Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The play peeks into the experiences of five Latina women: the owner and four employees of a tiny dress manufacturing company tucked away on a dangerous block in East L.A. It is sweltering and the building lacks air-conditioning and has no ventilation, save in the bathroom. Estela, the owner, refuses to leave the door open to catch what little breeze there is, for fear of la migra (the Hispanic term for the immigration enforcement police) she believes are staking-out her building. Three of Estela's employees–her mother, Carmen, a font of unsolicited advice and criticism; Pancha, thirty-one years old, hard-nosed while harboring private despair; and Rosali, literally starving herself to slim down to a size two–have just obtained amnesty. The fourth employee is Ana, Estela's sister, who just turned eighteen so is now eligible for amnesty as well. Estela, however, is afraid to apply for amnesty. She is heavily in debt for the purchase and maintenance of her factory equipment and fears that if la migra learns of her debt they will deport her. If she is deported, the others will lose their jobs, too, a dilemma for them all.
If Estela can get her team to produce one hundred dresses for a very demanding customer by the end of the week, she will be paid for that order as well as previous orders for which payment was withheld because of late delivery–enough to cover her debt. It is a lot to ask, given the heat (occasional radio reports mention record temperatures above 100 degrees), unreliable equipment, and everyone's nerves on edge, in part over la migra. Even those who no longer need be fearful have not yet broken the habit of being terrified. Then there is Ana, with a severe case of "bad attitude." She just completed high school, with plans to go to college, but needs to earn money first. She is a vocal feminist and scornful of women like her co-workers, who derive their self-esteem from the approval of men and who accept the lowest rung of the ladder rather than striving for more. Pancha is peeved at being asked to work extra hours since Estela owes her back-pay for many hours already worked, and Rosali's stamina is compromised by her obsessive dieting. Carmen hints resentment that she, the mother, is working for Carmen, the daughter, as if it violates the natural order of the universe.
Estela is thirty-five and of large carriage. She knows that her mother believes she needs to be successful in business because she has missed her chance to get married. Carmen confirms this on a regular basis, chastising Ana to watch her weight so that she doesn't end up like Estela. All of these women (save Ana) have issues of shame about their weight and their bodies, which are tied deeply to the things Ana continues to rail about. When these issues finally come to a head, it is in a glorious catharsis that makes the entire play worthwhile.
The production does a good job, under co-directors Lelis Brito and Adlyn Carreras, of introducing each of the play's characters and gradually establishing the connections among them. Despite frequent sniping at each other, they have an understanding of one another's challenges, some stemming from constraining historical and cultural patterns, others from the brutal reality of their place in a capitalistic world order. While Ana has the fresh vision to challenge this, she needs to grow into an appreciation for the groundwork done by those who preceded her, merely by surviving and bringing Ana and her ilk to this point in history.
Bethmari Márquez is thoroughly authentic as rebellious Ana. Through the device of reciting her journal entries as she writes them, we get to know her best of all. She reveals, a bit at a time, a growing understanding of the cultural and historic ground in which her ideals of liberation must take root. Alice D. Piar Acevado offers a moving portrayal of Pancha, a woman striving to maintain her dignity working under intolerable conditions for far too little pay, and also grappling with her failure to succeed at what she has been inculcated to believe is the ultimate measure of a woman's worth. Xochi de la Luna is winning as Rosali, expressing the heart of a woman who can offer love to everyone but herself.
Abigail Chagolla's Estela seems, in the early going, too unsteady to believe she has kept her business afloat under such harsh circumstances even this long, but as the play gathers momentum toward its final destination, we see her bloom with confidence and an understanding of her own worth that unleashes genuine joy. Mariadela Belle Alvarez conveys the trope of a well-meant but overbearing and intrusive mother, rounding the edges to avoid descending into stereotype. However, she appears far too young in body, voice and movement to convince as a woman over fifty who has borne eight children and complains of aching muscles. This diminishes the authenticity of the key interactions between a mother and her grown daughters.
The production values are first rate, with an atmospheric set by Mikha Alemán that creates the dreary space in which these five women work their lives away, with clever use of movable elements to create a bathroom and supply room to which characters retreat for rare moments of repose or release. Props designer Kat Walker must have worked overtime herself to fill the space with such an enormous array of fabrics, sewing equipment, tools and notions. Anna Brauch has gotten the costumes just right, down to the underthings. Eric M. C. Gonzalez provides the sounds of traffic and sirens, along with appropriate music, and Shannon Elliot's lighting informs us of the passing of long workdays shifting into overtime-working nights, and back to face exhausted mornings.
You may very be familiar with the 2002 film version of Real Women Have Curves, which was an unexpected hit and made a star of America Ferrera as Ana. Its screenplay was co-written by playwright Josefina López with George LaVoo, with added characters and plot developments, including a guidance counselor coaching Ana on her campaign to make it to college. Still, the basic themes and issues raised are the same as those at the core of the play.
Though the play was written in 1987, it seems to have had only one major production, at Chicago's Victory Garden Theatre in 1993. López updated the play in 2010, which was followed by numerous productions around the country, and that is the version used by Lyric Arts/Teatro del Pueblo. The program states that the play takes place in 2010. It is a bit confusing, then, that characters still talk about getting used to being legally able to stay in the United States twenty-three years after the Simpson Rodino Act, and that Estela has, by 2010, lived with the angst of not claiming the amnesty she was entitled to for those twenty-three years. Ana would have been born in 1992 and therefor not eligible for that amnesty, though she is planning to apply for it. At least for this reviewer, the attempt to update causes more confusion rather than adding to its relevance.
Still, laying the tangled progress of immigration reform (or lack thereof), Real Women Have Curves succeeds on its own merits. The issues of terrible immigration policies, and restraints on women's opportunities (both cultural and legal), continue, and the play provides an arena on which to lay those out, while offering solid entertainment. Lyric Arts and Teatro del Pueblo seem the perfect collaborators to have brought Real Women Have Curves to life, offering a winning production of a play full of sharp insights and good-hearted humor.
Real Women Have Curves, a co-production of Lyric Arts Main Street Stage and Teatro del Pueblo, runs through October 30, 2022, at Lyric Arts Main Street Stage, 420 East Main Street, Anoka MN. Tickets from $34.00 - $40.00; seniors (60+) and students with ID: $32.00 - $38.00; Unsold seats, if any, are available as rush tickets for $20.00 starting 30 minutes before curtain time. For information and tickets call 763-422-1838 or visit lyricarts.org.
Playwright: Josefina López; Co-Directors: Lelis Brito and Adlyn Carreras; Scenic Design: Mikha Alemán; Costume Design: Anna Brauch; Lighting Design: Shannon Elliott; Sound Design: Eric M.C. Gonzalez; Props Design: Kat Walker; Dialect Consultant: Keely Wolter; Stage Manager: Cassi Henning; Assistant Stage Managers: Leah Brucker and Claire Frederick.
Cast: Alice D. Piar Acevado (Pancha), Mariadela Belle Alvarez (Carmen), Bethmari Márquez Barreto (Ana), Abigail Chagolla (Estela), Xochi de la Luna (Rosali).