Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Chela by Dulce Maria Solis

By Joe Straw
There are a number of things one can learn on a farm:  life and death, feeding livestock, and how to chase a hungry cow out of a garden.  My brothers and I learned all about the secret life of a tadpole on my grandparent’s farm one summer in Georgia.

My mother, taking a much needed summer break from five kids, was to come get us at the end of the summer. She did not come. Our father came alone.  This had never happened.

Arriving home, I noticed some serious bruises on my mother’s head.  She said she had slipped and fallen hitting her head in the process.  She seemed okay.

Years later, long after I was an adult, I found out that my father took my mother’s head and repeatedly slammed her skull into the sidewalk; next to the roses they planted together, in the house they bought a few years earlier.  The roses died and their marriage symbolically ended there on the red soaked sidewalk. 

Spousal abuse is an obscenity and so is child abuse.  And the idea that one probably deserves it should not even play into ones thoughts.  The victim should get away as quickly as possible and as far as possible and find help. 

Chela written and performed by Dulce Maria Solis and directed by Todd Blakesley playing at the Santa Monica Playhouse and other places around Los Angeles is a brutally honest, passionate, and dramatic portrayal by a daughter playing the early and disastrous life of her mother, Chela.

The play starts off in 1992 at the Sunshine Motel in Oklahoma City moments after Chela makes love to a man she has known for a short time.  She is happy this moment but somehow this has triggered her awakening to the long disastrous nightmare that was her life. 

And suddenly we are transported to Uruapan, Michoacán, Mexico watching Chela at the age of 7 who is proud to explain her job duties, working at home, and helping her mother.  It is an uplifting moment filled with innocence and youthful exuberance.

But all of this comes crashing down with the mental brutality imposed upon her by her mother, Angelita, who insists her seven year old should stop her games and help her sell tacos de carnitas to those who come into their home.

Trouble comes in small waves at first, but those waves that slowly caress Chela's life, increases with intensity when things start to go horribly wrong.

At the age of fourteen, Chela is raped by a boy who was pursuing her. (This is a defining moment in the play that desperately needs accentuation.)  While she is being raped, her mother is searching for her, thinking, not of her well being, but believing her to be a lazy daughter in another disappearing act. 

Life has suddenly changed for Chela.  Not wanting to see her younger sister Aurora gets into trouble, and in order to protect her, she locks her up in a closet. Aurora tries to find a way out only to discover Chela has fainted outside the door.  And later while having her appendix removed, the doctors have discovered that she is pregnant.

Her mother Angelita, extremely upset, sends Chela to work in another family’s home.  And after Chela has had the baby, Angelita takes the baby away from her.  Angelita has the responsibility of protecting, and educating Chela but she continues to be the antagonist in Chela’s life.

Soon afterwards Chela is sent away with her father and brother to Oklahoma.  Later Chela  is married to Finito a man she barely knows.  (Just the name Finito, Finite, implies this relationship will last only a short while.) Her new husband proceeds to repeatedly abuse her, and gets her pregnant a number of times with the abuse leading to eight miscarriages in a span of six years. 

And yet, no one is there to help her.  Her father, brother and sisters are nowhere to be found.  The social worker, the doctors, and other professionals turn a blind eye, partly supported by the laws of Oklahoma that do not protect abused women.  And when they do listen to her they throw her into an insane asylum.

Dulce Maria Solis is an incredible actress with a keen ability to step into a character and make it her own, especially the physical transformation of her face when performing the ridged characteristics of Angelita, her grandmother. Spending time with her mother, she is familiar with the characters in this play. Her accents of the Oklahoma natives ring true to form.  (Also, did I hear a Pilipino accent with an Oklahoma twang from one of the characters?)

Solis doesn’t need the costumes to change into characters.  Her face does the job.  The costumes changes take away the fluidity of the play, when she needs to relax and focus on her concentration and objective.   

Dulce Maria Solis, the writer of Chela attempts to take us in a direction that requires a substantial focus.  Is this play about abuse, finding help, or about a woman overcoming extreme obstacles and finding a way out?  If the objective of the character is to escape her hell on earth all actions should lead us in that direction. 

For example, the younger sister, Aurora, would have been better played offstage. It's cute and funny but doesn't take us anywhere. Showing Chela in trouble is critical at this point.  It would have created a great internal conflict that we could identify with and would have thrown us headfirst into the story.

Also, the action of the rape on stage needs theatrical attention.  One could think of a better way to show this, possibly being dragged off and coming back on stage as her mother looking for Chela.

Finding ways to move action seamlessly is a trick in a one-woman show and moving from Chela into another character in the same space gets a bit tricky. Movements need a cause and some things happen without reason.

The reasons for the other characters must move Chela to her final destination by showing us what effect they had on her life. 

Todd Blakesley directs this play, which includes video footage of some very disturbing images. One has to think this might be a better way to start this production with horror first, lovemaking second and history third.  Then one can clearly see the path Chela is taking.  The action can be absorbed more readily; observations felt heartily, the pauses more meaningfully.  Also, the marble thing doesn’t work yet.  One supposes that it has a larger meaning but it is not quite there.

Also, there is some kind of National Geographic voice over about “cubs” that lead the audience in a confusing direction. One supposes it has something to do with her final escape from Finito.  Others in the video cast were JC Holland & Anita Holland as Gringos, Ivan Bernal as Finito and Aaliya Mariah Magcasi as Young Dulce Maria.

Simply put, the objective is to find a way out.  And we need to see how this happens and the way we see this happening is through relationships she has with others that surround her, her sister, mother, her abusive husband, and her lesbian friend and finally ending with the joy of her life.

This play is not for the weak or weak of heart. It is heartbreaking and the video scenes of rape and beatings are just as brutal.

Dulce Maria Solis should be commended for taking on a very sensitive subject about a family member. No one should take that kind of abuse.  And no one should stand around and watch that kind of abuse.  If you are in a position of power to help, and even if you are not, help should be given.  Solis has given us a play that will have us discussing our past, forgiving others when we are ready, and placing that forgiveness in that soft place in our being.  

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