Hometown: Chicago (Hyde Park)
What lenses or identities make your perspective as a writer unique?: I am second-generation immigrant, somewhat white-passing, biracial Asian-American woman, who was raised in Honolulu, Hawai’i. On my mother’s side, I was raised in a close-knit lively, extended Filipino family filled with strong women and few men. However, my father’s side is American, Midwestern, conservative, and white. I was raised devoutly Catholic, but have since grown agnostic. At the University of Chicago, I study colonial history and creative writing. I am a performer, a director, and a literature lover.
What, in your opinion, is the purpose of arts criticism?: The word “criticism” belies what I believe to be the true purpose of arts criticism. The art critic’s job is not to point out the failures in a work of art, nor to judge the “value” or “quality” of the art on an objective scale. Instead, the art critic should seek to parse out the concept and vision of the production team and engage in a dialogue with the performance on its own terms. Namely, the critic should applaud choices which work effectively towards the stated or perceived performance vision while questioning choices which distract from, confuse, or undercut the stated or perceived vision. Secondarily, the critic is also responsible for rewarding daring or timely production concepts by commending them to audiences. This both encourages directorial experimentation and demystifies the work of the director and production team to the audience. The critic should a medium thorough which the audience and the director can communicate thoughtfully and openly.
Reviews (Most Recent First)
Hope: Part II of a Mexican Trilogy
Hope: Part II of a Mexican Trilogy by at Teatro Vista (dir. Ricardo Gutiérrez and Cheryl Lynn Bruce) celebrates the resilience and love of the Morales family in the face of domestic and political hardship. The cast gave strong performances throughout, though Hope’s overambitious book led to moments that often lacked clarity, sometimes muddling the promise of this log-line.
Evelina Fernández’s script centers around the women of the family: Elena (Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel), the patient mother of the family, Gina (Ayssette Muñoz ), the willful eldest child, and Betty (Janyce Caraball), the baby of the family, still under the thrall of both her father and the handsome new president John F. Kennedy. It is clear within minutes of the play that this is their story—a fact apparent firstly in scenic designer Jose Manuel Diaz’s choice to give the audience windows only into the bedrooms of Gina, Betty, and Elena. All three women rose to the challenge of centrality with grace, especially Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel who brought a quiet strength to Elena, which never failed her even during her more tender moments.
The stories of Elena and her children stand in stark contrast to an increasingly ominous backdrop of an unfaithful father and Kennedy-era Cold War politics. Commenting on the damage that unchecked masculinity can wreak on both families and nations, Fernández draws a direct comparison between Charlie Morales (Eddie Martinez) and John F. Kennedy; both are idolized by Betty, both share the title of president—one of the nation the other of the Mexican-American social club—both are confident, both are handsome, and neither are to be trusted. As Cold War tensions increase, so do Charlie’s absent spells, forcing the family to rally together and realize their own independence.
Fernández’s ambitious script strove to capture the entirety of Morales’s family’s experience. The play shone in the moments which assembled the entire family onstage to capture the familiar, playful bickering of the four siblings. However, outside of those group scenes, Fernández’s script rushed to detail both Kennedy-era politics and the individual stories of each of the six family members. In that, it did not give each story the attention it deserved. For example, a suicide attempt and its emotional aftermath was all but forgotten two scenes later.
The production attempts to address an overabundance of ideas. The pop ballads which were sung throughout the play were campy and era-appropriate, but neither furthered the plot nor revealed any new character insight. Projections of American political propaganda during scene changes served to set the political atmosphere, however, the use of projections during scenes was often distracting.
The daughters in the play, Betty and Gina share a single onstage conversation with their mother. As a result, relationships between the women are not cultivated in the script. Fernández reveals the plot-points in Elena, Gina, and Betty’s stories through their conversations with their respective male counterparts: Enrique (Victor Maraña), Rudy (Tommy Rivera-Vega), and John F. Kennedy, who appears in Betty’s daydreams—indeed, some of the best dialogue is given to philandering Charlie. In the final moments of the play, the formerly independent Gina, suddenly and happily renounces her dreams of college to become the wife of a man she openly does not love.
These undercurrents, together with the surfeit of action and design, lessened the impact of this empowering and heartwarming family drama.
The Brothers Size
When do our closest relationships become chains? Monty Cole’s masterful, heartfelt rendition of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s The Brothers Size at the Steppenwolf may have an answer.
Ogun Size, hardworking and serious, has poured his life into his successful auto-repair business. He struggles to shepherd his younger brother, the recently paroled Oshoosi Size, into his way of life: steady, dedicated, and industrious. Oshoosi, restless and care-free, chafes under Ogun’s constant criticism and strict expectations. He longs to use his newfound freedom to explore Africa, Madagascar—really anywhere but home. Ogun is confined to home by choice, Oshoosi by necessity.
Enter Elegba, Oshoosi’s close friend from prison who—to Ogun’s frustration—shares an unmistakable bond of brotherhood with Oshoosi and nurtures the younger brother in his pursuit of adventure. While Oshoosi struggles with both his confinement and sexuality throughout the play, Ogun seeks to get through to his younger brother. All this takes place against the backdrop of a law system which assumes that all three men are guilty until proven innocent.
Manny Buckley’s strict, terse Ogun an excellent foil to Patrick Agada’s show-stealing Oshoosi—less of a troublemaker than a mischievous boy, sick and tired of waiting. Despite their constant warring, the actors never fail to capture the deep love and tenderness which the brothers share. This feat is aided by McCraney’s script, which vocalizes much of the stage direction—perhaps in order to render the brothers’ silent language of gesture transparent. Rashaad Hall’s loyal Elegba shines with sincerity, but who he is as a character—other than a complication in the Size brothers’ relationship—remains an unsettling mystery throughout the play. Perhaps this question is deliberately unanswered in this portion of the trilogy—Elegba’s namesake, after all, is the Yoruba trickster god (read more here, pages 20-21).
The most remarkable feat of this production is that it tells a remarkably specific, timely, and personal story without losing its universality. It plays effectively in which McCraney refers to as “the distant present”: somewhere now, but not here nor anywhere else in particular.
Most of the credit for this feat lies in Yu Shibagaki’s (scenic) and Claire Chrzan’s (lighting) creative use of design elements. The sparse set—a bare, curtainless theatre covered in a thick layer of shredded car tires and minimal props—makes it easy to imagine this play taking place anywhere. The stark, unearthly lighting aids this effect. The soft yellow light that pervades the stage seems to come from everywhere but from above—through trapdoors, floodlights placed by the actors, or a lamp hanging above Oshoosi’s bed.
The most memorable directorial moments occur during McCraney’s dream sequences. While the actors play out these scenes, their larger-than life images are projected in watery layers onto the back wall of the Steppenwolf. The dual presentation of the actors as both in the scene and above it manages to render these scenes specific yet emblematic.
It is worth noting that there is a learning curve to this play. Especially in the beginning, it was difficult for me to acclimate to McCraney’s poetry sequences and the spoken stage directions. Certain monologues seemed meandering and unmotivated. However, as the play gained traction and I grew accustomed to the language of the play, these barriers disappeared. These early, minuscule shortcomings do not and cannot distract from an otherwise heartfelt and engrossing drama.
Overall, Cole has breathed life into McCraney’s poetry in a production that feels timely and personal but nevertheless universal and enduring.