By Bill Hirschman
Frequent theatergoers often go into a show with heightened or lowered expectations. Critics work very hard to put such predictions in a tightly-locked box and treat every opening night with open-mindedness and even hope.
But sometimes a bit of the prejudice leaks out. So I admit to be happily smacked down for my unintentional condescension when Main Street Players in Miami Lakes, a community theater for 42 years, last week opened its first production as a professional company, Real Women Have Curves.
The comedy-drama profiling Mexican-American seamstresses working in a California sweatshop turned out be a no-excuses-needed production that justified the confidence that Executive Director Clara Lyzniak and Artistic Director Robert Coppel had in taking this leap. Even some of its leaders acknowledge that the offering has shortcomings, but the faith that MSP invested in this maiden outing is fulfilled and indicates a troupe that deserves to be watched for the rest of the season.
Real Women was penned about 1989 by Josefina Lopez based on her own life growing up in the East Los Angeles barrio. The play was turned into a popular film in 2002 starring America Ferrera, which became a hit at the Sundance Film Festival and won numerous awards.
It was hailed as a rare examination of the multi-layered experiences of two generations of Latinas struggling in 1987 to achieve their dreams, constrained by the misogynistic macho society around them and the constant threat of deportation. Overarching those issues was the veneration of sisterhood as a way to overcome obstacles.
All those ideas coalesced in the story’s best-known scene in which the five women with a wide range of silhouettes raucously strip to their underwear to discover and then affirm a declaration of independence from body image and a recognition that it’s internal beauty that counts.
Director Tatyana-Marie Carlo melds this ensemble of actresses with a wide disparity of experience into an effective ensemble who create the essential chemistry of women bound not just by being neighbors and friends, but who are trying to survive let alone overcome the same barriers.
The play centers first on Ana Garcia (Marcela Paguaga) whose entries in her journal serve as a sort of narration. She has just graduated from high school and wants to escape the barrio to attend college toward becoming a writer. But she has to take a year off to earn the tuition or find a scholarship, so she is working in a dress factory. Ana is a “modern” young woman fully assimilated, with liberated attitudes and a bit of disdain for her tradition-bound coworkers.
The tiny “factory” and its fourth-hand equipment have been bought by her 24-year-old sister Estela (Icela Marliese) in her second-generation stab at the American Dream. Estela is in deep cash flow problems, unable even to pay the staff. She is afraid to apply for amnesty because she owes money on the equipment and could be arrested if she shows up to answer a civil suit for the debt. Every passing car outside or stranger who might be “la migra” sends her into near terror.
Their mother Carmen (the young Vanessa Elise with a bit of age makeup) is a recognizable nurturing Latina earth mother with a quick sense of humor, a bent toward frankly expressing her opinion, but an older generation’s acceptance of the societal mores. After giving birth to five children, she is obsessed with the possibility that she might be pregnant again.
That rankles Pancha (Rei Capote) a middle-aged sharp tongued friend with conservative antipathy toward Ana’s dreams that feel unconventional to her. Carmen’s ludicrous talk about pregnancy eats at Pancha because she feels her status as a real woman is compromised by her inability to have children.
The group is rounded out by Rosali (Amber Lynn Benson) who is the peacemaker among the fractious group, but who is having problems by severe dieting.
The group is under tremendous pressure: a crucial contract must be completed in a seemingly impossible time frame. If it falls through, Estela will not be paid the money that she owes, which would lead to her losing the equipment, the factory and possibly her freedom. Although the other four women have green cards or have become citizens, the threat of a raid from la migra is uppermost in everyone’s mind, so they labor in a sweltering tiny warehouse with a door that is not kept open – without a fan let alone air conditioning.
The five banter, gossip, giggle, tease and bicker through their long work days that extend late at night to make a four-day deadline to protect Estela from economic and legal disaster. But their connections ethnic, social and gender create a sisterhood that trumps their personality clashes. Every shift opens and closes with each woman pressing the cheeks to each other and kissing the air.
As conflicts escalate and intensify, their bond is tested but, of course, prevails. In the beginning, Ana may have looked down on these woman with that confident superiority that young have. But the experiences teach Ana respect for the inner value of these women whose undeclared resistance to the social status quo gave her an inspiring model to emulate.
The script is filled with obvious themes that still bear examination such the social-economic disparity underscored by Ana reflecting that the dresses earn Estela $13 each but are blithely bought by downtown divas on impulse for $200.
While the script has an unsubtle constructed vibe, the evening has a well-deserved congratulatory feel that someone is finally speaking on stage for the hard-working blue collar Latina women – and the sisterhood that carried them together into the end of the 20th Century to become fully-actualized successes.
Of course, the resonances are inescapable for South Florida with its immigrant population and in the context of Trumpian pronouncements. But the issues of sisterhood and the challenges to any modern woman are as relevant today as a quarter-century ago.
The quality of performances varied, but Carbonell-nominee Elise (who played Ana years ago) provides the high-level of quality to anchor the production and the young Paguaga perfectly incarnates that certainty seemingly endemic to anyone in their late teens. All five exude a chemistry that indicates a lifetime spent together.
MSP has a tiny budget, but the set designed by Amanda Sparhawk is unusually well-executed. The stained grey institutional walls are decorated with note perfect adornments like iconic portraits of Jesus and Mary. The level of verisimilitude for this claustrophobic environment from the sewing machines to the racks of clothes is memorable.
Real Women Have Curves is an admirable first step for Main Street Players as a professional theater.
Real Women Have Curves runs through Feb. 26 from Main Street Players, 6766 Main Street, Miami Lakes. Performances 8:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday 2 p.m. Sunday. Running time 1 hour 40 minutes with one intermission. Tickets $30 for adults; $25 for seniors, students and military. Visit http://www.mainstreetplayers.com/tickets/