Emilia's editor, Phyllis (Roxy Becker), to the butcher shop where Emilia's brother Gustavo (Jesus Valles) works, to a coffee shop and through Chicago on the L. With the family's apartment so near the tracks, every time the train passes, their world shakes literally and figuratively – the "L" being a reminder of the "El" who left on that train years before. Emilia and her mother (Mary Alice Carnes) repeatedly yell out the window, as if throwing memory and their anger of El's departure at the train as it passes.
As Emilia pitches her editor stories about her family's relationship with this powerful absent character, Garza reminds us who holds power regarding which voices are amplified and how voices (especially marginalized voices) must alter themselves to be heard. Emilia's agent informs her of what is most publishable, and we see her stories replayed as she modifies them to satisfy both Latino and non-Latino audiences, all while Gustavo criticizes her for selling out and telling and mistelling the family's stories. I assume Garza must consider his own acculturation as a Latino playwright; surely this story speaks to his lived experience.
While at times quite realistic, EL also includes several out-of-its-own-world elements. About 20 minutes in, Cabeza (Rupert Reyes), a pink talking cow head, begins to speak to Gustavo. Garza offers several turns like this one, asking the audience to reframe its understanding of the world of the play at any moment, essentially exercising his own right to embellish when and where he pleases. Teatro Vivo's premiere production of Garza's play supports these turns. For example, director Christina Moore stages some moments with characters hidden from other characters and the audience, making us consider how we tell a story depending on who is listening. Garza clearly has others who are in on the secrets and helping him to tell this story in his own particular way.
I left the theatre thinking about the power of the storyteller to shape a story; it's all about whose perspective is shared. I also left contemplating how some voices have to adapt their stories to make them accessible and compelling to any given audience, and how other voices don't need to alter their form or even language to suit others.
A good play resonates. It doesn't just make you think; it also makes you feel. EL did that for me. Sharing any more of the story would require a spoiler alert as there are indeed some big surprises – several toward the end. Long after leaving the theatre, I found myself reflecting on the play's theme of an absent father and my own plight in a fatherless home. I did not grow up near a train, but I do remember looking out the window longingly as my brother's father dropped him off at our apartment. I wonder if my sister has similar memories of those drop-offs. I am sure, whatever her experience, she'd depict it differently from how I do, in full color.
ELEmma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center, 600 River St.
Through Sept. 25
Running time: 1 hr., 55 min.