By Joe Straw
The Latina Christmas Special, written and performed by Maria Russell, Diana Yanez, and Sandra Valls, is a wonderful way to start the Christmas holidays. Created by Diana Yanez, directed by Geoffrey Rivas, and presented at the Latino Theater Center, this holiday special is a Latina take on celebrating the holiday season and I couldn’t be happier to have seen it.
For this production, the theatre chairs have been moved around to face eastwardly (toward the Star of Bethlehem); it makes the intimate stories all that more engaging in this black box venue.
Sandra’s (Sandra Valls) couch sits in the middle of the living room and provides just enough for the other two guests who are invited to her home on this night. Her coffee table sits over a nice Persian rug that is stretched to protect the hardwood flooring. And her beautiful Christmas tree adorns a corner of the room, while the bar, away from the sanctity of a Christmas symbol, the tree, graciously accommodates two guests for spirited drinking. And there will be Christmas cheer tonight.
Also, there is a Virgen de Guadalupe rotating lamp on the bar reminding guests to drink responsibly.
The set, nicely designed by Michael Navarro, gives the actors free reign in a night of reminiscences, of Christmas past, present, and a hint of Christmas futures.
The night starts with the three amigas singing “Feliz Navidad” with Sandra on the piano, Maria (Maria Russell) on the maracas, and Diana (Diana Yanez) on the bongos. The instruments give us a hint of their histories, the maracas give new meaning internal cogitative spirited memories.
Squeals and laughter are heard as the three women exchange gifts; Maria gives a pink flamingo ornament to Sandra and then a R2D2 ornament to Diana.
Diana presents a disco ball ornament to Sandra and then a Silence of The Lamb ornament to Maria, which on second thought says interesting things about their relationships and what they know of each other. (Just a note: Silence of the Lambs, referenced in the play as a Christmas movie, was released February 13, 1991.)
Sandra gives a vintage Santa to Diana. (If it was a reference to her age, one has to see that reaction.) And she gives a nutcracker to Maria. (Is the nutcracker an ornament or a tool? I’ve never had one that got past the first nut.) Also, Maria’s reaction to receiving the nutcracker should lead us into her strong holiday memories.
And for these ladies, it is a night for remembrances, of showing photos, sharing how they’ve managed to find themselves here and on this night.
How did they get here? Well, it’s a questions better left for later.
In the meantime, they breakout the photos of their lives, the large ballerina, the photo of a unibrow-Frida Kahlo look, a nothing but braces photo, the drag queen dad, and the karate kid; all are on display from Yee Sun Nam’s video display and production design projected on the upstage screen.
These photos give us a glimpse of the remembrances, the stories, of the three women and their lives up to this point.
Maria, half Lithuanian and half Mexican, was breastfed until the age of five, which is probably why she is so healthy. And who could blame the mother, who is so close to her daughter that they slept in a family bed until they couldn’t fit everyone in bed anymore. So the Lithuanian Daddy had to find other accommodations elsewhere in the house.
The closeness of mother to daughter is probably the reason mom can’t let go of her only daughter to that “pinche Crack”. Her Mexican mother claims that the fiance, “Crack”, well, his real name is “Craig”, is trying to steal her lovely daughter away from her.
“I would go back to my mom, but she’s dead!” – Maria’s mom
Guilt trip 101.
Diana’s family is Cuban. Her mother was a 911 operator and not a life reaffirming one.
“Chu gonna die!” – Diana’s mom.
Just what you need to hear – when you’ve swallowed something you shouldn’t have – and are on the phone, in a dire emergency, with this 911 operator.
Diana grew up in Florida thinking everyone was Cuban including Donny and Marie Osmond. Her story is not haunting, disturbing or traumatic, just Donny and Marie in their wonder winter land of ice and snow (the studio) making everyday look like Christmas.
But, Florida never looked like Christmas, what with the fake snow, chancletas, arroz con cerdo, yucca, tostadas, flan, and Santa’s sled pulled by dolphins.
And Diana is happy to introduce us to a word that describes everything, “coño”. It’s a bad word, said out of anger, happiness, or fear, but can be used to describe something good.
“Christmas is going to be perfect, coño.” – Diana
Everyone in the family had a dramatic gene embedded in their makeup especially when it came time to rid the family of an uninvited guest.
And lastly, Sandra loved lights, the room, the tree, and especially loved the figures around the nativity manger. But growing up, and even after all these years, she was still puzzled by one figurine. Along side of Mary, Joseph, the Baby Jesus, and the three wise men, was the conspicuous of figurine of a guy holding chickens.
Christmas was always a slight disappointment for Sandra. She was the one who wanted trucks, and other toys that were generally for boys but was gracious when receiving the Farrah Fawcett makeup doll, only to push it to the side for her siblings to enjoy. The parents were insistent to move her in one direction while she wanted to swing another way.
The family is musical and Sandra shares their talent. She wanted a piano, and they gave her an inadequate substitute, an electric organ. But, she made the best of it and with her 8-track tapes in hand; she learned to play music by ear.
|L - R - Maria Russell, Sandra Valls - Photo: Xavi Moreno|
Sandra did not like going out, or menudo, but she did like dancing with girls and especially liked dancing the boy parts.
Not all of the memories are happy, there are tears of joy, pain and suffering, but it all makes for interesting Christmas memories shared and for all the right reasons.
One thing I look for in a play are the relationships, how they fit together, and where they lead. As it is now, The Latina Christmas Special stories are separate and independent of each other without the one thing that ties it all together, their relationship.
For example, without reading the program (and I didn’t), I wouldn’t have known this was Sandra’s home. An action, to strongly suggest this is Sandra’s space, is needed.
Secondly, we really have to know the foundation of their relationships. In real life, they are actors and comediennes, and in real life, they have come together to create the show. But how does that translate on stage? And, why are they here on this night?
So, this needs to be evident in the first few minutes of Geoffrey Rivas’ direction, when the audience is working feverously to figure it out. Theatre is about the immediacy of the moment. Why did they come together on this night? Why are they telling each other their life stories? How, does the conflict keep the show moving? And, what needs to be figured out on this very night? (Let’s throw in an objective and a stronger through line while we are at it.) One might not see this as a full fledge play but rather as three comediennes having the time of their life on stage.
This is only a slight critique to a night that was well done, funny, and enlightening. Rivas has given the show a stronger through line and substance but more could be added to round out this wonderful show. For example: Are they here to create the show? And could there be a built in conflict in that scenario?
The actors Maria Russell, Diana Yanez and Sandra Valls are all funny; each having their own brand of humor with marvelous facial expressions, and it was a joy to speak to them after the performance. A meet and greet is the best way to go for this type of venue if only to say “the work was splendid”.