LOS ANGELES – “Regardless of who you are,” says playwright Evelina Fernández, “we offer you this story of one family. Just one, of so many.” She titles her play, now in a sumptuous, truly miraculous production at the Los Angeles Theatre Center (LATC), with two indefinite articles – “a” and “an” – to emphasize the singular as much as the universal significance of the work.
Evelina Fernández’ A Mexican Trilogy: An American Story won the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle’s Ted Schmitt Award, and has been published by Samuel French. Backstage writer David C. Nichols calls the Trilogy “as poetic, imaginative, and culturally accessible a work as anything since the commercial emergence of Tony Kushner.”
Staged as an intricate clockwork of characters, generations, a variety of urban settings, and actors performing several roles over the course of three plays and five hours, decked out with multiple platforms and seemingly hundreds of props, and seamlessly combining music all expressively performed by the cast, Trilogy is a masterful tour de force that celebrates the Latino Theater Company’s 30th anniversary, its 10th year operating at the LATC, and indeed the entire Mexican-American immigrant and assimilation experience.
It is wise, witty, and wonderful.
We get to know the Morales family through at least four generations, beginning with the flight from the violence of the Mexican Revolution in 1915 all the way up through the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005. The issues Trilogy raises were pertinent throughout every phase of history over the last century, and still remain so. Director José Luis Valenzuela, who also serves as the company’s artistic director (and as the playwright’s husband), has earned the complete dedication of his cast and crew to the success of this epic. One can be forgiven for thinking of it as an updating of the classic Ramona story which has held the stage for almost 100 years.
In fact, I was reminded of that because in a powerful scene in that spectacle about the intersection of Natives, Spanish, Mexicans, and Americans in early California history, a Native marriage blessing is intoned by the elders on Ramona’s wedding day, and this same invocation serves as a running theme from generation to generation of the Morales clan in Trilogy. A family tree is published in the program, helpful for keeping the characters straight throughout the three-part story even as they are played as older people by different actors.
It’s impossible to single out any star performers: The ensemble is the star. Almost everyone on stage is a member of Actors’ Equity, with long experience in theatre, TV and film. Fernández herself has an interesting history: Originally from Latino East L.A., she got involved in the Chicano movement, then was miraculously plucked up by playwright Luis Valdez to play the female lead in the now-classic Zoot Suit. Theatre became her life. In Trilogy she plays significant roles in all three plays.
Faith opens the evening. It takes place in Jerome, Arizona, a copper town where we see the environmental and health effects of hard labor in the mines. The patriarch of the family, Silvestre, tries organizing the Mexican-American workers (who are paid less than the Anglos) in scenes that inevitably recall the struggles in the classic labor film Salt of the Earth, but he is eventually run out of town. In any case he’s not so patriarchal, overshadowed as he is by Esperanza, who becomes the long-lived matriarch, a super-centenarian who has outlived all three of her children by the time the final curtain descends. That character, as she magically survives into Biblical age, is the spirit of tradition, the essence of Mexicanidad that is existentially and ever more fundamentally challenged in each succeeding, assimilating generation. FDR’s radio addresses before and during World War II define the era, and the family’s experience of losses in the military commences.
In Hope, set in Phoenix in the early 1960s, we see that process proceeding apace. Elena, the only one of Esperanza’s three daughters to bear children, is now the head of her own family, with a wandering husband and four very different children who go their distinct ways. In amusing scenes that establish the time frame of the story, the daughter Betty has imagined affairs with both JFK and Fidel Castro. Vietnam brings disproportionate losses to the Latino community.
With Charity, set in Los Angeles, we meet a much attenuated family – still ruled by the tequila-slugging matriarch – that seems as much repelled by the rigid strictures of Mexican-American life of the past as drawn to the relative freedom of the melting pot. Yet we also see, in the character of a young distant cousin from Mexico who shows up on the family doorstep, the yearning of a new generation for a better life, again defined by military service, now Iraq.
Such thumbnail summaries sadly cannot anywhere near suffice to capture the rich complexity, the humor, the Spanish-English wordplay, the sensuality, the vigor of these finely detailed individuals. There is not a stereotype among them. Their flaws are painfully visible, but also the tenacity of their will to survive. Of the three original daughters, Faith, Caridad (Charity) and Elena, we only follow the latter through to the next generation. I wish we had a little more information about the other two, how they lived and how they died, but time marches on – in life and in this play.
Seeing Trilogy is a real logistical commitment but profoundly worth the effort. Seen all together sequentially, it’s five hours of sitting on not too generously padded theatre seats, plus intermission and a dinner break, making for a 6.5-hour marathon. In the end the durational choice may be the best way to see it, despite the nalgas factor (Spanish for your tushie). Otherwise, if seen on a Thursday night (Part A) and Friday night (Part B), it means the hassle of two trips downtown, which, unless you live there already, will add up to a lot more time.
The three plays that comprise the Trilogy were first staged in 2011 and 2012. Possibly some changes to the scripts have occurred as part of the wider-scoped work; both in the dialogue and in the musical commentary some cuts might have helped to make the evening a little shorter. Rosino Serrano’s musical direction is superb: He certainly did not make singers of the cast members, but also most certainly he brought out their best, and they are terrific! The scenic design by François-Pierre Couture is multi-layered, the projections both funny and historic, and the stage packed with memories. Carlos Brown’s costumes are perky period interpretations.
A Mexican Trilogy: An American Story plays at the Los Angeles Theatre Center (Tom Bradley Theater), 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles 90013 through October 9. Part A plays on Thursdays at 8 pm on Sept 22, 29 and Oct. 6. Part B plays on Fridays at 8 pm on Sept. 23, 30 and Oct. 7.
On Saturdays Part A begins at 5 pm, followed by Part B at 8:30 pm on Sept. 24, Oct. 1 and 8. On Sundays Part A begins at 3 pm, followed by Part B at 6:30 pm on Sept. 25, Oct. 2 and 9. At the “all-day immersive experience” box dinners are available for purchase.
For information and tickets call (866) 811.4111 or go to www.thelatc.org. For group sales, call (213) 489.0994. The nearest Metro stop is Pershing Square, two blocks west of the theatre.
Photo: Sam Golzari, Esperanza America, Olivia Cristina Delgado, Ella Saldaña North, Julio Macias, Kenneth Miles Ellington Lopez / Grettel Cortes. Grettel Cortes Photography.