Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Brujería for Beginners
Twenty Percent Theatre Company
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule


Javari Horne, Gregory Parks, Johanna Keller Flores,
and Natalie Tran

Photo by Kristen Stoeckeler
Griselda doesn't believe in God, but she is willing to believe in spirit forces if they can reconnect her to her mother who recently committed suicide and left her an orphan. She is willing to put her faith in "brujería," Spanish for sorcery, witchcraft, or raising spirits. Griselda desperately yearns to know why her mother did it and how she could leave her so alone; her pain radiates from the stage.

Griselda and her spiritual search are at the center of Keila Anali Saucedo's new play, Brujería for Beginners, being given its world premiere by Twenty Percent Theatre Company. Griselda leans toward practicality, with a cynical and secular outlook on life's big questions. In her grief, that outlook is not working for her. Her cousin Lupita bossily promotes traditional Catholicism as the way to relieve Griselda's suffering, even as Lupita falls in love with a queer classmate, despite the catechism deeply ingrained in her that such love is sinful. Neither Griselda nor Lupita are well served by beliefs that to this point had grounded their lives.

Griselda's awkward efforts to commune with her mother lead three spirits in the form of flowers, los flores, into her consciousness, where they stubbornly remain. Los flores alternate between offering sage advice to Griselda and comic relief to the audience. Similarly, Altacamani, the object of Lupita's love, is the sparks that ignites her struggle to acknowledge her truth and to loosen her grip on old beliefs.

Since her mother's death, Griselda has moved in with Lupita's family where they share a bedroom. Also in the household are Samona, Lupita's mother, and Aurora, Lupita's paternal grandmother. Lupita exudes warmth and wisdom as a woman who has known loss and love. Aurora has been taxed to exhaustion working full time as a single parent since her husband's death a year ago, and now with the added responsibility for her orphaned niece.

Brujería for Beginners is set in a Latinix community in an unnamed American city, with dialog frequently shifting between English and Spanish. I am far from fluent in Spanish, but know enough words and phrases to grasp the gist of the Spanish conversations, while the English that follows often rephrases something that had been just said in Spanish. Body language and vocal tones also convey meaning. I feel certain that, while I surely lost some of the playwright's specific word choices, I fully grasped all that was happening throughout the play. I feel fairly confident that someone who knows absolutely no Spanish would fare almost as well.

Switching between languages lends authenticity to the play's dialog, even as it calls on audiences to be hyper-attentive in order to fill in the gaps between what is said in one tongue and in another. That fairly reflects the challenges that Griselda and Lupita face. Griselda is faced with taking a leap of faith from her Americanized mindset to embrace ancestral spirit forces. Lupita must bridge the chasm between deep-rooted church precepts and the fact that her true self does not fit within those traditions. Perhaps this blending of ingredients from different cultures, languages and beliefs is the sorcery—brujería—of the title.

Marcela Michelle directs Brujería for Beginners with great care for the characters, and for the struggles both Griselda and Lupita must work through. With the switches back and forth between English and Spanish, and with rapid scene changes and frequent changes in tone, the play has much to keep track of. Michelle keeps it all moving smoothly, with attention to the feelings that underscore the narrative, whether a moment of tortured grief, rapturous first love, or light banter among the spirits. There is an elegance to much of her staging, such as a scene in which Griselda, Lupita, Samona and Aurora are all at a kitchen counter, miming the creation of an evening meal as they carry on their conversation.

As Griselda, Keller Flores is a dynamo of emotion, pouring out grief and frustration within the self-centered perspective of an adolescent. When she has moments of insight, or has a glint of progress in her quest, she lights up with a radiance that fills the space. Quinn Williams is persuasive as Lupita, a teenager whose two years of age over her cousin feed into her condescension and who is haughtily positive of what she knows until suddenly that secure knowledge crumbles and leaves her floundering. The interaction between Flores and Williams rings totally true, teenagers with very different lifestyles who are forced together by circumstances and lack the maturity to do so with grace.

