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Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Learn to Be Latina's Foul-Mouthed Take on Race and Identity: A Bold Choice, with Mixed Results

Posted by Alison Hallett on Tue, May 6, 2014 at 10:44 AM


The Miracle Theatre Group is dedicated to celebrating Latino art and culture. Their productions regularly feature Mexican and Central and South American history, myth, and literature—they've done shows about Lorca, Frida Kahlo, life under Castro. But I can say with 98% certainty that until Learn to Be Latina, the word "queef" had never been uttered on that stage.

The Miracle went out on a limb with Learn to Be Latina, and that's always a great thing to see.

Outside of the context of the Miracle's generally conventional programming, though, Learn to Be Latina doesn't seem so bold. Playwright Enrique Urueta's 2010 script promises a challenging, funny investigation of identity, ethnicity, and sexuality, but over the course of a wearying two-and-a-half-hour run time, the show takes on too much and fails to balance its satiric and character-driven elements.

Learn to Be Latina opens with an interview at the offices of FAD Records, where aspiring pop singer Hanan (Nicole Accuardi) is pitching her demo album to a panel of office drones. The interviewers—Bill, Jill, and Will—are a sort of three-headed monster of undifferentiated whiteness: They shuffle papers in hyper-stylized unison, confer behind their hands, and demand to know what ethnicity the non-white Hanan actually is: "Everybody's something... Except for white people. We're not anything."

Hanan is Lebanese American. And according to FAD, that just isn't gonna cut it in a post-9/11 world. Fortunately, all brown people look the same to the American public, and Latinas are in—so FAD's "ethnic consultant" is brought in to remake Hanan into a chart-topping Latina songstress. As the ostensibly Irish consultant, Olga Sanchez is fantastic, even when she's shrieking obscenities in Spanish through a hand puppet with a bright blonde weave. (The puppet features prominently.)

The show's first act raises some relatively focused questions: What does it mean to Hanan that her parents are from Lebanon, if she grew up in Boston? Does pretending her parents were from Buenos Aires instead of Beirut fundamentally affect her identity? What does it say about US pop culture (and by extension, culture in general) that brownness is only palatable within certain parameters—parameters that white people get to define?

Unfortunately, Latina doesn't stop there.

Given that this is a show about stereotypes, I almost hate to note that it's in the lesbian subplot that satire is overwhelmed by cloying earnestness—but it is.

Soon Hanan's involved in a lesbian relationship with FAD's receptionist, Blanca (Michelle Escobar). Their tryst seems intended both to ground Hanan's character, and to throw another axis onto the identity that Hanan is cautiously beginning to chart. But the two actresses have zero chemistry, and their scenes together—in which they bond over a shared love of Jem—tend to suck the air out of the room.

The production, too, falters in the transition from political to personal. Upbeat, stylized dance numbers like a confident, hilarious rendition of "Single Ladies" in the first act—by the very-game Matthew Kerrigan in full on heels and leotard—give way to a clunky, Aimee Mann-scored sad-person montage in the second, a weird quasi-reference to the "Wise Up" sequence in Magnolia that may or may not have been a joke, and either way totally fails to land.

I don't need answers from a show like this, but I do want to walk away with some interesting questions. In shackling itself to Hanan's personal-redemption narrative, Learn to Be Latina opts to answer questions no one really cares about: Will Hanan out herself as either Lebanese or a lesbian? Will Hanan and Blanca end up together?

Latina is a comedy, of the sort invariably described as "provocative" by people who haven't spent much time on the internet. The endless jokes about vaginas, racial stereotypes, and AIDS dementia are bargain-basement shock comic material and I'm not at all sure what point they were meant to serve. There are some good, sharp lines, though—see the quote about whiteness, above—and thank god for Olga Sanchez, who has excellent comedic timing and control, and is responsible for about 80% of the show's genuinely funny bits. (Matthew Kerrigan and Kelly Godell handled the rest.) To be fair, the audience on opening night was essentially in fits for much of the production; I didn't love the humor, but plenty of people certainly did. While I also didn't love the script, it's great to see the Miracle producing such bold, contemporary new work—and probably pissing off a few subscribers while they're at it.

Tickets are here if you want to see for yourself.

(Tangentially: Does anyone else remember the Many Hats show Mutt, from a few years back? I wish that show was fresher in my mind; it, too, was about race, pop culture, identity, and puppets. Kept thinking about it during Learn to Be Latina.)

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