The three "flores" are delightfully engaging, shifting seamlessly between comical and serious notes, but each with their own persona. Javari Horne as Dalia casts off a sassy demeanor that is great fun, while delivering pearls of wisdom. Gregory Parks, as Camelina, is the most straightforward, laying down facts, but with warmth and a touch of glamour. Natalie Tran plays Cacomite, who makes the most earnest commitment to see Griselda through her journey. Tran makes Cacomite a strong, compelling presence. All three, Horne, Parks and Tran, have occasion to sing and dance, and do so with wonderful verve.

Deanalís Resto is terrific as Altacamani, conveying a sea of contrasts (assertive sexuality and modest charm, self-confidence and doubts—the contradictions that set Lupita's struggle in motion). Lelis Brito has a warm, compassionate presence as abuela Aurora, offering wise advice, gently accepting the fraught feelings of troubled adolescents, while exhibiting earthiness that tells us her gathered years have taught her how to make peace with the real world. Gael Palen, as Samona, is not as fully convincing. We are told that she is under tremendous stress, but Palen's physical bearing gives the impression that she is coping pretty well, and her eventual break down feels forced.

To be fair, the playwright could have done more to clarify things in the course of the play. In the case of Samona, for example, in the first scene in which she appears, it is not clear who she is or what her relationship is to the other characters. Later, she rocks out in an energetic dance when she is supposedly exhausted from work. A scene between Lupita and Altacamani late in the play turns out to be a flashback. It is a sweet scene, but lacks a sense of new information revealed to illuminate our understanding of the characters. Even more central to the story's core, we don't know anything about the relationship Griselda had with her mother, only that Griselda is devastated by her loss.

The play, which began as a one act in Twenty Percent Theatre's Q-Stage series, has been fleshed out to ninety minutes without intermission. In its expansion, it might have been beneficial to add such background and to clarify the circumstances surrounding the characters, just enough so that we might more fully make our own personal connections to characters or circumstances. Still, we have no trouble recognizing the pain both Griselda and Lupita experience, and their different journey's toward finding peace within themselves.

Anna Brauch and Mari Navarro, along with jewelry designer Cándida González, costume the five real world characters in authentic manner, while the ephemeral los flores' costumes are brimming with imagination. Madeline Achen's raised-platform, simple set is highly functional. Behind this, a white trellis-like backdrop is unfurled on which is emblazoned an image that seems to be a face embedded in a star. Queen Drea provides fresh, life-affirming Afro-Carib music to begin and end the play and to punctuate the scenes and sounds, though on a couple occasions, music was cued at a volume that overtook the voices of actors still speaking as a scene neared its end.

Brujería for Beginners is Twenty Percent Theatre Company's final production before ceasing operations, a decision made in 2019 but postponed through the COVID shutdown to allow for this final work to see the light of day. I am grateful to Twenty Percent's staff and board for seeing the play through and mounting it in such a fully realized production. For fifteen years the company has blazed trails in fulfillment of its mission of "supporting and vigorously promoting the work of female and transgender theatre artists, and celebrating the unique contribution of these artists to social justice and human rights."

Brujería for Beginners is Twenty Percent's generous parting gift. It draws from the pain of unimaginable loss and the turmoil inherent in searching for truth to cast light on the human capacity to find grace and renewal within themselves.

Brujería for Beginners, a production of Twenty Percent Theatre Company in association with Lightening Rod, runs through November 20, 2021, at the Mixed Blood Theatre, 1501 S. Fourth Street, Minneapolis MN. All tickets are on a "pay what you can" sliding scale, $5.00 - $25.00. For more information and tickets call 612-227-1188 or go to tctwentypercent.org.

Playwright: Keila Anali Saucedo; Director: Marcela Michelle; Set and Props Design: Madeline Achen; Costume Design: Anna Brauch and Mari Navarro; Lighting Design: snem DeSellier; Sound Design and Composer: Queen Drea; Jewelry Design: Cándida González; Production Manager: Suzanne Victoria Cross; Stage Manager: Mayra Gurrola Calderon; Assistant Stage Manager: Jayden Apollo Simmons.

Cast: Lelis Brito (Aurora), Johanna Keller Flores (Griselda). Javari Horne (Dalia), Gael Palen (Samona), Gregory Parks (Carmelina), Deanalís Resto (Atlacamani), Natalie Tran (Cacomite), Quinn Williams (Lupita).


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